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Criminal Care? · 6 Aug 2018

A different way to run children’s homes?

I was in foster care as a child and, though I moved around a lot, my experiences were broadly positive; I remember my foster parents with great fondness. Their number one priority was my well-being, and many of the opportunities that I’ve had in my life I owe to their support and generosity. However, this is not the case for many children growing up in care.

There are about 70,000 looked-after children in England and about 8,500 children in residential care, or children’s homes as they are commonly known. These children tend to have far worse outcomes than their non-looked after peers. Only 17.5% will get 5 A* to C grades at GCSE (inc. English and Maths) compared with 67% of children overall. For those in children’s homes, the figure drops to 4%. As a result, looked-after children are far less likely to go on to further or higher education and far more likely to be homeless or unemployed as adults.

There is also a significant overrepresentation of looked-after children in both the adult and youth criminal justice system: 49% of youth offenders have spent time in care, as have 38% of adult offenders.

The criminalisation of children in residential care

These statistics are of course shocking, but one issue that I found especially concerning was the level of criminalisation of children in residential care. These children are six times more likely to be criminalised than children in foster care and almost 20 times more likely than non-looked after children. Furthermore, these figures are likely to be significant underestimates as local authorities only report figures for children who have been looked after for at least 12 months continuously; most children stay in care for less than that.

Some have argued that pre-care experiences of abuse and neglect are responsible for the levels of criminalisation. For example, 71% of criminalised children in residential care have emotional and behavioural health of borderline or actual concern. However, it would be too simplistic to blame the criminalisation of young people solely on their pre-care experiences.

Much of the criminalisation comes as a result of systemic challenges within residential care. For example, police are regularly called to children’s homes to deal with minor incidents. Some research suggests that low levels of staff training and support in many children’s homes leave staff ill-equipped to deal with challenging behaviour, so the police are used as respite to cover staff shortages. Many children abscond from children’s homes, and it’s the police who are responsible for bringing them back.

A different way?

Last year, I visited Germany and Denmark as part of the research I’m doing for a new type of children’s home, to be established in the UK. My organisation, Lighthouse, intends to improve outcomes for looked-after children by creating homes based on the methods and practices of European Social Pedagogy, a widely used academic discipline which combines child psychology, philosophy, and practical methods for supporting vulnerable children.

Countries that use the social pedagogy model tend to have much better outcomes for children in residential care. There are homes in Demark that send 60% of children into university, and issues like criminalisation, homelessness and long-term unemployment are rare exceptions rather than the norm.

In Germany and Denmark, staff are well paid and well trained, requiring a bachelor’s degree in Social Pedagogy and experience working with children. Many hold Master’s degrees and qualifications in associated fields, such as child psychotherapy. This is a far cry from residential care in the UK. Pay is often around minimum wage and most staff have not completed an undergraduate degree. Almost a quarter leave their role every year.

The German and Danish models have a lot to teach us about improving outcomes and reducing the criminalisation of children in care. To implement these lessons over here, I believe that we need to do three things. Firstly, education needs to go to the top of the list of priorities for supporting looked after children, particularly in children’s homes where only 40% of children attend a mainstream school. We know from research that children who regularly attend mainstream education are at far lower risk of offending. Secondly, we need to do more to encourage capable, experienced graduates with high levels of resilience to work in children’s homes. These people will be well placed to manage some of the challenging behaviours witnessed in children’s homes and, in turn, reduce police call-outs. Lastly, we need a shift in policy towards not prosecuting children in the care system. Children in care have enough challenges to deal with and adding a criminal record helps no one.

Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang is a former English teacher and trained on the Teach First programme between 2011 and 2013. Inspired by his experience of growing up in foster care, he founded Lighthouse, a new model of children’s home designed to radically improve education outcomes for looked after children and due to open in 2020. Visit the Lighthouse site for more information.

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