The Long Arm of the Law
DCI-A Advisory Panel Member Moira Rayner who is currently Director of the London Children's Rights Commissioner's Office, brings us up to date with the fate of two U.K. children about to be
released following their convictions for murder of another child.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were 10 when they led away, tortured and killed two year old James Bulger in February 1993. After the biggest circus of a trial that the U.K. has seen since Myra
Hindley’s, they were convicted and have ever since been detained in separate secure institutions. The European Court of Human Rights subsequently found that they had not had a fair trial (they
couldn’t understand it) and that they had been denied justice when the Home Secretary, reacting to public pressure, decided to order a longer detention than the judge had recommended.
They are young adults now. By the time you read this, they will have been released, but no-one but the authorities will know where they are.
In late 2000, controversially, the Chief Justice reviewed their detention and recommended that the boys should not be transferred to ‘youth offending’ institutions (youth jails) whose
‘toxic’ environment, he said, would destroy the tremendous progress towards rehabilitation they had made, and very quickly. He recommended that the boys should be prepared for release in
the first half of 2001 and, given their notoriety and vulnerability, with new identities. Speculation abounded that they might be sent abroad - Australia or New Zealand were mentioned, though each
country promptly indicated that they wouldn’t be welcome – but it isn’t going to happen.
Some time in June these two boys will be living in separate hostels somewhere in England or Wales. They will be under strict supervision. Their licence conditions will be stringent, and they will go
back to detention if they break the rules – including close contact with social services, police and probation officers – or commit an offence. Their cases will be reviewed frequently,
and if they’re doing well enough, they will earn greater freedom. Both boys already have new names and identities, but their future is precarious. The media have hounded these children
Late last year the tittle-tattle of a young arsonist made front-page news. The sneak, who said he was one of Venable's friends, claimed Venables had boasted about his notoriety, revelled in
cruel fantasies, had written sexually explicit letters and attacked other boys. (The informant couldn’t establish authorship of the notes he produced, and authorities said Venables had
defended himself appropriately in face of severe provocation and an assault by the other boy).
In May an ‘outraged’ employee of the unit where Venables is held told journalists that the youth had special privileges, including going to watch Manchester United with his dad, playing
five-a-side football with schoolboys who don’t know what an evil little rat he is, and getting a Playstation for Christmas.
Intensive efforts to rehabilitate Thompson and Venables have apparently been successful (authorities learned from their failure to provide any treatment for 11 year old Mary Bell, and then
transferring her to an adult prison at 18, in the 1950s). But there is little media sympathy for Thompson and Venables’ documented remorse, the mitigating circumstances (abuse and neglect), or
for the fact that for the rest of their lives both will be fearful and apprehensive. They will be: reviewed, observed and reported upon; could at any time have their cover blown; vulnerable to
threats, blackmail, assaults (or worse); and live with their memories and their consciences.
After self-appointed vigilantes and James Bulger’s father threatened to ‘hunt them down’ when the boys were released, Thompson and Venables’ identities were protected by a High
Court injunction for the rest of their lives. Their ‘unique notoriety’ had made each of them a perpetual target.
Yet, many observers expect that one or both boys will be exposed, sooner or later. Our preoccupation with the terrible crime they committed when they were children has never been matched with an
understanding of the abused and neglected children they were then, and the survivors they have become today. Their crime has put them beyond the pale of childhood: outlaws for life.
James Bulger’s mother is, understandably, bitter about the ‘rewards’ these boys have received for killing her son. Her solicitor said that their new identities were problematic:
‘he could be playing football or drinking next to you in a pub,’ he said.
There is, statistically, a greater likelihood that there is a child abuser, a wife-basher, a thief or a rapist in your bus queue.
We will have matured as a society when we accept, fully, that no child is responsible for their acts as an adult is, because they are children. When they do dreadful acts, they can be redeemed. We
must understand and work within their developmental and emotional needs with respect for their special rights and extra chances which are due to all children, and all victims.
This article first appeared in DCI-Australia’s Australian Children’s Rights News No. 29 June 2001.