Young people in children’s homes 15 times more likely to be criminalised, says Howard League
Professionals and agencies must help to tackle the excessively high criminalisation rates of young people in children’s homes, a criminal justice reform charity has argued. Piers Barber reports. This article was published July 12, 2017.
According to a briefing by the Howard League published yesterday, children in homes aged 16 or 17 are at least 15 times more likely to be criminalised than others of the same age. It argues that such levels of criminalisation, which also dwarf those in other types of care, risk amplifying mental health issues and feelings of rejection. The statistics, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show how more than seven out of 10 of those who were criminalised in children’s homes 2015/16 had emotional or behavioural health problems deemed to be of borderline or actual concern.
The briefing emphasises that children who come into contact with the youth justice system experience multiple disadvantages and have a history of disrupted and sometimes abusive childhoods. It was reckoned that 70% of those criminalised in the year up to 31 March 2016 had been taken in to care due to issues related to family dysfunction or acute family stress.
The charity claims that its experience working with children shows that behaviour which causes criminalisation is often preceded by multiple cases of rejection and a lack of stability. This includes rejection by families and schools, care placements moves, and changes in social workers.
One child featured in the report moved between 11 placements in two years after coming into care at the age of 13. When placements couldn’t be found, the boy, who was also diagnosed with conditions including ADHD and Aspergers, was moved back to live with his parents for short periods. Professionals noted how such instability caused damage to his emotional wellbeing and behaviour.
The charity argues that staff in children’s homes, the police, and all other agencies working with these children must do more to understand the routes of problematic behaviour and respond to it appropriately. It argues that feelings of rejection can be compounded by criminalisation, and should instead be met with acceptance, support and stability.
The report details how police sometimes attend minor incidents to which they would not normally be called out if the child did not live in a children’s home. One girl featured in the report was arrested and taken away from her care home in handcuffs at 1am after throwing a mug which caught a care worker during a row.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: ‘For many children, they may feel rejection from being taken into care, may be rejected and excluded from school, and then, once in the care system, they face a series of rejections through changes in care placements and social workers. These feelings of rejection can be compounded if children are criminalised and not supported in the appropriate way.’
She added: ‘Challenging behaviour must be recognised for what it is. Children’s homes and police ought to respond sensitively so that children do not have their life chances blighted by an unnecessary criminal record.’
It is difficult to ascertain a completely accurate perspective of the numbers of children criminalised while in care, as local authorities are only required to report details to the government if they have been looked after continuously for at least 12 months. This accounts for less than half of those who left care during 2015/16.
Piers is presently working for a charity which promotes children's rights. He was online editor at Not Shut Up, a magazine celebrating prisoner creativity