Excessive criminalisation of looked after children
Looked after children living in children’s homes are being criminalised at excessively high rates compared to all other groups of children, including those in other types of care
Looked after children in all forms of care are being criminalised at a much higher rate than non-looked after children. Despite accounting for less than 1 per cent of the total population, a 2012/13 survey of 15 to 18-year-olds in young offender institutions, found that a third of boys and 61 per cent of the girls surveyed reported being in local authority care at some point. In 2013/14, 6 per cent of looked after children aged 10 to 17 had been convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand, compared to around 1 per cent of non-looked after children. In 2015, 37 per cent of the children in young offender institutions were looked after children.
The plight of young people in children’s homes
The Howard League report relies on official data, using information from the Department for Education. The chart below shows the percentage of children looked after for at least 12 months at 31 March 2013 who have been convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during the year: comparison between children looked after in children’s homes compared to other looked after children:
The chart starkly illustrates the excessively high rates of criminalisation of children in children’s homes:
- at 10 to 12 years, 4.2 per cent of children in children’s homes have been criminalised as opposed to 0.3 per cent of looked after children in other placements;
- the figures rise dramatically in the 13 to 15-year-old age group:19.2 per cent of children in children’s homes were criminalised at this age. This means that children in children’s homes are almost six times as likely to be criminalised as looked after children in other forms of care and nearly 20 times more likely to be criminalised than a non-looked after child of a similar age.
- the alarming rate of criminalisation of children in children’s homes continues throughout the teenage years, rising to 19.7 per cent for 16 and 17-year- olds. At this point children in homes are more than twice as likely to be criminalised as children in other forms of care and nearly 20 times more likely to be criminalised than non-looked after children.
The chart shows that levels of criminalisation of children in children’s homes increase dramatically between the ages of 13 and 15.
The children who are being criminalised whilst teenagers are the same children who, when younger, were sympathetically viewed as vulnerable, innocent and highly deserving of society’s help and protection. There appears to be a ‘tipping-point’ around the age of 13 at which time these children lose society’s sympathy and rather than being helped they are pushed into the criminal justice system.
The Howard League contacted every police force in England and Wales for information about the number of call outs to children’s homes and also discussed the issue with senior police officers who identified four key issues:
- private providers of children’s homes were using the police cells as respite to cover staff shortages and because staff were not trained and competent to deal with children’s behaviour;
- the police were picking up the pieces of a ‘social care deficit’. Children were being pushed into the criminal justice process rather than receiving the support they needed from local authorities and children’s homes;
- there was a lack of confidence in the standard of children’s homes and a perception by police that vulnerable children would be better cared for in the cells. These concerns had led to custody sergeants refusing private accommodation offered by the local authority; and
- when children in care were arrested, private contractors who run homes often refused to take the children back. Although there was a reasonable expectation that the home should let them back in, this was more likely to happen at midday the next day than at four in the morning.
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, speaking to launch the report, concluded:
These children have been taken into care because they are in dire need and their parents cannot, or will not, look after them.
They are wonderful young people who have had a really bad start in life. They deserve every chance to flourish.
Private companies, charities and local authorities that are paid a fortune by the taxpayer should give these children what they need and deserve.