Oliver wondered what picking the old gentleman’s pocket in play, had to do with his chances of being a great man. But thinking that [Fagin], being so much his senior, must know best, he followed him quietly to the table; and was soon deeply involved in his new study

Charles Dickens’ character Fagin in Oliver Twist grooms vulnerable teenagers to pickpocket for him. The children adore him because he provides them with a home and appears to care for them. Children are groomed and exploited the world over and many commit crime as a result. The link between child crime and exploitation in this country has been highlighted by:

  • The uncovering of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford etc. Before the exploiters were tracked down, many of the girls had come to police attention as perpetrators of crime rather than victims. They were not (usually) asked to commit crime by their exploiters, but the teenagers destroyed property or got involved in fights partly as a result of the trauma they were suffering. Initially police discounted victims’ testimony about exploitation since they were seen as trouble-makers.
  • The development of an understanding of the drugs trade and the way teenagers are exploited and coerced by adults to take part. Adults use grooming techniques to get children involved, then use emotional blackmail and threats to get teenagers to deal drugs. By getting teenagers to do the dealing, the main money makers in the drugs trade keep their own hands clean. They have been sending teenagers to new areas -“county lines”- outside the big cities to expand markets. Though teenagers have been exploited in this way for years, it has only recently seemed to hit the headlines and be seen as a case of abuse. And teenagers are still being charged, convicted and sometimes imprisoned for dealing drugs.

Agencies are now more alert to the connection between victim and perpetrator in relation to victims of child sexual exploitation. The Crown Prosecution Service guidance says “prosecutors are encouraged to look beyond the previous offending by the victim and consider the drivers and circumstances of the offending behaviour. Victims may sometimes commit what is called ‘survival crime’, i.e. committing crime to find safety or committing crime to ensure justice”.

The possibility that a teenager criminal may have been groomed came up again in relation to Safaa Boular the teenage terrorist who “led” the first ever female terrorist cell in England. She grew up in a disfunctional abusive family. Her parents split up when she was six and her mother Mina forced her children to adopt a highly conservative version of Islam.  Mina assaulted Safaa’s sister for wearing Western clothes. Safaa’s phone was confiscated when her mother heard her talking to boys. Safaa ran away at one point but was brought back home.

Not allowed to go out with friends from school, Safaa aged 15 started developing online contacts who worked for ISIS including Naweed Hussain, who was fighting in Syria. At her trial Safaa said he “was very caring, very sweet, very flattering. It was the first time that I had received this kind of attention from a male.” Safaa’s barrister Joel Bennathan QC said she was groomed into radicalism. The judge agreed she was “influenced and drawn into extremism” but in planning an attack on the British Museum it appeared to him “she knew what she was doing and acted with open eyes”. Her groomer, whom she married online, was already dead by the time Safaa, aged 17, planned the attack (which was foiled by the security services). She was sentenced to life imprisonment. In custody now she appears to have rejected Islam and wears Western dress.

Was Safaa abused by her mother and groomed by ISIS and, if so, should it make any difference to the way the criminal justice system treated her? She was definitely a vulnerable, socially isolated teenager, and most vulnerable teenagers are easily influenced. But did she still make a choice to join ISIS and plot a terrorist attack? Sexually exploited teenagers who commit crime, teenagers coerced into dealing drugs, and cases like that of Safaa raise important questions about children and criminal responsibility. And about how to get the punishment to fit both the crime and the criminal.