Shine A Light

When a children’s home is one more stop on the road to prison

New research adds to weight of evidence in the UK that looked after children are being criminalised.

CarolyneWillow 2017 photo.jpg
Carolyne Willow
4 April 2016

*kids angry_1.jpg


One late summer afternoon I received a telephone call from a residential worker in a children’s home. They had a problem. A child had climbed onto the roof of the large Victorian house and was refusing to come down. He told staff he wanted to talk to me, his children’s rights officer. I agreed to come straightaway. It was a 10 minute drive.

As I approached the home, I could see several staff members with heads tilted backwards, looking up at the child and pleading with him to come down. He wouldn’t budge. What got him down from the roof was my offer to talk in private, away from the growing crowd below.

Not all situations will be resolved so smoothly, of course, but this example highlights the strength of de-escalation which puts the child at the centre.

The staff at this home could have very easily ignored the boy’s request. Or called the police (or the fire brigade). They could have threatened to punish him if he didn’t come down.

They did none of these things. I cannot remember exactly why he was so angry but an injustice had occurred, for sure. Talking it through with someone ‘on his side’ helped this vulnerable boy get back on track. The ‘crisis’ was averted with his dignity intact.

This happened more than 20 years ago.

Last week’s report from the Howard League for Penal Reform, called ‘Criminal Care’, reveals that police attended children’s homes in 17 areas in England and Wales more than 29,000 times in the past three years. That’s an astonishing figure since there are fewer than 6,000 children living in such accommodation. Yearly increases were noted by 9 of the 17 police forces. Unable to identify individual children’s homes (these are not published by inspectorates, to protect children’s privacy), the Howard League was able to research private providers who, in any case, run two-thirds of children’s homes.

Police forces told the Howard League that private companies use police cells as “respite to cover staff shortages” and to deal with situations that their own staff have neither the training nor the expertise to manage.

The charity found that five companies running 84 children’s homes called the police 812 times in 2015.

Children living in these homes were more likely to see a police officer standing at their front door, than an inspector: on average, the police were called to each home 10 times across a 12 month period, whereas inspections are conducted twice a year.

The Howard League found that for-profit children’s homes often refuse to take children back into their care, so children are effectively being abandoned by the care system. Intolerably, the charity reports “a perception by police that vulnerable children would be better cared for in cells”.

Local authorities, too, are failing to give support to vulnerable children, in breach of their statutory duties.

For many years, there has been convincing evidence of the ‘criminogenic’ effects of children’s homes. There’s the influence of peer groups, and institutional responses to the kind of behaviour that within families would be challenging and difficult but rarely a matter for the police.

One study of 48 children’s homes found that 40% of children staying in a home for six months got a criminal record. More than a decade ago, an initiative in Wiltshire involved social services and police working together to achieve a remarkable reduction in looked after children’s contact with the criminal justice system. In 2001, 184 offences by children in care were recorded in that area; by 2004, this had reduced to 22.

The Crown Prosecution Service urges prosecutors to be cautious when dealing with children in care, observing, “the police are more likely to be called to a children's home than a domestic setting to deal with an incident of offending behaviour by an adolescent”.



The message may be getting through: official data shows a decrease in the proportion of children in care (those living in children’s homes and other types of placement) being convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand. In 2012, 6.9% of looked after children were punished by the criminal justice system; this had decreased to 5.6% in 2014.

But this was still more than 2,000 children, and most would have endured abuse, neglect, profound loss, poverty and stigma before ever setting foot in a children’s home or foster care.

Moreover, the figures relate only to children in care for 12 months or more; other government data shows a much higher offending rate for children living in children’s homes for six months or less.

The statistics do not indicate a straightforward causation between care and offending, though, as many children will have committed crimes prior to becoming ‘looked after’ (the official term for children in care).

Arrests, court hearings and state sanctions set children who feel different already even further away from their peers; they heighten anxiety and diminish opportunities, now and in the future. They are polar opposites to ‘care’, in other words.

The Laming Review, established by the Prison Reform Trust, has been investigating the links between the care and criminal justice systems since last summer, and is due to report its findings soon. Its background briefing rightly asks how come 1% of children in England and Wales are looked after by the state, but a third of boys and 61% of girls in custody have been in care. Even more devastating is the fact that at least 69% of the children who died in prison between 2000 and 2012 had been subject to care orders.

Since the residential care abuse inquiries of the 1990s, local authorities have largely stopped running their own children’s homes. Sir Martin Narey was given the task of reviewing residential care last autumn, “to help put an end to a life of disadvantage for some of the most vulnerable children in care”. After a long career in the prison service, Narey was Barnardo’s chief executive for several years, and has since undertaken a variety of government roles concerned with children’s social care. He attracted controversy last year after publishing a favourable review of G4S-run Rainsbrook secure training centre, contradicting the findings and conclusions of three inspectorates. On becoming a Board member of the Ministry of Justice, Narey “severed [his] relationship with G4S”.

It will be interesting to hear whether he has found any deficits in the private sector model in respect of children’s homes, such as staff and managers not being able to draw upon the expertise and experience of colleagues in a larger organisation, lack of accountability and shareholder profits diminishing resources available for children. Any lessons from his review will be pertinent to government plans to close child prisons and establish secure free schools.

Much of the media reporting of the Howard League’s work has cited the incident of the police being called out to a children’s home after a child broke a cup. This was first reported four years ago, following a review by Lancashire County Council; it was then picked up by the House of Commons Justice Committee’s inquiry into youth justice in 2013. It’s an enduring example, because we can all agree staff in the home must have overreacted. The ‘if this was my child’ rule can be applied easily. In many respects, however, children living in children’s homes are extraordinary – in how they cope with the challenges in their own lives as well as the demands of group living, and in the compassion and understanding they offer to others.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of supporting a group of young people living in children’s homes to perform to a national conference of social services directors. The majority of the children were boys who regularly offended. They were lively, funny and kind. One boy couldn’t read so the others recorded the play, which they had created together, onto a cassette tape which he could then play over and over on his Walkman whilst working his shifts on a market stall. The home’s manager had unsuccessfully tried to block the trip, on account of the boys’ criminal behaviour. He didn’t bear a grudge, however, and made sure they all had smart clothes to wear.

When we returned to the home, the boys were able to tell the manager, and the other staff eagerly awaiting their news, that the conference had been a great success. Most pleasing of all for them to recount was the hotel manager’s request on the morning of our departure to speak with the boys. He wanted to personally thank them for tidying their rooms before they handed back their keys. In all of his career, never before had he witnessed such respect for hotel property.

Frances Crook, the Howard League’s chief executive, says in the press release accompanying the charity’s report that children in children’s homes are “wonderful young people who have had a really bad start in life. They deserve every chance to flourish”. Yes they do and, what’s more, children living away from their families have a comprehensive set of rights in domestic and international law to enjoy the best of care and protection. Doing away with punishment would help.

Carolyne Willow’s book Children Behind Bars can be purchased from Policy Press here (£12.99 plus £2.75 postage and packing).

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData