Family contact in youth custody
Last week (29 March 2023) the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, published a report on family contact in youth custody. Her team of researchers found that many children had infrequent contact with their families, leaving them feeling isolated.
Last year there were an average of 450 children in custody at any one time, an historic low. While it is clearly something to celebrate that we are sending fewer and fewer children to prison, the reduction causes problems for those children who are in custody. Typically, these children are serving longer sentences and have complex needs, of particular concern is that most children are concentrated in just five Young Offender Institutions, meaning that many are far from home, away from family, friends, and wider support networks. Indeed, as of December 2022, 13% of children in youth custody were placed over 100 miles from home, creating barriers to meaningful relationships with families and the support they can bring.
All children sentenced or remanded to secure custody are entitled to regular visits from friends and family members, in recognition of the important role that family contact and support play in children’s mental health, wellbeing and resettlement outcomes.
However, the Commissioner’s research team found that 44% of children in custody did not receive a single visit from family or friends between 17 October and 13 November 2022. In YOIs, 50% of children did not receive a single visit from family of friends in this period.
As part of the study, researchers made unannounced weekend visits to secure settings to get a realistic picture of family contact and the barriers to it. Conversations with children and staff in YOIs revealed the following key findings:
- Many YOIs are beset with institutional failures to provide children with adequate family contact, despite their statutory entitlements.
- Low visitation figures are not necessarily due lack of resources, but inadequate leadership, poor oversight, and a lack of priority given to family relationships.
- On the days of unannounced visits to YOIs, visiting slots were substantially underused (for example, just 8 boys receiving visits of a total 80 population).
- There were inconsistencies between the policies published on institutions’ websites and paper information provided to boys.
- Children told researchers that financial and logistical support for visits is inconsistent and poorly communicated with families. As such, many families struggle to make the long and complex journeys which are often required to visit a child in custody.
- Children also said that visits are frequently cancelled, and often at short notice, due to understaffing and poor coordination.
For the great number of children in custody who have been placed far from home, phone andvideo contact is a lifeline to their support networks. One of the few positive consequences of the pandemic on children’s lives in custody was the rollout of videocall technology across the secure estate, universal provision of in-cell telephones, and a temporary reduction in the cost of phone calls made from secure settings.
However, this study found that many of the improvements made to virtual contact have been rescinded. Key findings included:
- Between 17 October and 13 November 2022 only 17% of children in custody had a video call with family or friends.
- Children said that video calls are difficult to access, beset with technical issues and glitches, and observed by a custodial officer – creating a tense and awkward atmosphere.
- In one YOI, researchers found that no single member of staff, of more than 10 interviewed, was able to describe the process for booking a video call.
- Children talked of the extraordinary cost of phone calls (around £1.40 for a 20-minute call in most YOIs). The costs of calls is prohibitive to children’s ability to maintain family relationships. The cost of calls in YOIs are far higher than those available to children in Secure Training Centres and Secure Care Homes, and far higher than the cost of calls in the community.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations to address the challenges facing YOIs. The Commissioner says she is confident that many of the issues facing the estate are not due to a lack of resource, and may be addressed with a renewed focus on leadership, oversight and ambition. The recommendations include:
- Requiring every custodial institution to appoint a member of the senior team responsible for family contact
- The Ministry of Justice should pilot a “Family Ambassador” scheme, in which an individual is responsible for liaison with each institution’s family contact lead and with the families of children in custody for whom they are responsible. This “Family Ambassador” should support families to understand and navigate their child’s journey in custody and to, as far as possible, help them to feel included in their children’s lives.
- The Youth Custody Service should develop an online family contact platform, containing accessible and up-to-date family contact policies and practical information about visiting a child in custody, including expense claims.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here