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23 May 2016

Too many children in care ending up behind bars

Up to half of all children in custody have been in care at some point. This is a tragic waste of young lives which must be addressed if all children in care are to get the best start in life, an independent review chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Laming has said.

The review, established by the Prison Reform Trust, calls for a coherent programme of reform, led from the very top of government, to help improve the life chances of looked after children and prevent future crime.

Around half of the 1,000 children currently in custody in England and Wales have experience of the care system. This is despite fewer than 1% of all children in England, and 2% of those in Wales, being in care. It costs over £200,000 each year to keep a young person in a secure children’s home and the yearly cost of a place in a young offender institution is about £60,000.

One young person told the review:

“Since July 2013 I have been to 16 schools and I have been in 15 different placements all around the country…all of my offending has been whilst in care.”

While most looked after children do not get into trouble with the law, this group is still six times more likely than children in the general population to be cautioned or convicted of a crime. Evidence submitted to the review highlights how common the experience of being stigmatised is among children in care.

One adult who grew up in care said:

“From my experiences it felt that I was in care so it was expected I got into trouble with the police, as I was bad news. I felt that children in care were treated differently in the youth justice system to someone who may live at home with their parents.”

For nearly two-thirds of looked after children, the main reason they are in care is that they have suffered abuse or neglect. A small minority are taken into care primarily because of their own socially unacceptable behaviour.

The Prime Minister has committed to transforming the life chances of children in care. The Queen’s Speech included proposals for a “care leavers’ covenant” to help ensure care leavers have the best start in life and to underpin “zero tolerance” of state failure around social care. The government has commissioned concurrent reviews into residential care and youth custody.

The review welcomes the government’s commitment and calls on it to prioritise work to reduce the large numbers of looked after children ending up in prison. It recommends the establishment of a cross-departmental cabinet sub-committee to provide leadership, including through the development of a concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation which social care and education services based in local authorities, police forces and others will be called on to sign up to.

In addition, the review recommends better early support for children and families at risk, the strengthening of joint working between children’s social care services and criminal justice agencies, improvements in police practice to reduce the prosecution of children and young people in care and a greater emphasis on the importance of good parenting by the state.

The review profiled examples of good practice from across England and Wales. It found that the rate at which a minority of children move from care into the criminal justice system is not inevitable.  It can be reduced – for example by as much as 45% over four years in Surrey, as a result of effective joint working.

Lord Laming, Chair of the Review, said:

“Thanks to the initiative of the Prison Reform Trust, and the hard work of the advisory group, this report provides a golden opportunity for our society to transform the life opportunities for children and young people who have to look to the state to be their parents. It sets out in clear terms an action plan on how to reduce the number of young people in care progressing into custody which is costly to them and to us all. This is being achieved in some areas. It can be done. Now is the time to make sure it happens in every authority. We must be impatient until good practice becomes standard practice everywhere.”

The review is the product of a year’s intensive inquiry and is intended for practitioners as well as policy makers. Lord Laming wrote to all local authorities in England and Wales requesting information about looked after children in the criminal justice system. Over 90 local authorities (60% of the total) provided the data requested and this has been analysed alongside data from other available sources.

The review had the benefit of a broad advisory panel including leading experts in the field, experienced practitioners and, above all, children and young people with first-hand experience of care and the criminal justice system.

Review panel member and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Children and Young People, Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney said:

’We welcome this important piece of work. Looked after children are one of four priority areas in our current strategy for policing young people and we are determined to treat them with the fairness, respect and understanding they deserve. No child should be criminalised unnecessarily.’

Over 220 written submissions, a number of oral evidence sessions and regional meetings and visits provided an extraordinary wealth of experience and opinion on which to draw.

Young people with experience of care and the criminal justice system told the review that:

  • Separation from their birth family understandably hurts and the care system must do more to help them come to terms with this;
  • Frequent changes in who looks after them, where they live, where they go to school and who offers emotional and practical support damage their prospects;
  • Support from peer mentors would help;
  • Clarity about what they can expect from the care system is crucial, as is involvement in decisions that affect their lives; and
  • They often feel isolated and unsupported at critical moments, not least if they have to appear in court or spend time in custody.

Some young people from minority ethnic backgrounds felt they are subject to negative stereotyping on the grounds of their race, particularly by the police, and that their cultural needs are not consistently met by children’s social care services.

Unpublished data made available to the review by the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales reveals that 44% of looked after children in custody are from an ethnic minority background – this is more than one-and-a-half times the proportions in the general population and the looked after population.

Evidence from the prisons inspectorate reveals that the experience of looked after children in custody is worse in many ways than for other children in custody. Looked after children in custody reported fewer visits, less certainty about where they would be living on release, are twice as likely to consider themselves disabled, and reported higher rates of emotional or mental health problems.

During their time in custody, looked after children are more likely than other children to have been physically restrained, more likely to have been placed on report, more likely to say they felt unsafe and more likely to have felt victimised by a member of staff.

The review’s findings and recommendations are being presented to the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, Welsh government, local authority chairs and chief executives, clinical commissioning groups, police and crime commissioners and chief constables.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“By listening to children in care about how they have got drawn into trouble, this review provides practical and workable solutions to help break the depressing route from chaos to care to custody.”


View all
  • May 2016 In Care, Out of Trouble: Summary report This report brings together the findings of Lord Laming’s independent review. It examines the reas... In Care, Out of Trouble: Summary report
  • May 2016 In Care, Out of Trouble: Full report This report brings together the findings of Lord Laming’s independent review. It examines the reas... In Care, Out of Trouble: Full report