Since Aaron Campbell received a life sentence last month for the brutal rape and murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail, the reverberations from his crimes have continued as the public and professionals struggle to come to terms with what the trial judge, Lord Matthews, described as “some of the wickedest, most evil crimes this court has ever heard”.
The revulsion provoked across Scotland by the murder and the 16-year-old’s demeanour at trial – during which he attempted to shift blame before finally confessing after he was found guilty – was comparable to the Jamie Bulger case and prompted calls for young people accused of serious offences to be tried as adults and a debate about the malign influence of violent video games, while Campbell’s decision last week to appeal against his 27-year sentence was greeted with disbelief and outrage from Alesha’s family.
A number of professionals involved have departed from protocol to comment publicly about the case: the lawyer who represented Campbell in court stressed the fact that advocates cannot refuse cases; one of the psychologists who assessed the teenager has challenged health and social services to screen for psychopathic traits in troubled youngsters, after Campbell was found by a pre-sentencing report to exhibit a number of elements of the psychopathy checklist.
But the Glasgow-based Interventions for Vulnerable Youth (IVY) project – believed to be the only dedicated team in the UK working with young people like Campbell – insist that vital lessons from the MacPhail case must not be obscured by understandable public horror at his crimes.
Fiona Dyer, interim director of the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice at Strathclyde University, where IVY is based, says: “We can’t miss this opportunity as a nation to understand how someone gets to that point, and what can be done when, for whatever reason, a child is vulnerable to acting in this way. We acknowledge that this was an unusual and exceptional case, but that should spur us on to do better.
“Whilst rare, young people like Aaron Campbell are not a one-off. There are other children like him who need support.”
Although there is no established treatment for psychopathy in adults, Dyer explains: “We can do a lot with high risk young people – even those that appear to be developing personality disorders and whose behaviour does little to foster hope. With the right expertise and treatment, people can be helped.”
The IVY project was set up five years ago to meet the needs of this minority of young people who present a serious risk of harm to others. A nationwide service, funded by the Scottish government and free for professionals to refer to, it provides highly specialist treatments and recommendations for ongoing risk management.
The carefully calibrated team of health and social work specialists have supported more than 200 12- to 18-year-olds to date, many of whom have already perpetrated very serious crimes, or made very explicit their plans to do so.
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The young people who are referred to IVY present diverse risks, ranging across all forms of violence, sexual violence and violent extremism, including a girl preoccupied with thoughts of sexually assaulting her younger sibling, a young stalker with plans to kill her victim, and a boy distributing rightwing extremist material and attempting to buy bomb-making equipment. The team believe that, through their interventions, they have prevented a number of murders and rapes.
IVY takes a unique approach to meeting the needs of this vulnerable and usually marginalised group, using a formulation that takes into account everything that could contribute, everything from parental neglect to head trauma.
IVY cautions against early labelling of young people, particularly given extensive research that shows that personality – and psychopathy is a disorder of personality – is not fully developed until the mid to late 20s, and perhaps even beyond. Dyer says that while the team takes into account a wide range of contributory factors, from parental neglect to head trauma, and is realistic about risk, it cautions against “needlessly categorising” young people.
“Although the early signs of what we currently understand as psychopathy can be identified in adolescence, personality (and everything else in the developing brain) is still highly malleable before the late 20s. Where risk markers are identified, efforts must go to giving the young person, their families and communities, the best chance of positive outcomes in a way that protects and promotes everyone’s rights”.
John Marshall, one of the psychologists who assessed Campbell, published a lengthy article in the Scotsman last week, in which he warned that “politically correct” concerns about stigma and labelling were preventing social work and healthcare professionals from grasping the preventive potential of screening for psychopathic traits from an early age. Marshall argued that a focus on the impact of traumatic childhood experiences was dominating clinical discussions at the expense of identifying neuro-developmental problems.
A number of senior clinicians spoken to by the Guardian expressed dismay at the article, but chose not to speak publicly because of their own proximity to the case. Marshall has subsequently complained that he has been the subject of a backlash by people unwilling to listen to a preventive argument.
David Wilson, a former prison governor and criminologist, is quick to acknowledge the difficulty of achieving any balanced discussion about the treatment of young people like Campbell while emotions around the trial remain so raw. Describing psychopathy as “one of the most overused but least understood criminological labels”, he argues: “Our understanding of psychopathy in children is emerging and the idea that we could ‘screen’ in some way is well in advance of the techniques available.”
Wilson, who writes at length about his experience assessing dangerous psychopaths in his recently published memoir, My Life With Murderers, adds that, while around 1% of the general population are thought to be psychopathic, this rises to 25% within the male prison population. “But people who exhibit psychopathic traits can lead highly successful lives and never pose a risk to anyone, hence the problem with early labelling.”
In terms of Campbell’s own future treatment, it is understood that he will go through an induction process at Polmont young offender institution, where he will remain until at least the age of 21 and during which he will be encouraged to participate in range of activities, including education and programme intervention for the likes of anger management and sexual offending. Once he enters the adult prison estate, it will take time to plan out appropriate interventions over the coming three decades.
But the key to any such programme is that the offender himself must be willing to engage. Campbell denied his involvement in the murder until the conclusion of his trial, and appeared to show no remorse or conception of the gravity of his actions during it.
The difficulties posed in the management of Campbell are almost unique – but the prison service has no choice but to grapple with them. “We have a duty of care to him in coping with that,” says one prison insider. “We don’t abandon anybody”.
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