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Criminal Care? · 23 Apr 2018

Locking up looked-after children?

Dear Reader,

My name is Ella Dhillon. I am a care leaver but I am so fed up of saying that because I am more than that. I am a university student, I am an advisor on my local council’s fostering panel and I am a campaigner for children’s rights. I am opinionated and I am not afraid to share my views.

I am going to take you on a journey – the journey of a looked-after child. Not any specific child, just a child that has been created from plenty of stories I have heard.

Bob (my favorite random name) grew up in a neglectful household. His dad was not around and his mum could not cope; he did not always get his needs met. When he was 10, his mum met a new guy and he was sexually and physically abusive to Bob. (I am not being stereotypical here – 62 per cent of children come into care due to neglect or abuse, according to the Department for Education.)

At school his behaviour got worse; he was excluded for violence and was aggressive and rude. One teacher made an effort; he spent time building a relationship with Bob, and Bob then disclosed the abuse.

He was then thrown into a different world – the world of social care. He got a social worker, he was placed in foster care and everything he knew was taken from him. He was scared; all stability was taken from him and he was anxious about his future. He had never been taught how to speak about what he felt, so his behaviour was ‘difficult to manage’. This meant he got through five foster placements by the time he was 12.

During these placement moves he attended three schools and had gaps in his education. He had a lack of ambition and did not know his own self-worth. After his final foster carers felt they could not ‘cope’ he was moved into residential care more than 10 miles away from the area he knew.

It was a private residential care company, there to make a profit. The staff worked 16-hour shifts for minimum wage. They were undertrained and understaffed. Bob did not find anybody that he felt wanted better for him; he didn’t find anybody that he felt was going to be there for him long-term. So he fell back on what he knew – aggressive outbursts and violent behaviour – because, despite being in care for two years, no one had changed this pattern, no one had taught him how else to cope with his emotions and thoughts.

The staff did not know how to cope with his behaviour. They used restraint and consequences, but it did not improve the situation. After negative contact with his mother he came back to the home and went for a cigarette. He had a history of going missing so a member of staff followed him.

I am a care leaver but I am so fed up of saying that because I am more than that

Bob asked them to leave him alone and they refused, so he got angry. He blew smoke in the staff member’s face and was verbally abusive. The member of staff walked away, walked back into the office and called the police. This is where Bob’s journey with the criminal justice system begins.

The police come and take a statement from the member of staff. Bob is then arrested for assault for blowing smoke in the staff member’s face, he is held in a cell overnight and then interviewed in the morning. He is then released on bail and months later sent a letter stating that no further action would be taken.

The staff continue to call the police as a behaviour management tool in the residential home. Bob sees his peers arrested for offences ranging from smashing cups to threatening staff members and he is also arrested multiple times for similar offences, things that in a family home would go unreported or would be dealt with through sanctions and conversations.

This is his relationship with the police – he sees them as the enemy.

Before he turns 18 Bob moves to a number of other residential care homes and never stays long enough to get therapeutic support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services due to their ever-growing waiting lists. I am not being stereotypical here – according to the DfE an average residential care placement only lasts 98 days.

He then leaves care at 18 with a criminal record. Like 82.5 per cent of care leavers he leaves without any GCSEs. He does not know how to cope with living independently, he does not have a support network and he does not feel that he was taught the necessary basic skills to run a household.

He quickly gets into significant debt and finds himself homeless. This is not some stereotypical story – it is estimated that anywhere between 25 to 50 per cent of the homeless population were once in care.

So he steals; no one ever taught him that it was wrong, he never had a significant adult in his life that taught him right from wrong, he does what he needs to survive. He is caught, he is aggressive towards the police and is charged for theft and assault on a police officer. He pleads guilty and is incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Again I am not being stereotypical – in 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated that 27 per cent of the prison population had once been in care, and 4 per cent of those who left care last year ended up in prison within the year.

Society needs to help children like Bob; he did not have to go down this route

So what do we do? Well here is my opinion – society needs to help children like Bob; he did not have to go down this route.

We improve safeguarding in schools and we ensure that all teachers have specific and high-level training so they are able to spot the signs of neglect and abuse early and report them.

We increase the amount of foster carers with specific behaviour management training so that children are not put into institutionalised environments.

We help young people to be ambitious by being ambitious for them, by showing them that they can achieve and by nurturing them.

We demand that looked-after children should be getting an equal education to those who live at home.

We stop the privatisation of residential care – care for profit is morally wrong – and residential care workers need better training and better pay.

We start training police officers in what it means to be a looked-after child so they have a better understanding – so that they see us as people, not a problem.

We make care leavers’ support better, by offering more financial support, more social support and genuine care just as you would when your own child left home.

Then we create legislation that makes the discrimination of looked-after children illegal, meaning that criminal charges cannot be brought if it is in nobody’s interest to do so. I am not anti-police, I am simply saying that children should not be arrested for criminal damage for smashing a cup.

The legislation would also need to ensure that education is equal and fair, as well as access to justice and every other area of life because looked-after children are more likely to end up in prison than go to university because they do not have the same life chances. They are the state’s children: the government, the council are our corporate parents, we are their corporate children and this is what they do for us.

I cannot wait to get my Law degree and start to fight for the rights of children, but until then I am going to share my views and I am grateful you have stuck with me and listened.

Thank you

Ella Dhillon

We are asking children in care and young people who have recently left care, to write blogposts talking about their experiences and giving their views on what needs to be done to prevent the criminalisation of children in residential care.

The blogpost above was written by 18-year-old Ella Dhillon. Ella went into care two weeks before her 16th birthday. This blogpost sets out some of Ella’s personal views based on her experiences.


  • Ed Nixon says:

    This is a very useful contribution to the debate. We must be careful though that in describing this type of ‘care story’ and properly questioning stereotyping and labelling of children living in care we don’t do exactly the same to the professionals with whom those children come into care.
    Of course ‘care leavers are more than that’ but many police officers are very understanding and well prepared and trained in the skills to work with children in care to avoid criminalisation. Most children’s homes are privately operated because LAs close theirs as they are unable to operate cost effectively. Most residential teams don’t call the police. Very few children in children’s homes are criminalised (see ‘Narey’ report). We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all services including charities, private and public sector must ‘bring in’ more money than they expend – or they cease to exist. Most educationalists, law enforcement and social care professionals are that because they are motivated to help children.
    Of course all of these services could be improved and this is essential. But let’s describe what we see and can find evidence for not what we believe. If we do this we move forward.

  • Ross Ashley says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Never give up your dream . You are courageous and strong. I wish you all the best.

  • Mrs Jellies says:

    A superb piece of writing. I would add two further item to your wishlist.
    That ‘supported ‘ living providers are regulated, as without regulation no one has any comeback when these providers do not support the young person, especially when the young person is traumatised due to previous abuse and neglect and especially when camhs have not ensured that they have ongoing emotional and mental health support when they fall off the ’18’ yr old cliff.
    Secondly, where care leavers do have family or trusted adults that can and do support them at a distance, that those who are ‘supporting’ the Young person , be that support workers, the provider, the independent advocate, the social worker or the LA’s transition from care team ( or all of the above), MUST use those adults and they should be fully included the ‘team ‘ around the young person ( with their consent obs).

    Oh and debt – how support providers who may provide 24/7 support to a young person can allow a landlord to not make good, say, a massive internal water leak, which the young person gets a huge bill for, after they have been moved from said property and couldn’t / doesn’t have the capacity to inform utility companies and then get a debt collection agency chasing them for a bill that has grown exponentially to over a thousand pounds…….. And the support provider says it’s down to the young person to sort !!! It is a shameful way to treat a young person.

  • Thank-you Ella, a good reminder of ‘how the other 3/4’s live 😓 You have amazing drive & determination. Keep using this, a positive & enlightening gift. Respect ❤

  • Joy says:

    Thank you, Ella – this is so good.
    Bob’s case is so typical of the young people I see every week as a panel member on referral orders – anxious, frightened young people who have been moved from foster home to foster home and who are eventually moved into privately run residential care.
    Vulnerable young people are society’s responsibility and every one of them deserve and should expect the same life chances as every other young person.
    Good luck with your degree and I wish you success and happiness for your future.

  • Joanne says:

    Thank you for sharing this story, we need to hear many more people speaking out about their experiences in this way.

  • Christine Hopper says:

    Thank you Ella, this is a really excellent account of what happens in an uncaring system and an eye opener. I hope lots of people read this post.

    I wish you all the best for the future and your quest for a fairer and kinder way to help those who need support.

  • Dereck Chambers says:

    I was moved by your description of bobs journey because I see it every day at work. I work it a hostel for homeless young people and your description is spot on. We do what we can to make the environment as un institutional as we can, but it is difficult to make an old Victorian building with shared toilet and kitchen feel anything but an institution. In the past I have seen staff in meetings discussing a young person who has threatened staff or broken furniture, it doesn’t take long before the conversation comes round to consequences and choices. Never or rarely did anyone reflect on how staff handled the situation, what staff could have done differently to support this young person more effectively . We know try and work with clients with empathy and some understanding of trauma, we endeavour to help them meet their needs (not the needs of society or the hostels needs) . Ella is the sort of expert children’s services need, lived experience is worth 10 degrees. best of luck Ella.

  • Lisa Foo says:

    WOW! Brilliant blogpost. So well written. Thank you for sharing.

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