Criminal Care? · 10 May 2019
Care-experienced young people’s interactions with the police
Become is the charity for children in care and young care leavers. This guest post from Sam Turner explores what care-experienced young people have told the charity about interactions with the police.
“When I was 11 my mum had me arrested after an argument. I was taken to a police station where I was searched and put into a cell to await being questioned. There wasn’t a toilet there and so whenever I needed the toilet I would have to ring the buzzer and wait for a police officer to be free to escort me there. I would have to walk past other cells, some you could see into. I remember it being very loud. People were drunk, screaming and kicking off as I was walking past. I felt very intimidated and unsafe.”
“I spent 19 hours in a cell with a hard blanket and a mat as a bed with no one telling me why I couldn’t go home… They were trying to work out what to do…. No one had thought to tell me I was going into care.”
We hear from lots of children in care and young care leavers about their lives – about their successes, their aspirations, as well as the challenges they’re facing. Unfortunately, we regularly hear stories about young people in care’s poor experiences with the police, often when they first come into care or after they run away from where they’re living. As noted in a powerful piece from a care-experienced young person posted earlier this year on the Criminal Care? blog, being reported as missing is one of the main ways in which young people come into contact with the police.
It’s important we continue to hear directly from those with lived experience
Recently, we spoke to some of the care-experienced young people who support our work about the personal interactions they’ve had. In this post, we offer accounts of some of the experiences they’ve kindly given us permission to share and relay what they feel needs to change, informed by their own experiential expertise. We know there are lots of police staff and forces who are doing great work to better support young people in care, but it’s important we continue to hear directly from those with lived experience about what more should be done.
Our own research has highlighted that young people often feel stigmatised as a result of their care experience and believe that the professionals in their lives – such as social workers and teachers – make unfair judgements about them. These perceptions also extend to the police. Care-experienced young people report feeling judged, as though criminality is assumed just because of their care status.
“Police were around quite a lot when I went to my first foster placement. They asked me if I was taking drugs – I’d never touched a drug in my life. They treated me like a criminal.”
“I ran away one time to get away, and the police came to find me. They picked me up at a service station. When they found out I was in care, they immediately started checking me for drugs. It had nothing to do with the situation. They heard ‘care’ and thought ‘criminal’.”
Within our Perceptions of Care report, 50 per cent of children in care and 51 per cent of care leavers agreed that ‘people think that it is children’s fault that they are in care’. Those we spoke to thought that knowing a young person was in care could potentially be helpful for police staff – especially if they were aware of how the impact of trauma and abuse can result in behaviour perceived as challenging, a message made clear within the recent national protocol on reducing unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers. However, there was equal concern about how this information could impact on how care-experienced young people are perceived and treated by officers.
“When I first went into care, one of them said ‘ah, you didn’t want to follow your parent’s rules did you?’. They made me feel like it was my fault that I’d gone into care. They think we’re badly behaved and that’s why we’re ended up where we are.”
“It’s difficult – should police know that the kid they’re looking for has been in care? They might have their own perspective on what that kid is like and how they behave, how they act.”
Everyone we spoke to urged police staff to listen more closely to what young people in care were saying. The National Strategy for the Policing of Children & Young People asks that “a full understanding of their circumstances should be sought” for those coming into contact with the police; this isn’t yet something which young people feel is reflected in practice.
“They never asked any questions. They never stopped to ask ‘why?’.”
“They want to get on with it, get their paperwork done. They don’t ask questions. I’m not sure if they actually want to know the answers.”
Although there is a recognition that police have specific duties to carry out, many wish the police had demonstrated more interest in understanding the reasons for their actions. They weren’t always sure who to talk to, and they didn’t receive the support they needed from adults who they were supposed to trust. The police were seen as unfriendly and uninterested at a time when they needed someone to proactively ask questions.
“Why aren’t they more curious? They know who they’re searching for. It’s not an adult, it’s someone who’s young and vulnerable.”
“They need to open their minds. If a young person runs away, then there’s obviously something wrong. They’re not just naughty.”
“You have to tell them a story that makes them feel sympathy. It’s the only way to get them to listen. I had to say to them over and over again – ‘please don’t take me home, I’m just going to run away again’. Only then did they actually start to listen.”
Police awareness about the needs of children in care and care leavers is improving, but concerns remain about how much this is filtering into everyday practice. Unlike in the Scottish context where corporate parenting duties extend to all public bodies including the police, policing bodies within England are only defined as ‘relevant partners’ who can ‘assist’ local authorities in applying corporate parenting principles.
“Care leavers ask for a phone call to their personal advisors and a lot of police don’t know what a personal advisor is, or if they do, they don’t see them to be as important as a social worker so won’t make getting hold of the PA a priority.”
“I don’t think they really understand what care means.”
The interactions that young people have with the police early in their lives can have a significant impact on their understanding of and attitude towards police in the future. The thread of those initial experiences runs through their lives and affects how they may engage with the police as adults. As identified by the APPG for Children in 2014, it’s all about trust and building good relationships between young people and the police, even before the point of first contact.
“Police need to gain more understanding, realise that what is part of their job is actually life changing for a young person.”
How do we ensure that some of the experiences mentioned above are not repeated for other children in care? Those we listened to wanted additional training for the police on what is means to have experience of care, but also recognised how police might respect and consider children and young people more broadly, particularly during those first interactions.
“They need to understand how to engage with young people, how they go about things. They need to remember that they’re dealing with children first and children in care second.”
“They should have training to reduce the stereotypes and stigma. Young people need to be in the training so they don’t just see children in care as a waste of space.”
We need to challenge the stigma faced by care-experienced young people, demand better listening from professionals including the police, and improve everyone’s understanding of what it means to be in or leaving care. The 75,000 looked after children in England and all those who have experienced time in care deserve nothing less.
Sam Turner is the Voice and Influencing Manager at Become