Review of Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny … and a bit of a rant!

I’ve been interested in youth crime and justice since I did an elective in it at uni (14 years ago 😩), so this was a fascinating read. It takes us from 1957 when Mary was born, to 1996 (not in chronological order, but the order Mary felt able to process what had happened), and includes reflections from Mary, plus insights from many people who were involved with Mary at the time.

If you haven’t heard of Mary Bell, in 1968 as a 10 and then 11 year old girl, she killed two young children (the first was 4 years old, the second was 3). She was tried as an adult in a public court with her name and picture released, without really understanding what was going on or the public interest in the case. As a 10/11 year old she didn’t understand the finality of death, and it wasn’t until she was much older (and when she became a mother herself) that she understood what she had done and the consequences of that, for herself but also for the boys and their families. Unsurprisingly Mary was abused (I won’t go into details in case you want to read the book) as a young child, and whilst of course this doesn’t excuse what she did, nothing does, it helps us to understand why a child might hurt/kill another child.

The book goes through the investigation, the trial, Mary’s imprisonment in various institutions, her release, her accounts of the killings and then life beyond prison. It all happened well before I was born (my parents would have been 7/8 when the killings took place), so although I have heard of Mary Bell through my general interest in youth justice, I read the book mostly with fresh eyes, rather than knowledge of what happened. It is very well written, and Gitta Sereny does an incredible job of building trust and friendship with Mary, and writing her story.

Gitta Sereny had an important reason to write the book – to try and change the system. But nearly 53 years later, whilst some things have changed slightly, in serious cases such as murder, we are still trying children as adults, and releasing their names and photos, only to later pass legal judgements that these children should be protected (rightly so in my opinion) and given new identities upon release. Sereny makes an important statement in the book that children are not miniature adults. So why when it comes to crime do we treat them as such? And why does the system not allow exploration into why these things have taken place?

The picture above shows the ages of criminal responsibility in various countries, with the lowest being 8 in Scotland and 10 in England, and the highest being 16 in Belgium. Countries with higher ages of criminal responsibility protect, care for and give treatment to children who commit ‘crimes’. It’s such a stark and shocking difference!! Being made criminally responsible at the age of 10 in England also breaches our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, who decided the global minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted should be 14.

Despite being urged to raise the minimum age by at least 2 years, to 12 years of age, the government say they have no plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility. They argue that this allows for early intervention, however in the last decade funding for early intervention children’s services has been cut by almost two thirds, from £2.8 to £1.1 billion. Something doesn’t match up!

If your interested in the current system, there is a good (and Emmy Award winning!) drama on BBC iPlayer called Responsible Child, which is based on the real life case of 14 year old Jerome Ellis and his older brother, Joshua, 23, who killed their stepdad in 2014. Definitely worth a watch!

Currently reading – The Beast of Buckingham Palace by David Walliams