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Criminal Care? · 29 Nov 2018

Criminalising children, the Department for Education and county lines exploitation

Earlier this week we saw the launch of The national protocol on reducing unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers by the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. The document, aimed at encouraging a multi-agency approach to the problem of unnecessary criminalisation, is described by the government as, “A framework to help social care and criminal justice agencies keep looked-after children out of the criminal justice system”.

The Protocol was developed over a period of months by a relatively large group of stakeholders, which included the Howard League, a number of other charities, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Youth Justice Board, the Independent Children’s Homes Association, Ofsted, fostering and children’s homes providers and representatives from local and national government.

The number of people involved meant that it was a far from straightforward process and the document reflects some of the different interests, perspectives and, to some extent, tensions, around the table. It is not a perfect document by any means but it is a big step forward in recognising and addressing the problem; we are pleased it is out there and we hope agencies will use it to develop their own local practices.

Every single aspect of the care children receive can protect them or make it more likely they will be criminalised

It is good to see the Protocol reiterate a lot of the messages we’ve been pushing in our programme around trauma, placement stability, out-of-area placements, data, criminal records, listening to children and young people and not calling the police for incidents that a parent would not contact the police over.

The Protocol also speaks to our contention that every single aspect of the care children receive can protect them or make it more likely that they will be criminalised. Importantly, it places responsibility for providing good protective care on the shoulders of every professional who comes into contact with children and young people and it stresses the need for co-operative, multi-agency working where everyone plays their part in supporting children and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

The prominence given to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the document, specifically children’s Article 12 rights to express their views and be listened to, is very welcome. I was particularly pleased with the inclusion of this statement: “Agencies should approach these conversations (i.e. post incident) with an open mind and be open to the possibility that fault might not lie at all, or in its entirety, with the child or young person.” To many this would seem to be stating the obvious but from our research we know that all too often children are not given the opportunity to put their side of the story across and unfair and damaging assumptions are made about them.

The Protocol also considers responsibilities towards looked-after children who are in custody and it stresses how children in care should not be disadvantaged because of problems around resettlement. The Howard League’s legal department has helped hundreds of children with resettlement issues and our Legal Director, Dr Laura Janes, advised on this section of the document.

The Protocol does not have statutory effect but it reiterates statutory responsibilities.

It notes also that criminalisation is an issue that Ofsted will be considering as part of its inspections of homes and local authority children’s services. In April 2018, Ofsted introduced a new requirement on its pre-inspection questionnaire for children’s homes to provide details of call-outs to the police resulting in arrests. We met with Ofsted last week and they made it clear that criminalisation is very much on their agenda and that they welcome contact between police forces and their inspectors around these issues.

We are also encouraged to hear the language being used by the children’s minister, Nadhim Zahawi, to talk about children coming into contact with the criminal justice system and his calls for vulnerable children to be helped rather than criminalised. In an article in the Daily Mail about county lines gangs on 27 November, Mr Zahawi was quoted as saying:

Children in care have often experienced traumatic events and faced tremendous challenges through no fault of their own.

We know they often do not achieve the same positive outcomes as their peers and, while the vast majority do not get into trouble with the law, contact with the criminal justice system can cause their lives to unravel and make it even harder for them to succeed.”

He goes on, within the Daily Mail article, to warn that children “may have been coerced and subsequently criminally exploited” by criminals which can include county lines gangs.

There is an urgent need to understand the criminal exploitation of children living in residential care

Through the course of our research we have heard many concerns about the targeting of children in residential care by gangs. Until now we have focused on the unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care but over the next six months we will be widening our remit to address these concerns with a particular focus on exploitation by county lines gangs.

On Tuesday, as the Protocol was being launched, we were meeting with Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball and Detective Superintendent Tim Champion, national police leads on county lines, at New Scotland Yard to discuss how we can work with the police on these issues.

There is an urgent need to understand the extent and nature of criminal exploitation of children living in residential care by county lines gangs. There is also a pressing need for professionals to be equipped with tools and training so that they can identify children who are being exploited, or who are in danger of being exploited, and protect them from criminalisation and other harm. We hope to shed some light on the problem and to gather examples of good practice to help professionals in their work. We will be blogging along the way and publishing a briefing on the issue next summer.

If you have anything to tell us touching on these issues, then we would be delighted to hear from you. Please leave a comment on this post and we shall get back to you.

Claire Sands


  • Irene Kidney says:

    I cannot agree with Mark’s comments. Children in homes are very vulnerable and when I was working as a social worker they were definitely targeted for abuse. Men in taxis would turn up at the door and the young person would run out with staff being unable to stop or restrain them.

  • Mark Black says:

    I have worked for many years both regulating children’s homes and managing homes.

    I have seen no evidence of young people in care homes being targeted by criminal gangs. The care, oversight and managing of young people far exceeds that of young person in a domestic dwelling.

    Children in residential care would be the most undesirable to join county lines or take part in exploitation.

    Any changes in behaviour, amounts of cash and appearance are constantly monitored and recorded.
    As a social worker my greatest concern in respect of risks and vulnerabilities is for children on the edge of care.

    These young people often have no eyes on them, they may refuse school, live nomadic lifestyles and be dislocated from their parents, these are the most vulnerable children in our society.

    Children in foster care and residential care are in the main safe and this is why safeguarding plans are often removed once they are placed.

    The mantra that children in residential care or foster care are therefore unsafe is a myth.

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