Every once in a while, a TV drama comes along that asks our society to look at its failings, testing our views, opinions and judgments with a nuanced exploration of the social safety net and its failings. Written by Sean Buckley (Skins) and directed by the documentary filmmaker Nick Holt, Responsible Child is one of those dramas. Here Buckley and Holt explore the law in England and Wales that allows children as young as ten to be tried by a Crown Court. This is a law that, despite countless child protection rules stating the opposite, believes that children hold the same mental capacity as grown adults when committing severe crimes.
Responsible Child not only unpicks and challenges this confused position on the right’s of the child, but it also explores the problematic lifting of media restrictions on some childhood crimes. After all, this action can lead to witch hunts of children in the court of public opinion. Of course, we all know that children do commit horrendous crimes. But does this not raise serious questions about our society? And is the honest answer to this to give up on them and throw away the key?
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Sean Buckley‘s screenplay draws from several cases involving children in building a narrative. While at the same time placing a core focus on the real-life case of two brothers aged 14 and 23 who stabbed their abusive stepfather to death in 2014. Here, while horrendous, their crime was also tied to ongoing domestic abuse. Within this context, we meet 12-year-old Ray (Billy Barratt) and his 23-year-old brother Nathan (James Tarpey) just as they enter the criminal justice system after the murder of their mum’s abusive boyfriend, Scott. Here one brother would take the adult route, while the other would sit in the no man’s land of the juvenile system.
As preparations for Ray’s trial begin in the experienced hands of his state-assigned Barrister (Michelle Fairley), we are taken back to the weeks proceeding the horrific murder in a series of flashbacks. Here Responsible Child explores the family breakdown from Ray’s perspective, from the domestic violence to the social failings and parental dysfunctionality. However, Responsible Child also explores the broader failings of the social safety net surrounding Ray and his family. After all, despite the clear and present turmoil in Ray’s life, social services input is kept to a minimum.
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Sean Buckley masterfully weaves both past and present together by exploring the missed opportunities for help, the blindness of social services, and the eventual tragedy. Here Responsible Child excels in raising necessary and overdue questions on the treatment of children within the criminal justice system. After all, while the U.K. proudly places child protection at the heart of schooling, voluntary and public service delivery, it also treats children as adults in the criminal justice system. This creates a highly confused picture of responsibility, where social views of childhood innocence and protection are juxtaposed with criminal responsibility.
The film’s final scenes only further elevate these crucial questions as we see Ray begin the process of unpicking his crime within his secure children’s home. Here Ray only receives the support he needs, long after falling through the social safety net. While watching these final scenes, I found myself thinking, could this drama lead to a long-awaited reexamination of children going through the adult court system? However, as I pondered this question, I, unfortunately, concluded that this remains unlikely in a society where our image of childhood innocence dovetails with an ever-increasing right-wing stance on harsh justice.
Director: Nick Holt