In care & in trouble

The criminalisation of children in residential care

Children in residential care are 15 times more likely to be criminalised than other kids the same age.

Image courtesy of ©Howard League for Penal Reform

That can’t be right…

Recently, the Howard League for Penal Reform has issued its first briefing on ending the criminalisation of children in residential care.

This new report is the result of freedom of information requests following the League’s earlier report, Criminal Care.

The facts:

Figures around Looked After children (LAC) are hard to come by. As are those around criminalisation.

We don’t know exactly how many children are criminalised whilst they are Looked After. That’s because local authorities don’t have to tell the government about children until they’ve been Looked After for 12 months.

But about half of children in care stay for less than a year, so the figures we do have are likely to be significant under-estimates of criminalisation.

Here’s what we do know:

  • 100,800 children were parented by the state in 2015-16
  • There’s been a 5% increase in Looked After Children since 2012
  • There are more kids in the LAC system now than anytime since 1985
  • The majority are living with foster parents (this is a good thing!  :0)
  • 5220 children were living in children’s homes in March 2014 (latest figures) 

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Rocky roads…

If a child finds themselves in the care system, it’s because things have gone badly wrong. Something has happened to make it unsafe for them to live at home.

This doesn’t happen quickly, so these children have probably experienced at least months and usually years of difficulties before coming into care.

Growing up in threat or danger, violence or neglect is bad for a child’s development. Very bad.

Is it any wonder, then, that their behaviour can be troubling? Kids in children’s homes are…

  • 15 times more likely to be criminalised
  • 71% who were criminalised had actual or borderline emotional/behavioural health concerns
  • 70% were in care because of acute family issues
  • 14% were there because of neglect

The problem is not the care home. It’s the experiences they had before they came into care in the first place.

‘Whilst it is the case that most children who spend time in children’s homes do not get into trouble with the police, it is clear that children who are looked after in [children’s homes] are being criminalised at much higher rates than other children, including children in other types of care.’ Howard League Report p.2

So we need to do something to stop Looked After kids, especially those in residential care, from entering the criminal justice system and spoiling their life chances even more.

The behaviour that leads to trouble is a result of having lived a very troubled life – our responses must reflect this.

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Solutions:

Here are a few thoughts on what could be done to improve this situation.

Image courtesy of ©Howard League for Penal Reform

  • Policy changes – Police, YOTs and children’s services work hard to help troubled kids. But there needs to be a default policy NOT to prosecute children in the LAC system. They are there because life’s gone badly wrong at home. Let’s not make is worse now that they’re in care.
  • Ressy care changes – homes must train their staff to a very high degree so that they know how best to help these very troubled young people. Taking a developmental approach is key – we must meet children where they are now, not punish them because they aren’t where we want them to be.
  • Grow fostering – kids in foster care do better. So let’s have more foster carers. Let’s train them highly, pay them properly and treat them as professional equals, so more children can be offered loving substitute homes rather than residential care.
‘…residential care is the care setting that poses the greatest risk of increasing the likelihood of young people becoming involved in offending behaviour.’ (Staines 2016)

Final word…

Those working in residential care have a difficult task – looking after kids who’ve been removed from their families.

Let’s support them and the children by adding to their chances of success – better training, less criminalisation, more foster care and working with child development in mind.

What do you think?…

  • Do you work in ressy care? What’re your thoughts on all this?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2017

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  • Cara

    I work in a privately run residential home. We have the policy in place that we do not criminalise our young people unless the matter was considered serious. We have experienced extensive property damage, including to staff personal property, and assaults on staff made by the young people, yet in my 6 years of employment we have not criminalised the young person. What I have found is that the police’s attitude towards looked after children can vary hugely. I think the stigma of being in care and the attitudes of society as a whole greatly impacts on the chances of a looked after child entering criminal behaviours.

    • Jonny Matthew

      Hi Cara – sounds like you guys have got it sorted! Increasingly, residential providers are cottoning onto the need to respond differently, which is really encouraging. I agree regarding Police responses – this varies too from area to area. I think there’s a general will to get it right, but we need something more akin to a policy or a statutory guideline to ensure that non-criminalising responses are the norm. I guess the burden that some Looked After children place on police time and resources means that sometimes we still get an over-reaction. The direction of travel is good, but I hope this report will help nudge things along in the right direction. THANKS for commenting! Cheers, Jonny.