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Criminalising kids in care

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.

 

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  • Anniebarwick

    And what has happened to the discretion of those charged with their care? I fear they do not have a ‘named’ carer who is actually in physical charge but rather a paper parent in loco parentis who signs the permission sheets for these children to come to the notice of the legal system, where our children would come to the notice of ‘grounding and the naughty step… Excellant article Kim

    • Kim Gbj

      Thank you for commenting Annie. It would be interesting to know what policies are in place for when police should be involved, and whether it’s fairly standardised across the Country. Kim

    • Kim Gbj

      Thank you for commenting Annie. It would be interesting to know what policies are in place for when police should be involved, and whether it’s fairly standardised across the Country. Kim

  • WorldofSab

    Oh brilliant article – this topic makes me rant to all and sundry at regular intervals! Kids who have had rocky starts of life are criminalised for losing their temper like every kid does.

    I had 1 girl who was ‘sent to solitary’ for 3 days. She had no tv, no books, no pen or paper, no contact with others (her meals were pushed through the door!). After 3 days, she ripped the wallpaper off. Result? charge for criminal damage. It made me apoplectic with impotent anger for her.

    My most recent kid is 16, highly intelligent, but with what I suspect is Aspergers. He doesn’t cope well with groups, people he doesn’t know, and has routines he must follow. Talking to him in the cop shop, he presents as bright, informed, and his face lit up when I told him about some graphic design courses I knew of that he could do distance learning so he didn’t have to be in large groups. He is highly moral – his crime? He pulled off some banners at the local supermarket that he thought were offensive. He put himself into care as he could see his bipolar mum couldn’t cope. He didn’t have a record before he did that 4 months ago.

    Kids in ‘care’ are criminalised for the pettiest of ‘offences’ when they are at their most vulnerable. We are failing them, so badly.
    I am tired of seeing damaged, broken kids in the police station. Failed by parents, failed by the care homes, failed by the system.
    And I have to say, the worst culprits in this area seem to be the private care homes, who seem to report any ‘unacceptable’ behaviour to the polis. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to deal with the root causes of the behaviour.
    Good article – thank you!

    • Kim Gbj

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I feel your pain! Keep ranting, please…..

    • Kim Gbj

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I feel your pain! Keep ranting, please…..

  • John

    Well written piece and so pleased you’ve spoken out on this point. It also angers me the way these “care” companies shove the kids around the country from one home to the next, usually well away from the local authority that has care of the child. The relevant Children’s Services department seems to have no concerns (because probably no knowledge) that these children are racking up reprimands / final warnings / referral orders / etc. It is a scandal!

    • Kim Gbj

      John, thanks for commenting. I fostered a child through a private company. It was such an horrific experience that I’m afraid I was put off for life. Not the child, the cynical use of the child for profit and profit alone. No altruistic element to it at all. I decided to do what I could via the medium of my work instead. Kim

    • Kim Gbj

      John, thanks for commenting. I fostered a child through a private company. It was such an horrific experience that I’m afraid I was put off for life. Not the child, the cynical use of the child for profit and profit alone. No altruistic element to it at all. I decided to do what I could via the medium of my work instead. Kim

  • Anonymous

    Why not just make it part of the foster/adoption contract that the police must not be called for minor damage and bruising, the kind of stuff that would happen in any family squabble

  • http://twitter.com/rhanstock Richard Hanstock

    ‘Coming to notice’ does not necessarily entail an arrest. If an officer is concerned about a young person, he is under a duty to pass those concerns on to the appropriate agency for assessment. No crime need be alleged or apparent, whether the young person is a victim or a suspect. Every officer is under a duty to be vigilant for the 5 key outcomes under the Every Child Matters scheme, and share this information with other agencies.

    The criminal justice system and those who work with in it, especially the youth justice sector, is not blind to these issues and works hard at all levels to ensure that the needs of young people are identified and met. The referral order process in particular offers a valuable opportunity for young people to engage directly with skilled and approachable professionals with an excellent track record at improving their lives and prospects. ‘Writing off’ teenagers who become engaged with the criminal justice system is a serious error, though understandable from an educated person such as yourself who sees so often its ugliest parts. Equally erroneous is the insinuation that the police and social services “deliberately” “give” children a criminal record: in fact, the raison d’etre of the restorative youth justice process is to restore the harms caused whilst diverting young people away from crime at an early stage, tackling the causes and minimising the later consequences of their offending behaviour so as to ensure that they are not on the back foot for the rest of their lives.

    Perhaps it would be more helpful to criticise of the underfunding, budget cuts and instances of mismanagement that undermine the quality and comprehensiveness of service delivery to young people most in need of intervention. This country badly needs more foster carers, more comprehensive care and attention in young offenders’ institutions, better schooling, better parenting… the list goes on. What is not helpful is your suggestion that there is some kind of government conspiracy against the most vulnerable and valuable generations in our society.

    • Kim Gbj

      Richard, thank you for taking the time to comment, and I respect your view. However I would like to answer a couple of points you raise. Firstly, yes the Referral order system is probably very good, but remember to point out that a Referral order comes after arrest, charge, and conviction. It is a sentence, not a diversion away from the system. Secondly, you say ‘writing off teenagers is an understandable error from an educated person such as myself’. I have NEVER in my entire 30+ years in the criminal justice system, written off a teenager. Quite the contrary. Lastly, you say the raison d’être of the system is to restore harms caused. To whom? Certainly not to the child arrested, placed in a cell, interviewed, charged, put before the court, convicted and sentenced. For a tantrum. THEY may feel more harm has been caused, not restored. Kim

    • Kim Gbj

      Richard, thank you for taking the time to comment, and I respect your view. However I would like to answer a couple of points you raise. Firstly, yes the Referral order system is probably very good, but remember to point out that a Referral order comes after arrest, charge, and conviction. It is a sentence, not a diversion away from the system. Secondly, you say ‘writing off teenagers is an understandable error from an educated person such as myself’. I have NEVER in my entire 30+ years in the criminal justice system, written off a teenager. Quite the contrary. Lastly, you say the raison d’être of the system is to restore harms caused. To whom? Certainly not to the child arrested, placed in a cell, interviewed, charged, put before the court, convicted and sentenced. For a tantrum. THEY may feel more harm has been caused, not restored. Kim

  • Sarah_bridgman

    Could not agree more with your blog Kim, and also with the comments regarding private care homes. I would love to know what qualifications those looking after these kids on a day to day basis have. The all to common scenario of a child brought into custody following an argument then slamming their door results in an arrest for crim dam to the doorframe and assault on the careworker they pushed past to getto their bedroom. I weep for the days custody sgts had the power to say “get this out of my custody block”, or even for the local caution register. This would usually be directed at the caseworker who had accompanied them to the police station, the ip of the assault and expecting to act as appropriate adult! No compensation claim there then. I have a hundred stories but one of the most heartbreaking the girl who had been taken into care after watching her mothers mental health deteriorate to point she was sectioned. Why arrested? Because when kids arrive incare, they are taken shopping just a few bits, lipbalm, a pretty mirror a new DVD why? Because when they kick off they can take stuff away from them, strip their room. When she tried to sto them the enevitable assault arrest followed.

    • Avers7

      Most of them don’t have any quals- the only thing required is that you complete an nvq level 2/3 in looking after children!

    • Kim Gbj

      Thank you for commenting Sarah. It’s interesting although sad to find that this happens so often. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • Sarah_bridgman

    Could not agree more with your blog Kim, and also with the comments regarding private care homes. I would love to know what qualifications those looking after these kids on a day to day basis have. The all to common scenario of a child brought into custody following an argument then slamming their door results in an arrest for crim dam to the doorframe and assault on the careworker they pushed past to getto their bedroom. I weep for the days custody sgts had the power to say “get this out of my custody block”, or even for the local caution register. This would usually be directed at the caseworker who had accompanied them to the police station, the ip of the assault and expecting to act as appropriate adult! No compensation claim there then. I have a hundred stories but one of the most heartbreaking the girl who had been taken into care after watching her mothers mental health deteriorate to point she was sectioned. Why arrested? Because when kids arrive incare, they are taken shopping just a few bits, lipbalm, a pretty mirror a new DVD why? Because when they kick off they can take stuff away from them, strip their room. When she tried to sto them the enevitable assault arrest followed.

  • http://twitter.com/Vicky_claire Vicky

    Excellent blog Kim, I completely agree!! This is something which often infuriates me, having dealt with a number of kids in care.

    I dealt with one where a 14yr old girl was arrested for s4 public order. She had been outside with a friend, it was around 9pm on a school night, care workers had called for her to come inside and for her friend to leave a number of times, but she’d refused eventually a row between her and a care worker had broke out, during the course of the row she allegedly told the care worker that ‘she would sort her out’. The care worker called the police and she was arrested for threatening words and behaviour.

    I was told when I got to the station the following morning (they’d not been able to get an AA out that night) that she was a little madam; she’d been rude to officers, abusive to custody staff and generally a pain. I met her and instantly thought what a little s**t, but 10mins into consultation she broke down in tears and I realised she wasn’t a bad kid at all she was scared and frightened!! After a lengthy consultation I found out her mother was an addict, she spent much of her youth in and out of care and was scared that she would be moved on once again. All her bravado melted away and it was clear to me a legal rep, not a social worker than this girl was hurting, she felt unloved and was lashing out, not a threat to anyone and certainly her threat to sort out the care worker were empty words from an angry child!!

    I’m sure if you ask my mother, she could tell many a tale of things I’ve said and done during those angry teenage years, difference is as Kim rightly points out a parent isn’t going to call the police on you!!

    My teen despite my best endeavours was charged, having already been reprimanded for criminal damage in a previous care home. I was only a trainee at the time so a colleague ran the trial, the case papers stated that the care worker had been signed off work for a month due to the stress of the situation (fully paid of course)!! I could rant about this for hours, it took me 10mins to break down this angry teens barriers but a care worker who was supposedly trained and responsible for this girls welfare seemed intent on taking her to court! Thankfully the bench saw sense and she was found not guilty, I left that firm the following year, but I know from colleagues this girl who is now 17, is a regular of the firm, I just wonder if there could have been a different outcome for this young girl, but I remember her leaving court that day, all the bravado return and now a new found hate for the police and the system.

    There are a number of similar stories I could tell as this was not and will not be my last case of a similar nature. These days the police even seem to be involved in arresting children for school yard squabbles and don’t get me started on my 13yr going to trial for playing with a bright red toy gun!!

    I work in London so I understand the difficulties the police face with many of our teens, but we can all sport the difference between an angry teen and a budding gang member, it a shame the police are not allowed the discretion to deal with them in an appropriate way!!

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