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Children in trouble: punishment or welfare?

BBC Panorama exposed abuse at Medway Secure Training Centre — and a government policy that has gone off the rails.

Malcolm Stevens was the government’s youth justice professional advisor responsible for the original design and operating specifications for Secure Training Centres, and G4S’s first director of children’s services, responsible for Medway and Rainsbrook and, later, Oakhill secure training centres. He was the first UK Commissioner to the International Juvenile Justice Observatory in Brussels until 2013 and has wide experience of custodial approaches in Europe, America and Africa, as well as the UK.

He believes the BBC’s Panorama programme about Medway STC exposes the child jail that was never intended.

Last week’s written statement from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, shows just how seriously the government views recent events at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC), in Kent.  We are informed that he has commissioned an Independent Improvement Board with the “broadest possible expertise” — that is with the exception of relevant experience in children’s social care services, safeguarding management, STCs or secure accommodation!

Previously, on 11 January 2016, he assured Parliament that the safety and welfare of children is vital and that his department (the Ministry of Justice — MOJ) would be supporting the Kent Police and the Medway Council with their criminal child protection inquiries.  He also confirmed that there would be no new admissions to Medway and that the certification of certain G4S staff had been suspended; a course of action which will presumably activate significant contractual penalties and possibly liquidated damages — a small fortune.

This article is not about money. Nor is it about poor outcomes achieved by successive governments in respect of the young offenders it places in various secure institutions.  And there is enough huff and puff in and around Parliament about…..

  • -  the costs of keeping children in custody
  • -  high reoffending rates
  • -  unlawful use of restraint
  • -  pain compliant control and restraint techniques
  • -  transportation in prison cellular vehicles
  • -  strip searching
  • -  the over-use of segregation and isolation
  • -  prison adjudication processes
  • -  inadequate assessments of vulnerability and capacity for self-harm and suicide
  • -  closure of 17 local authority secure children’s homes (SCHs)
  • -  indifferent community social work practices and lack of vigorous viable alternatives to custody

 ...however compelling those matters really are.

No consideration of the Youth Justice System, however, can possibly ignore the 35 or so children who have so tragically died in custody during the last two decades, mostly through suicide, and the crystal clear messages from successive HM Coroners, serious case reviews and Prison Ombudsmen. Their findings have important implications on how and where the government places such children.

The investigation report by the Prison Ombudsman into one such suicide by a 15 year old boy who hanged himself in a Young Offender Institution (YOI) described “the lamentable standard of care for such a vulnerable boy in the charge of the state” (reference: paragraph 428, ‘Investigation into the death of a boy at HM Lancaster Farms in November 2007’. The report is dated August 2009 and published in December, 2010)

What is so poignant about all of those cases and so many of the children accommodated in STCs, is the paucity of suitable alternative accommodation and the seemingly indifferent interventions by local authorities.

A decade of safeguarding reports from the government’s joint inspectorates, which repeatedly submitted serious child protection criticisms about children in custody, have largely been ignored.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ, 2011) commented similarly about the failure of successive governments to deliver on national commitments to children in care, in favour of the perverse financial incentives which pushed children towards custody simply because it was and still is cheaper for a local authority if a child is in custody and cheaper for the government if a child is in a young offender institution (rather than a secure children’s home) regardless of whether that placement means unsafe and unsuitable prison cells with ligature points, and regardless of the child’s vulnerability or welfare needs.

The Secretary of State’s actions arise following the BBC Panorama programme screened on the 11 January 2016 about Medway STC which is run by the international security company G4S.  Since then, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), Ofsted, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and the local agencies have been busy proclaiming wisely about the malpractices which they themselves all failed to detect or ignored. G4S has implemented its own action plan, some staff have been dismissed, others remain suspended and the director has been replaced.

 

IMAGE BY REECE WYKES

For this reason, we should be grateful to the vigour of Panorama’s investigation; we would not otherwise have known about what is by any standards, an abuse of children and an abuse of power. Sadly, the potential for such malpractices are well known. They are not unique, not confined just to STCs; and not just to the UK either.  And the Ministry of Justice, the Youth Justice Board, G4S and the inspectorates all know that; arguably better than anyone else. They have experienced them all before; at Medway STC (on previous occasions), at Oakhill STC and at Rainsbrook STC, as Ofsted found, less than 12 months ago.

Yet they have still been happening at Medway, subversively and disgracefully, as Panorama showed, despite all that antecedent knowledge and experience, and despite there being in place:-

  • • an on-site government (Youth Justice Board) monitor at all times
  • • an active and comprehensive independent advocacy service provided by the children’s charity Barnardo’s
  • • twice a year detailed inspections by Ofsted’s (HM) Inspectors of Education and Children’s Services
  • • all sorts of commended schemes for the involvement and participation of children
  • • active and well used systems for making complaints, representations and ‘grumbles’
  • • a well promoted whistleblowing system
  • • comprehensive and commended quality monitoring systems
  • • close scrutiny by the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB)

In total, this is a degree of external scrutiny, independent monitoring and safeguarding assurance which far exceeds any other comparable service for children in England and Wales or indeed anywhere else that I have ever seen in Europe, USA or Africa.  Nevertheless, this is without doubt a most serious child protection matter and indicates crystal clear systemic and governance failings within G4S, within the MOJ and the YJB, and quite possibly within the Medway LSCB as well.

In my opinion, a formal Serious Case Review (by the Medway LSCB) is required, not simply for this reason but because the aggressive staff behaviours and (mis)use of control and restraint methods (as shown by Panorama) were not just unlawful but entirely similar to the antecedent circumstances which led to the tragic death of Gareth Myatt at Rainsbrook STC in 2004!  It is that serious.

The Secretary of State’s carefully selected Independent Improvement Panel and its equally circumspect terms of reference are inadequate for the purpose of reviewing safeguarding arrangements. That is a matter for the Medway LSCB to oversee; it's what LSCBs are for!

The hand-picked panel members are unlikely to be able to provide anything other than a retrospective management review of the MoJ’s own performance and some additional monitoring of whatever formal contractual rectification plans have been agreed with G4S. 

The legal responsibility for ensuring that safeguarding arrangements are effective in respect of all children living in that area, including those living in the secure training centre, rests entirely with the Local Safeguarding Children Board under children’s legislation i.e legislation within the government responsibility of the Department for Education not the Ministry of Justice!

The Secretary of State for children (Department for Education) should remind her Ministry of Justice colleagues that neither it (the MoJ) nor its Youth Justice Board, Barnardo’s, Ofsted and HMIP partners can reasonably be seen to investigate themselves and their own child protection failings — any more than G4S can.

There is a precedent: the case of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre run by Serco after the sexual abuse of children was discovered by the then Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley Green. 

This rightly fell to the local Local Safeguarding Children Board to conduct an independent review under the appropriate children’s regulatory framework for Serious Case Reviews. Its full report has never been published but even the sanitised Overview Report was widely critical of the government itself (Home Office, UK Border Agency and its prison inspectors) as well as Serco and all the local safeguarding agencies including the police and the LSCB itself. (‘Bedfordshire LSCB, Independent Review, Child A and Child B, placed at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention and Removal Centre, June 2010’).

Moreover, it criticised the government’s policy for establishing a service for children outside the regulatory framework and governance of the otherwise comprehensive Children Act 1989 – as are secure training centres! The government closed Yarl’s Wood’s doors to children shortly afterwards.

Aside from the specific malpractices themselves at Medway, what shocked me more than anything in the BBC Panorama was the lack of care and understanding for children whose health and welfare needs were as profound as they were blindingly obvious. There was no sense of professional duty to look after them properly, either as individual children or as vulnerable children with special needs and/or who have suffered significant early life traumas (as most of them have).

I have always been irritated by the ‘Child Prison’ label so often used to describe secure training centres. Historically that’s been incorrect and unfair. They were set up to be large secure children’s homes… not juvenile prisons. The government’s original commitment to Parliament in March 1993 (about STCs) was to provide “high standards of care, health and education” and to ensure that happened as specified, they were to be inspected only by the government’s own HM Inspectorate of Children’s Services (duties which are now carried out by Ofsted).

IMAGE BY REECE WYKES

HM Prison Service was never allowed to commission secure training centres, bid for them, run them or draft any of the design and operating specifications. Prison officers and prison governors were not permitted unless they were qualified social workers as well; and HMIP was not permitted to inspect them. Operating and design specifications, inspection and contractual care standards were all derived from The Children Act 1989 and its various regulations.

I myself was involved in much of that from the outset, as a civil servant and inspector and as a director of G4S. I have learned many hard lessons, from successes as much as failures. But two stand out more than anything else:-

  •        (i) STCs are incredibly difficult to run and
  •        (ii) the children and young people themselves can be very difficult to look after, arguably more so than any other group.

Hereto, every provider has underestimated that difficulty — G4S at Medway, Rainsbrook and Oakhill STCs, Premier Prisons and Serco at Hassockfield STC – all suffering the same significant operating and contractual compliance difficulties.

Moreover, no one is in a position to crow about these sorts of failures either, least of all the government which is not only the common denominator in the history of all four secure training centres, but which itself experienced equally high profile ‘difficulties’ at its secure St Charles and Glenthorne Youth Treatment Centres in Essex and Birmingham. Likewise, local authorities and the leading children’s charities have all but disengaged from providing secure residential children’s services. They are simply that difficult!

Hence the reason some 17 secure children’s homes have closed in the last decade and why secure training centre contracts were awarded to the private sector in the first place; in much the same way and for the same reasons that large, private equity-backed residential and fostering companies are now replacing the conventions of public and charitable sector-provided children’s services.

There is, therefore, a wider debate to be had about the strengths and weaknesses, and viability of STCs; arguably one which could and should have preceded the MOJ’s contract renewal process in 2015, which resulted in Medway STC being awarded to G4S and Rainsbrook STC to a new provider called MTCnovo (from 2016).

IMAGE BY REECE WYKES

The following considerations are just some of the developments which have changed the nature of secure training centres, mostly for the government’s own administrative and financial reasons:-

  • •     the doubling of occupancy from 40 to 80+ children and consequent lack of space and recreational facilities
  • •     the introduction of certain pain-compliant restraint methods
  • •     the addition of long term detainees, children convicted of grave crimes
  • •      the addition of unconvicted children on remand (contrary to UN’s Havana Rules, 1990)
  • •      the addition of children younger and older than the original 12-14 age group for whom the centres were designed
  • •      the mix of children with profoundly different and conflicting needs. 
  •  For example:-
  • ....boys and girls
  • ….victims and perpetrators (of sex offending)
  • ….older 16 and 17 year old children with younger 12 and 13 year olds
  • ….remanded and sentenced children
  • ….short term and long term detainees
  • ….children convicted of dangerous, grave crimes with persistent but less serious offenders
  • ….children with significant mental health needs
  • ….children with antecedent, multi placement local authority care histories
  • ….children with significant records of self-harm and suicide attempts
  • •      risk-averse, central government managed case decision-making
  • •      lack of external opportunities and supervised exeats

Upon reflection, these, and the secure training centres’ contractual obligation to admit every child referred by the MoJ (regardless of whether that is in the best interests of the children concerned), have all had a significant and probably detrimental bearing on the day-to-day management of STCs. They have undoubtedly added to the complexity of an already difficult task and certainly merit discussion and debate at a policy level.

Having been involved in designing, operating and inspecting secure units for many years, I am not easily shocked by the behaviour of stroppy kids. They are not like that all the time and the important thing is to concentrate upon their achievements and positive behaviours. I’m not shocked by the behaviours and attitudes of big-headed staff and bullying managers either.

Nevertheless, I am bound to say that after seeing Panorama’s portrayal of Medway STC, 18 years after it first opened in April 1998, with internal security fences, pain-compliant methods of physical control and aggressive, uniform-wearing staff, I was hugely disappointed. It is nowhere near what the originating Home Security, Kenneth Clarke, intended back in 1992.

I thought it looked like a prison and the staff looked and sounded like prison officers — everything that the original concept set out to avoid and about which Parliament was assured would not happen.

The prospect of adding body cameras to the staff’s already extensive armoury (key-belts, key-pouches, key bunches, personal security radios, handcuffs and anti-ligature knives) is about as far removed from a therapeutic child care setting as it is possible to get. 


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