Criminal Care? · 23 Apr 2018
Locking up looked-after children?
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.
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.