I was reading this really rather excellent blog by @_millymoo on the guff currently being spouted by our PM David Cameron on national adoption week. In her usual no-nonsense fashion, Milly discusses the plight of looked-after children who ‘come to the notice of police’. This is the point where my blood starts to boil. It is a subject close to my heart and, as a defence lawyer, absolutely guaranteed to make me rant.
You see when they say ‘come to the notice of Police’ in this context what they REALLY mean is that the very people and organisations responsible for looking after these children quite deliberately and knowingly give them a criminal record.
Let me explain.
If my children were to have an argument at home, and during that argument, one of them slaps the other leaving a temporary red mark and ‘accidentally’ breaks a vase I don’t call the police. It would be dealt with by me and in all likelihood would result in some sort of lecture and loss of privilege.
I am fortunate. My children are fortunate. They live with me and have all the things necessary to lead a well-balanced, happy and productive life. Some of the children that I represent have none of those things and some of them suffer from the most unspeakable abuse and see things that the rest of us couldn’t even imagine. I have said it before and I will say it as many times as I think it is necessary, why do we then expect those children to behave impeccably? In my area, there is a ‘children’s home’ which is home to four ‘looked after’ children.
I am assuming that these children are not in foster care because they are at the upper end of ‘difficult to place’. So, four extremely difficult kids with extreme problems, placed in one house. Together. And that’s not going to create problems right? Wrong. What happens when these children living together, almost like siblings, fight? The police are called and they are arrested. Now we move on to the prescriptive problems inherent in the criminal justice system as it applies to children. Up until the age of 17, children are entitled to one reprimand for a first offence (unless it is so serious a charge is necessary) and then one final warning. After that, they will be charged with any further offending behaviour and placed before the Youth Court for sentencing.
Now I can hear you say that these children are not siblings, and so each deserves the protection from the law that any victim should have. But I am not talking about serious injury, these children are arrested for causing minor temporary bruising, and damaging household items. What does that tell them about the attitude towards them of the people charged with their care? And the system as a whole? If they are placed for adoption, how does that help their prospects? Pretty shoddy if you ask me. So I would like to see some discretion given back to the police when dealing with these types of allegations, so the kids do not have to be arrested, placed in a cell and interviewed just because a complaint is made. That relies (of course) on the police wishing to exercise that discretion. On many occasions the officer briefing me on the arrest will be as apologetic for having to do so as I am angry at having to listen, and to have to see another sad, angry and resigned little person in the cells.
Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system - the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I'd guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.