London’s Invisible Children

17 year old Vicky is bright and intelligent and could do exceptionally well. She would describe her childhood as being ‘normal’, although her version of ‘normal’ is anything but.

She lives in an area of London where people frequently rob, steal and rape, unpunished. Her friends had teenage pregnancies and frequently take and sell drugs. From the age of four she saw different ‘dads’ come and go, but not before they shouted at her and abused her and told her she was worthless.

Vicky thinks that her anger issues are normal, that no one understands her need to stay with the boyfriend that asked her to carry drugs, leading to her arrest. She doesn’t understand why her boyfriend is angrier about her losing the drugs than he is about her being in custody. Services are in a blind panic — either they don’t know what to do because by now she has had a litany of failed interventions, or they don’t have the time and resources to pursue her case. Worse still, as she will soon turn 18, Vicky will soon no longer be the responsibility of any statutory services. Due to her problematic behaviour this is seen as a blessing to some workers who want to “get rid” of the case.

Vicky was referred to us. A trained worker from SOS Project, someone with similar first-hand experience was assigned to her. Vicky did not immediately change and remained difficult to work with. She did not trust people and it took time to get her to open up and to talk about the distressing and complex problems going on in her life.

Her caseworker — contracted to work 35 hours a week — put in 40 hours of work with this client; one of many similar cases. She does not get paid overtime. She did it because she loves what she does and as a result has done great work with her young client.

Perhaps the most frustrating issue for me is that the SOS Project still, by and large, runs on a shoestring. On paper it all sounds good; SOS is a £1million project and we have won numerous awards for best practice and innovation. However we remain largely reliant on voluntary donations to support the most damaged, disadvantaged young people in society to allow them to break free from destructive lives of gang crime and violence. These issues not only damage the children, but their families, the communities they live in, and the wider society. It costs anything between £36,000 and £99,000 to keep a young person behind bars for a year — excluding other costs such as courts, police, costs to victims, etc — and we ensure the majority of our clients do not return there.

But it is not only about money, it is about people. Projects don’t change people; dedicated individuals change people. It’s a misconception that we just work with troubled young individuals — those that are referred to us are damaged, they come from complex and chaotic backgrounds and they have repeatedly been let down by services that have promised to help them change. The work they require is all-absorbing and demands a multitude of skills and training. Many of our young people do not have parents with the resources to support them. Instead, they have the dangerous, exploitative but alluring ‘family’ of a gang who might be coercing them to carry drugs and weapons, commit acts of violence and rape and also be victims of the same.

Many of the team on SOS know exactly how this feels as they have been in the same situation themselves, but broken free and rebuilt their lives. They embody the change that they try to bring about in the young people they help. The power of this cannot be underestimated.

Sadly Vicky’s case isn’t unique, but all too common for the SOS Team. However, because of our insight into her experiences and those of other difficult clients, thankfully we can make SOS Project effective, and change can happen.

- Junior Smart is the founder of SOS Project and an Ashoka Fellow — He set it up as an ex-offender led gangs intervention project offering intensive, tailored one-to-one support for young people. Initially started as a small south London pilot, SOS has grown over the years to become London’s largest gangs project; with a footprint across the capital.

-This article was originally published on Virgin Unite on 14/09/15.

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