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A Valentine Day Story


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<H1 class=heading>The baby shambles of Alfie Patten and Chantelle Steadman</H1><H2 class="sub-heading padding-top-5 padding-bottom-15">The case of the 13-year-old father is a classic tabloid tale that has much wider implications</H2>Daniel Foggo and Chris Gourlay div#related-article-links p a, div#related-article-links p a:visited {color:#06c;}When Eddy Powell looks out of his window at night and sees his hedge shaking to the accompanying sound of childish giggles, he knows exactly what it means.

“They are having sex behind it, out in the open, knowing full well I can see them,” he said.

“They do it deliberately. They are making some kind of statement. Sometimes you find the condom in the morning, sometimes you don’t.”

Powell, a 55-year-old former soldier, is not talking about twenty-somethings behaving badly after being turned out of the pubs at closing time.

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Those engaging in sexual liaisons behind his shrubbery in Hailsham, East Sussex, are children, many barely into their teens. He knows their ages and he knows their faces: some of them are his neighbours.

“They are so blatant these days, they think it’s a big joke to lift up their skirts and have sex,” said Powell.

Last week the consequences of such adolescent fumblings was laid bare to the nation.

One of the houses in Powell’s road is home to the Patten family. Alfie Patten, a tiny, cherubic-faced 13-year-old boy who looks far younger than his age, was named on Friday as the father of Maisie, who was born four days earlier.

The baby’s mother, Chantelle Steadman, was just 14 when she became pregnant; Alfie was 12.

When their bemused faces were plastered across tabloid newspapers, it prompted an outcry from politicians and social commentators dismayed at the latest example of “broken Britain”.

Although Alfie is not the youngest boy to have fathered a child, the extreme youth of his appearance coupled with his blatant immaturity made the photographs of him next to his new daughter seem all the more incongruous and shocking.

In video footage placed online by The Sun newspaper, Alfie made it clear he did not even understand the question when asked how he would provide for his child financially. “What’s ‘financially’?” he asked, cluelessly.

Chantelle could not hide her scorn at his answer.

The cries of condemnation crossed the political spectrum. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader and now chairman of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, said: “The case exemplifies the breakdown in British society. The problem of family breakdown has sadly become deeply inter-generational.”

Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, said: “It’s not right – it looks so terrible. It has got to be sorted out. I want us to do everything we can as a society to make sure we keep teenage pregnancies down.”

Accomplishing that is no easy task. Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe, and although the rate has been dropping in recent years, in 2006 a total of 7,826 girls under the age of 16 became pregnant, with 3,148 going on to have their babies.

Linda Blair, child psychologist at Bath University, said: “We’ve moved ahead much faster technologically than morally and we need to slow down. It sounds simple but there isn’t the willpower.

“We have to teach kids more about relationships. It’s a pity we have to do this but in modern Britain but the truth is we just don't live in strong family units any more.”

Alfie’s family would seem to fit the template of a broken home.

Despite the fact that they live in an attractive double-fronted house with a front garden dotted with palms, the household is far from peaceful, according to neighbours.

Two years ago his father Dennis, 45, who works for a vehicle recovery agency, moved out of the home he had shared with his wife Nicola, 43, their three children – Joe, 16, Alfie and Isabella, 11 – and a bull terrier called Winnie.

Both Pattens also have children by other partners; Dennis is a father to 10, one of whom, Jayde, is said to have become a mother at 13.

Since Dennis moved out, neighbours say the family has increasingly become a problem. “At five or six in the morning you hear music blaring out of their house, they are having parties,” said Powell.

“Alfie himself never seemed to go to school. To look at him you would think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth until he starts talking and answering you back.”

Another neighbour, Grace Cameron, 78, said she has had trouble with Alfie throwing bricks in her pond. “I did have a lot of trouble with him, but that was a little while ago. I feel a bit sorry for him though. It’s obviously the way he’s been brought up. I was really shocked to find out he has become a father.”

Another female neighbour said of the Pattens: “I was not surprised knowing that family. Mind you, is he really the father? At 12 years of age, is it really feasible? Has she got pregnant by someone else and then just blamed Alfie?”

That possibility was given some credence by suggestions, aired in the media yesterday, that Alfie may not have been Chantelle’s only sexual partner, which her family denies.

Alfie’s family have apparently considered taking a DNA test to determine Maisie’s paternity, but with the possibility of large amounts of money being offered for all those involved to speak to the tabloid press, this is unlikely to happen soon.

Visually at least, the baby girl’s parents make an unlikely match. Chantelle, who lives in nearby Eastbourne with her mother Penny, 38, father Steven, 43, and five siblings, looks like a fairly typical 15-year-old. Sitting next to Alfie on a bed to pose with Maisie for photographs she dwarfed him.

While her parents are still together, neither works and, according to The Sun, they survive on state benefits. One estimate put their potential hand-outs, including income support, housing benefit, child tax credits and child benefit, at £30,000 a year. Once she turns 16, Chantelle will be eligible for benefits too.

Both sets of parents apparently knew about their children’s relationship and Alfie was allowed to stay at the Steadmans’, where, in a sign of how welcome he was, he kept a spare school uniform.

Yesterday, while the new parents pondered how to couple playing on their PlayStations with feeding and winding a newborn – Chantelle reported that Alfie had been “very helpful” in their first night at home – debate raged about how to address the issues raised by their case.

Duncan Smith espouses a policy, backed by David Cameron, the Tory leader, of “early intervention” to break the cycle of dysfunctional families begetting further misfits.

He said: “We are convinced that it is cheaper and more sensible to tackle problems before they begin, rather than spend ever greater sums on ineffective remedial policies, whether they take the form of more prisons, police, drug rehabilitation or supporting longer and more costly lifetimes on benefits.”

However, David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, schools and families, said: “Where the Tories go off the rails is in thinking that this is a problem with all of society. It’s clearly not the case that all of Britain is broken. That just doesn’t resonate with people.

“Because of their poor backgrounds we have a significant segment brought up in chaotic and unloving situations. Unsurprisingly, they often become chaotic and unloving themselves.”

Others say that it is particular policies rather than parts of society that need to be fixed.

Tony Kerridge, of the sexual health group Marie Stopes International, said sex education, or the lack of it, was to blame for situations such as that of Alfie and Chantelle.

“Who can blame young kids when they get it wrong when sex education is so poor in this country?” he said Both he and Duncan Smith pointed to the sex education model used in schools in Holland, which has one of the world’s lowest birth rates among teenagers.

Their children are taught to respect and value their own bodies, as opposed to the more perfunctory approach in British schools which some critics compare to a “how-to-do-it guide”.

Being nonjudgmental about sex is all well and good, runs the argument, but how will children become aware of the consequences of their actions?

Family campaigners say that such morals must ultimately come from parents, as they provide the real role models that their children follow.

Norman Wells, director of the charity Family and Yuoth Concern, said: “We need to challenge the common perception of sex as a recreational activity and present it rather as an expression of the total self-giving of a husband and wife to each other in marriage.”

Given the many children by different partners they will have seen all around them, Alfie and Chantelle could hardly be expected to break the mould.

The teenagers are still riding the tabloid whirlwind. Both of Maisie’s parents were this weekend negotiating large sums to further spill the stories of their short lives.

Having had a pack of journalists planted outside their house for two days, Nicola Patten was showing the strain.

“I’m not used to this kind of attention,” she said. “I’m very upset about this. I’m very distressed, and Alfie is very upset.”

Dennis Patten’s mother Susan said she was loath to talk about her new granddaughter – because she did not want to “interfere with my son’s business interests”.

Additional reporting: Abul Taher, Kevin Dowling

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