He needed school, not a safari

Independent, London/February 19, 1996
By Polly Toynbee

Trying to track down "Safari Boy" Jason Cooper, a local reporter asked: "What do you want him for? Monosyllabic little scrote. A right little toe-rag." The boy has been pelted with similar epithets ever since he can remember. The Daily Star called him a"brass-necked brat", the News of the World a "teenage yobbo criminal". The Jason Cooper story has everything the right-wing press likes best. One paper settles into his story with a joyous opening homily: "The Safari Boy story is a classic scandal ofour times. A bad young lad turned into a criminal by the stupidity of misguided social workers."

It is their dream tale of daft social workers, do-gooders and liberal plonkers who don't know when to give a lad a good hiding. Now, to their ineffable delight, Jason is threatening to sue the social services department that gave him too soft a time, blaming them for his life of crime. Outrage at the soft social services is gleefully followed by outrage at the sheer cheek of the ungrateful brat.

For those who missed the story, Jason Cooper was the boy taken into care at 12, beyond the control of his parents and school. When various homes and institutions failed to reform him, Derbyshire Social Services sent him to the Red House, a special school, where he went on an astounding array of globe-trotting holidays. At a cost of pounds 50,000, he went scuba- diving in the Caribbean, cruised through the Everglades, visited Disney World and Sea World, rode through the Mexican jungle, skied in Scotland and Norway, toured Italy, went riding in Denmark, camping in Spain, and, in Zimbabwe, went on the safari that earned him his sobriquet. (It was his story that prompted Michael Howard to issue an edict banning young offenders from foreign trips.)

The holidays did him no good. Within months of leaving care, he was imprisoned for robbery. Since leaving care four years ago, he has spent three years in prison, a familiar university for many care-leavers. He led a life of compulsive burglary for the buzz and the money, feeding a pounds 350-a-week drug habit, full of desperate hyper-fun, danger and the expectation of nothing other than jail.

Trying to squeeze insights out of him is hard work. What made him a bad boy? What did he feel like? Was he happy? Lonely? What does he make of the dismal progress of his life so far? Little by little, in curiously forgetful fits and starts, the story is pieced together. But his mother warns me sharply not to believe a word he says. "He lies. And he doesn't remember what he doesn't want to remember."

So, one way or another, the truth about precisely what happened to Jason is hard to come by. His mother was unwilling to say much, but I asked when she first thought he was different. "From the day he could walk. He climbed all over everything." He was expelled from one kindergarten at four and then from two others. He stole from cars, shoplifted and stole his parents' rent money to go to a fair. When he was 12, weeks after his mother gave birth to his younger sister, he set fire to his bed and curtains and to two cars outside. At that point, his parents handed him over to the social services.

The Coopers talk as though Jason were just a dreadful accident of fate for which they are in no way to blame. Perhaps in the secrecy of their own thoughts, they may ask themselves where they went wrong, but in public, it's all Jason's fault and the social services' failure.

As for Jason, it's all a bit of a blur. Needless to say, he, too, blames it all on everyone else. His father was in the Army and they lived in barracks in Germany. Jason thinks the trouble started when his father left the forces, came back to England and was unemployed, hanging around at home and becoming increasingly irritated with his son. When Jason claims that in all these years he never really had any therapy, it sounds credible, for he speaks with none of the psycho- babble of those who have been through counselling.

Although he is bright, he has very little insight into himself. "I was very lonely, as I had no friends. I think I was trying to get noticed. I remember being taken home from school every day in the van to the children's home, and seeing my mother at the school gate, picking up my sister but not me. She turned her back on me." Then he blurts out, "Nobody ever cared for me, ever. Nobody ever loved me in all my life!" Is that true? Impossible to discover, but true or not, he plainly believes it. Was be bad because he was unloved, or unloved because he was bad?

He shifts from a jaunty cockiness to a cautious wariness, and he thinks the world owes him everything. He thinks he has been badly treated by everyone he has ever had dealings with - but then he might well be right. However, he plays down how bad a small boy he was. "I was just a tearaway," he says with a rueful smile. "Tearaway" is a word he is happy with, implying a mischievous boy, but a normal one, which he plainly was not. "They turned me into a villain." "They" are the social services he now threatens to sue. "They" put him in children' s homes with those deceptively cosy names, "Greenacres" and "Holly House". Then "they" locked him away in the toughest secure unit for children in the country where, he says, the children were banged up in their rooms most of the day. "I'd never done much, bit of shoplifting and so on. I was put in with killers. I went out with a girl in there for a bit, until I found out she'd knifed a boyfriend in the neck." That was the worst of all the places he was in, he says. It was also the most expensive. For despite the string of holidays, the Red House, where they sent him next, was cheaper than the secure unit.

The Red House organisation is now under close scrutiny from many quarters. The charity that runs it, Humana, has had the receivers called by the Charity Commission after an investigation into Tvind, the £50m Danish cult. Jason complains that they were brutal and "brainwashing" . Some of the "holidays" were actually work camps, but he admits he liked the three months' scuba-diving in the Caribbean. Now he complains, somewhat sententiously, that this high living gave him unrealistic expectations. This does not look like a very strong case on which to sue.

However, at 18, he left care with nothing. He had no education, certainly no exams. His social worker put him in a bed and breakfast and left him there, he says. Then he took to the drugs and burgling. "In prison, I learnt everything I needed to know for a life of crime." He describes seminars in credit-card and cheque book fraud, lessons from old lags in car theft and burglar alarms. The only official qualification he got in prison was as a gym instructor - making him a pretty fit professional thief.

No, he says, with all the confidence of a full month on the outside, he is not going back to crime. He has "settled down" with a girl in Rotherham who has a three-year-old child and a house. "Someone cares for me for the first time in my life. It's different now." He wants to go to college and catch up on education. He wants a job. "I just want to be boring and ordinary. I want to be normal," he says. But the odds can't be good.

Though Jason's case is unlikely to get far, perhaps children from care should have more right to challenge the treatment they had. What exactly is the state's duty of care? Where are the national standards or measurements of outcomes?

The 51,000 children in care stand little chance in life. Seventy-five per cent leave with no qualifications, (compared with only 8 per cent nationally). A recent Audit Commission report found that a third of children in care were not in school at all. They are five times more likely to be unemployed when they leave care and more than a quarter of the prison population are men who have been in care.

The failure to educate these children is a serious indictment, for crime is closely allied to educational failure. Jason Cooper is not a stupid boy. He cannot have been ineducable during so many years in care at phenomenal, but wasted, cost. League tables of the educational attainments of these children might provide one important measurement to compare how well each authority has done. Holidays may have done Jason little good, but intensive schooling might have made a difference.

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