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We must stop criminalising young people in care

1st report in 2-year Howard League campaign finds that children living in residential care are 15 times more likely to be criminalised than other children.

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15 times more likely to be criminalised

The criminalisation of children in residential care risks compounding a sense of rejection and damaging children’s mental health and emotional well-being.

That’s the headline finding of new research published by the Howard League for Penal Reform last week (10 July 2017) in the first of a series of reports under the leadership of Environment (and previous Justice) Secretary, Michael Gove, himself in care as a child.

A briefing paper, which tells the stories of several children supported by the charity, recommends that children’s homes and police need to be aware of the damage  caused by frequent placement moves and other instabilities, such as changes of social worker or school.

Key facts and figures

  • The state was corporate parent to 100,800 children between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016.
  • The number of looked after children has increased by more than 5 per cent since 2012 and is now higher than at any time since 1985.
  • The majority of children (74%) are living with foster carers. The rest are looked after in children’s homes, secure units, residential schools, hostels or they are living at home with their parents under the supervision of social services.
  • On 31 March 2014 (latest figures available), 5,220 children were living in children’s homes.
  • Approximately one in six children living in residential care are formally involved in the criminal justice system compared to about 1% of all other children.

  • 71% of criminalised children living in residential care were found to have emotional and behavioural health that was of borderline or actual concern.
  • 70% of criminalised children had been taken into care because of acute family stress, family dysfunction, parental illness/disability or absent
    parenting. An additional 14% were taken into care primarily because of abuse or neglect.

Case studies

The briefing contains the stories of young people helped by the Howard League’s specialist legal team, all of whom were criminalised whilst living in a children’s home. The stories are based on anonymised material and pseudonyms are used throughout.

Sarah had a row with one of the care home workers; she threw a mug, which broke and a piece caught one of the carers on the jaw. There was no lasting mark. One of the carers later told the police that as soon as the mug was thrown one of the carers had said that they needed to call the police. 

Sarah was arrested at the children’s home at around 1am and taken away in handcuffs.


Alex came into care at the age of 13; in two years he has moved between 11 placements, the longest lasting four months. The placements were a mix of foster care and residential children’s homes. They were in a variety of locations, some many miles from his home and outside his home local authority. When a placement couldn’t be found, Alex was sometimes moved back in with his parents for short periods until they said they couldn’t cope and asked for him to be taken back into local authority care.

Alex was diagnosed with several medical conditions which affected his behaviour and emotional well-being, including ADHD and Aspergers. A social worker reported that due to Alex’s constant moves every six to eight weeks, he had been unable to access much-needed services. Another social worker concluded that Alex had not had the opportunity to address the issues in his life because of his many changes of accommodation.

Alex’s education was badly affected by the constant moves, even though he was assessed by a professional as being very capable educationally. In one placement he successfully applied for an apprenticeship but this opportunity was lost when another placement broke down and he was moved on again.

The impact on Alex’s emotional well-being was noted by professionals: one social worker characterised Alex as feeling uncared for and ascribed this to his apparent lack of empathy for others. The case notes suggest that Alex’s feelings were accurate; in addition to the many moves, there are references to a care home manager telling the police that the home no longer wanted Alex to live there following damage to items valued at under £10. Alex was keenly aware that the manager wanted to get rid of him; he told the police that he had been in lots of different homes in the past and that he knew the manager didn’t want him in this one.

Rosie intervened in an argument between two other girls at a children’s home she had recently been moved to against her wishes. The argument became heated and one of the girls accused Rosie of grabbing her hair and spitting at her.

The home called the police and Rosie was later stopped in the street by the police and arrested for assault. After several months of uncertainty, the Crown Prosecution Service informed Rosie that she would not be prosecuted.


Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

The criminalisation of children in residential care should be a national concern and the Howard League is working to address this issue with interested parties across the country – from police forces to residential care providers and government agencies such as Ofsted.

The Howard League’s legal team, which works with children and young people in trouble with the law, has plentiful evidence that the damage caused by multiple rejections is  at the heart of individual stories of young people caught up in the criminal justice system.

For many children, they may feel rejection from being taken into care, may be rejected and excluded from school, and then, once in the care system, they face a series of rejections through changes in care placements and social workers. These feelings of rejection can be compounded if children are criminalised and not supported in the appropriate way.

Challenging behaviour must be recognised for what it is. Children’s homes and police ought to respond sensitively so that children do not have their life chances blighted by an unnecessary criminal record.



Blog posts in the Criminal Justice category are kindly sponsored by Get the Data which provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society. GtD has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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