openJustice

Children in custody need protection, not cruelty and bullying

Recent HMIC report found "inexcusably poor practices" by police towards children in custody. A cultural shift is needed both within the police force and the local authorities who are failing to accommodate them. The Home Office must take action.

Shauneen Lambe and Jennifer Twite
9 December 2016

On Friday 25 November 2016 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) released a damning report into the Metropolitan police’s treatment of children. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, said:

“Protecting the vulnerable, particularly children, is perhaps the most important job that police officers and staff undertake ...  we found inexcusably poor practice at every stage of a child’s interaction with the police and across the parts of the force we inspected.”

Since 2012 Just for Kids Law has been working to change the way that children are treated by the police. We launched our ‘still a child at seventeen’ campaign that year but it wasn’t until 2013 that the High Court ruled that it was inconsistent with children’s rights to treat 17 year olds as if they were adults and not children when detained at the police station. The fact that we had to fight the Home Office and the police in a contested court case, until the Court ruled, is perhaps an indication of how low of a priority this was at that time.

We know that this has been re-prioritised in the government’s mind, in no small part due to the All Party Parliamentary Group review on children in contact with the police in 2014 ("It’s all about Trust", 6th July 2014); then a letter came from Theresa May in 2015, the then Home Secretary. She highlighted in a public letter to all children’s services across the country that "police custody can be a distressing experience and this is particularly so for children and young people in trouble".

After her clothes were forcibly removed, she was placed in a white paper suit in a CCTV cell where she could be seen self-harming; in the footage no police officer is seen coming to check on her.

The police too, at a high level, have re-prioritised how they look after children in the police station. Olivia Pinkney, the National College for Policing lead on children publicly stated that: "entering custody can be a traumatic experience, which is why we are working alongside partners to divert children from the criminal justice system and ensure their wellbeing is put first".

However, despite this message from the top, the feedback we get, from the families and the young people that we work with, almost universally reflects the findings of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of, at worst, behaviour that could be interpreted as cruelty and bullying of children by the police or, often at best, carelessness or ignorance of their special status as children.

In 2014 with Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE) we intervened in a case where the police had forcibly stripped a 14 year old girl, who had formerly been sexual abused. The police said the reason for the strip was not the fear of hidden contraband, but for her welfare. There was a concern that she might use the elastic in her underpants as a ligature. After her clothes were forcibly removed, she was placed in a white paper suit in a CCTV cell where she could be seen self-harming; in the footage no police officer is seen coming to check on her. Since 2014 CRAE has reported an increase in the use of tasers and spithoods on children as well as their detention overnight in police cells.

We frequently speak to children who have spent two days in police cells with literally nothing to do, sitting on a plastic mattress, staring at the walls, and listening to the noises and commotion from neighbouring cells holding adults. 

It does seem that, despite the messages coming from the top, the practice on the ground is not changing. Nearly a year ago the Home Office circulated a draft Concordat (as yet unpublished), which stated very clearly the laws against detaining children overnight at the police station, recognising that there are problems with the police and local authorities leaving children in police cells, and giving guidance to police and local authorities about how to work together to help make sure children are not left in cells when they could, and should be, accommodated elsewhere. However, despite overwhelming support, the Concordat is not yet in the public realm.

In 2016 we launched our #nochildincells campaign due to our serious concerns about children’s detention at the police station. From Freedom of Information requests we discovered that a shocking number of children are held overnight in a police cell. In London over 7,000 children were detained in a police cell overnight last year.

However many local authorities were unable to answer the question as, despite being required to provide accommodation, they don’t even keep records about the number of children affected, making it difficult for them to assess and therefore solve this problem. From the authorities that do keep records, we know that almost no children are provided with accommodation. We were told of only 18 children provided with accommodation throughout the whole of London in a year.

The law is clear. Once children have been charged with an offence, if they are denied bail, they should be accommodated by the local authority until they can be brought before the court. Sadly this almost never happens, and instead children are kept overnight in cells, in clear contravention of legislation. To compound this, the police are allowed to detain children for up to 24 hours before they charge them. This means that we frequently speak to children who have spent two days in police cells with literally nothing to do, sitting on a plastic mattress, staring at the walls, and listening to the noises and commotion from neighbouring cells holding adults. 

In London over 7,000 children were detained in a police cell overnight last year. 417 of these were aged 10 to 13.

Some of these children are very young.  We have been in contact with a 13 year old, held for two nights in police custody. The figures that we have from the MET show that 417 children aged between 10-13 were held overnight in London last year. 

The HMIC is the government’s inspectorate of police stations, the equivalent to Ofsted in a school setting. At page 89 of the report it stated: “We were concerned to see high numbers of children detained in custody after being charged. In the 40 cases we audited, we found 39 resulted in the child being charged, refused bail, and kept in police custody to appear at court”.

The inspectorate’s audit of a random selection of cases found that in over 97% of those cases children were detained at the police station overnight, where the law explicitly states they should be accommodated elsewhere.

As with most of our campaigns at Just for Kids Law we try to change the situation through campaigning but also by taking cases, representing individual children affected. To date we have complained to, or taken cases against, six London boroughs, who we believe failed to accommodate children. We will continue until we see a change in practice across the country.

We are calling for the Concordat to be published, and that this government ensures that police and local authorities protect the vulnerable children in their care.  We believe that the only way that this will happen is a cultural shift in the way the police treat children. We spoke to a mother, whose 15 year daughter was arrested following a fight with some girls from her school in the street. Her daughter had never been arrested before. The mother waited all evening at the police station to find out what the police intended to do with her daughter. At 1am the police finally told her that it was too late to interview her daughter and that she would be kept overnight and interviewed the next day. The mother pleaded “you can’t keep her overnight in a police cell.  She’s 15.”  The police just said “yes we can.”

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