Every once in while a TV drama comes along that asks society to look at its failings. Testing our views, opinions and judgments with a nuanced exploration of a social safety net incompatible with need. Written by Sean Buckley (Skins) and directed by the documentary filmmaker Nick Holt Responsible Child is one of those dramas.
Currently, the law in England and Wales allows for children as young as 10 to be tried by a Crown Court and jury. Ultimately tied to an assumption that children can hold the same mental capacity as grown adults when committing serious crimes. In turn, creating a significant debate on the effects of an adult court environment on the child. Alongside the equally problematic lifting of media restrictions on some childhood crimes. An action that can and has led to witch hunts of children in the court of public opinion.
Of course, these debates also reflect the reality that children have and still do commit horrendous crimes. But in turn, raise serious questions about the ability of children to rehabilitate and enter society again as adults. When the society of which they were a part gives up on them and throws away the key.
Sean Buckley‘s screenplay draws from several criminal cases involving children in building its narrative. At the same time focusing on the real-life case of two brothers aged 14 and 23 who stabbed their abusive stepfather to death in 2014. Their crime one of sheer violence in the wake of domestic abuse and terror. Changing the names of those at the centre of the real-life case.
Responsible Child follows the story of 12-year-old Ray (Billy Barratt) and his 23-year-old brother Nathan (James Tarpey). As they enter the criminal justice system after the murder of their mum’s abusive boyfriend, Scott. One brother taking the adult pre-court route, while the other sits in the no-mans-land of a child in the adult justice system.
While preparations for Ray’s trial play out in the hands of an experienced Barrister (Michelle Fairley). The audience is taken back to the weeks proceeding the horrific murder in a series of flashbacks. Reflecting on the family breakdown, domestic violence, social failings and parental dysfunctionality leading to the crime. While also exploring the social safety net surrounding Ray and his family. However, despite this apparent safety net, Ray’s life remains in turmoil. Stuck between an uncaring father, violent stepfather, depressed brother and subdued mother. The aggression of his stepfather allowed to pervade the family home despite his arrest and social services input. Ultimately leading to a night of horrific violence as the family unit reaches a breaking point.
As the case comes to court, Ray finds himself in the adult world of the criminal justice system. His brother not giving evidence due to his mental state, while his mother offers no compassion or parental support. Ray’s life and future ultimately laying in the hands of his barrister. And his ability to undergo scrutiny in giving evidence.
Sean Buckley masterfully weaves both past and present together. However, at times lacks space to fully explore the important family dynamics behind the crime. Despite this flaw, Responsible Child excels in raising both significant and overdue questions on children in the criminal justice system. Questions that were raised by the United Nations in 1995 when exploring the rights of the child. After all, the UK is a country where child protection sits centre stage in all aspects of schooling, voluntary and public service delivery. But despite this, is a country happy to treat children as adults in the criminal justice system. Creating a highly confused system of childhood responsibility. Where the views of society on childhood innocence and protection are juxtaposed to the view on criminal responsibility.
The final scenes of the film enhance these crucial questions. Where we see Ray begin to unpick his crime within his secure children’s home. Only receiving the support he needed, long after falling through the social safety net of British society. Ultimately delivering a sad indictment of a system that speaks of support and care. While equally failing many of our children and young people. In turn, expecting the custodial system to pick up the pieces. A system that, while full of dedicated staff, lack the resources to explore the years of neglect a child may have suffered. Or change the inherent labels it will attach to a child’s life and future opportunities.
This is not to say that Responsible Child does not take the crime at the heart of the story seriously. In fact, it constantly reminds us of just how brutal the actions of the two boys were. And there is never any question of the need for such crimes to face the full force of law. However, the method by which this is conducted, and the failures leading to such actions are placed under the microscope.
Could this drama lead to a long-awaited reexamination of children going through the adult court system? Unfortunately, this remains debatable, in a society where our image of childhood innocence, mixes with a right-wing view on tough justice. However, the bravery of tackling this issue in TV drama is to be commended, as is the outstanding performance of Billy Barratt. Making Responsible Child a tough, yet an insightful and important slice of socially reflective drama.
Director: Nick Holt