Education & Family

Could new anti-social behaviour powers back-fire?

Image caption Pam talks to Chris Buckler

As children's charity Barnardo's raises concerns that new plans to tackle anti-social behaviour could endanger children, the BBC's UK affairs correspondent Chris Buckler talks to people in Bristol affected by the issue.

The police caught Pam smoking, drinking and hanging around the streets in Bristol late at night when she was in her early teens. They thought the right thing to do was to take her back to her house.

But it was her home that she was trying to escape from.

Behind closed doors she was physically abused on several occasions by her adoptive parents.

"One of the times before I ran away my father strangled me," says Pam, who asked for her real name not to be used.

"At one point I was dragged home when I was sleeping in a bush.

"Why didn't anybody ask the question, why was I sleeping in a bush rather than my own bed?"

Pam does not deny taking drugs, skipping school and getting into trouble. But she says the authorities never scratched the surface to see what was going on at home.

"I'd been let down by everyone - social services, the police, the school..."

Pam is now in her early 20s, but the children's charity Barnardo's is concerned that new plans to tackle anti-social behaviour could lead others to experience similar problems to those she faced in her early teens.

Among the measures proposed by the government are "police direction powers". They would allow officers to move people away from areas and return potential troublemakers to their homes.

Currently to exercise similar powers, areas have to be specifically designated as "dispersal zones" using "dispersal orders".

End of the Asbo

Barnardo's claims many of the children who will be taken home are likely to come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds and insists that needs to be considered.

"If police send children back to abusive or unsafe households they could be placed in greater danger," says the charity's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie.

"If the government really wants 'effective responses' to anti-social behaviour by children then it needs to know why the problems are happening in the first place."

Barnardo's wants courts to be given information about the home life of any child who appears in court linked to allegations of causing trouble.

Stopping anti-social behaviour is a police priority for many UK forces.

Image caption Police in Bristol have been cracking down on low level crime

In south Bristol officers recently had a day of action targeting so-called 'low level crime', but many people feel that more needs to be done.

And there's particular cynicism about how effective anti-social behaviour orders have been.

Asbos are civil orders which restrict people from engaging in behaviour that has been linked to them causing trouble in the past.

"They wear them like a medal," one woman critical of Asbos told me in the Knowle area of the city.

Public concern

The coalition government is reacting to those concerns with plans to replace Asbos in England and Wales with Criminal Behaviour Orders and Crime Prevention Injunctions.

But the proposed new measures have much in common with the old orders.

At a parade of shops in Knowle, people were more than happy to get into discussion about anti-social behaviour and most wanted stronger powers

"There are kids drinking in big crowds," said one resident.

"The police move them on and they're back half an hour later - it does nothing."

The government knows it has to make people feel involved in tackling those kinds of problems.

Among the other measures being considered is a 'community trigger' which would give neighbourhoods the power to force officers to investigate incidents.

The Home Office plans are currently open to public consultation and it is aware of the concerns that Barnardo's has.

Better communication

A Home Office spokesman said: "Our proposed reforms to the anti-social behaviour regime will empower the public and give the authorities the flexibility and powers they need to tackle this serious problem.

"The concerns raised by Barnardo's relate as much to the existing regime as our proposals, and we are looking forward to discussing them with Barnardo's soon."

Pam, who has been through the existing system trying to deal with the problem, is now the mother of a young child herself and working towards becoming a social worker.

Sitting in a room surrounded by toys with her daughter beside her, she insists the authorities could have done more to help her.

"There needs to be much better communication between police and welfare services," she says.

"We need to ensure that we are not putting children at risk and ultimately perpetuating the cycle of offending."

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