Criminal Care? · 14 Mar 2018
Effective policing can stop the unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care
It was the police who raised the issue of unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care with us.
When the Howard League visited forces to talk to them about reducing the numbers of child arrests, time and again we heard about high levels of call-outs from children’s homes, inappropriate call-outs over incidents the police felt a parent would have dealt with in a family home, and concerns about children from children’s homes being left in police custody for long periods of time, often overnight. On the latter issue, the police felt they were sometimes being used as respite care by homes that could not, or would not, cope.
We started to look into it and we were shocked by what we found. The police were right; children in children’s homes were being formally criminalised at excessively high rates compared to other children, including children in other forms of care.
Government figures showed that a child in a children’s home was at least 14 times more likely than a child who wasn’t in care to be convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand.
We published our initial findings and, on the back of what the police had told us, we received funding for a programme to explore and tackle the issue. We started visiting and talking to police forces to find out more from them about what was happening and what they were doing to address it.
Government figures showed that a child in a children’s home was at least 14 times more likely than a child who wasn’t in care to be convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand
We spoke to over half the forces in England and Wales; every single force told us of concerns and problems in their areas. The issue was often prioritised in forces for financial reasons; one force told us that it would be cheaper to post an officer on the door of a couple of homes in their area 24/7 rather than deal with each call-out individually because the homes were calling them so much.
Police resourcing is, of course, a perfectly valid reason for addressing the issue, however, we also found evidence of a genuine shift in police culture. Many officers were aware of and sympathetic towards the difficulties facing often very traumatised children and wanted to stop them from being criminalised and help them.
We were talking to child specialist and high-ranking officers and there was acknowledgement that this attitude was not yet as pervasive as it should be throughout forces, but we were impressed at the work that was going on to educate officers at all levels – to win hearts and minds, as one officer put it.
We found lots of examples of innovative and excellent practice around the country and some real success stories.
Dorset Police, together with partners from other agencies, had managed to reduce call-outs from homes by 49 per cent over an eight-month period.
We spoke to over half the forces in England and Wales; every single force told us of concerns and problems in their areas
West Mercia Police improved the number of calls from homes deemed to be an appropriate use of police time from a low of 18 per cent to 56 per cent in around nine months.
Sussex Police told us how they were rolling out child-centred policing throughout the force and of how they were working with homes to reduce unnecessary call-outs over missing incidents in order to focus resources on genuine safeguarding concerns.
West Yorkshire and the Metropolitan Police talked about working with Ofsted to tackle poor practice by homes. Kent Police had delivered training to children’s homes on county lines gang exploitation.
There was no forum for sharing these ideas so we gathered together what we had been told and put it all in a report, Best practice in policing, which we published in December 2017.
Police culture can improve or exacerbate problems such as this one. The Howard League supports the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s call for child-focused policing. We have seen that forces which embrace the principles of child-focused policing are leading the way in tackling the unnecessary criminalisation of vulnerable children.
It is not normal to have a policeman in your living room and it can be damaging to normalise police contact for children living in residential care
We also recommend that forces ensure they are able to monitor the problem through robust data collection and monitoring systems. It is certainly the case that what gets measured gets done. You need to be able to quantify the problem and monitor efforts to address it so that you can see what’s working.
We sounded one note of caution: many forces were, with the best of intentions, actively encouraging relationships between the police and children living in children’s homes. Research shows that unnecessary contact with children perceived to be at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system can result in ‘repeat and amplified’ involvement (McAra and McVie, 2010).
We believe that police strategies to tackle this problem should look for ways that actively minimise contact with children. It is not normal to have a policeman in your living room and it can be damaging to normalise police contact for children living in residential care.
We have been talking to lots of people about the unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care. It is clear to us that very often it is the police who are identifying and raising the issue and that they are often the ones driving improvements. This should not be the case; structures and support to prevent this from happening should be provided by the child’s corporate parent i.e. the local authority, and by the home. This should be monitored and regulated by Ofsted.
We are glad that the police are doing what they are doing, though. As the examples from Dorset and West Mercia show, the police are in a position to make a huge difference to the lives of very vulnerable children. The work that is being done is extremely valuable and we look forward to seeing more of it.