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Criminal Care? · 31 Jan 2020

Preventing criminalisation through effectively supporting looked-after children leaving prison

At the end of last year (December 2019), the Howard Legal for Penal Reform published a step-by-step guide to supporting children from custody into the community.

The high numbers of looked-after children in child prisons and the indicators that they are even more at risk than non-looked after children of poor outcomes after they leave prison are deeply concerning.

Action is needed from all the professionals working with children to ensure successful transitions out of prison which make it less rather than more likely that they will be drawn back into the criminal justice system.

The Howard League guide, though aimed at custody staff, is also essential reading for YOTs and social workers responsible for supporting looked-after children prior to and after release.

“While good resettlement work does not guarantee that children will do well, it does offer the best opportunity for them to change and become productive members of their communities”. (HM Inspectorates of Prison and Probation, Youth resettlement, October 2019)

Surveys carried out in 2017-18 by HM Inspectorate of Prisons at all YOIs and STCs found that over 44 per cent of children in STCs and 39 per cent of those in YOIs reported experience of local authority care before entering custody. In some institutions the proportions were significantly higher – 56 per cent respectively in Rainsbrook STC and Keppel YOI (Children in custody 2017-18).

The criminal justice outcomes for all children released from custody are bleak. The re-offending rate for children sentenced to custody is 69.3 per cent within twelve months, with those given sentences of less than six months having the highest reoffending rate at 77.4 per cent (Youth Justice Statistics: 2018 to 2019, Tables 9.7 and 9.8).

We can’t tell from these figures whether looked-after children are more likely than non-looked-after children to be propelled back into the criminal justice system. However, it is clear from the extensive experience of the Howard League legal team and from the evidence in the joint Inspectorates’ report that looked-after children are being widely failed by professionals who should be putting in place the structures and support to give them the best possible chance to reintegrate and avoid further criminalisation.

The Inspectorates’ joint report tracked a sample of 50 children (10 from each YOI) between October 2018 and March 2019. Researchers reviewed work done with children in custody and up to three months after release. Nearly a third of the boys in the sample were looked-after children. The report cited a range of serious concerns about the services these children received, including:

  • Failure of local authorities to provide addresses or even details of the area a child will be sent to until very close to release. In one case an address was not provided until the day of release. This is upsetting and difficult for children to deal with and it makes the planning of support services problematic if not impossible.
  • Failure to manage smooth transitions, for example, by introducing boys to new case managers and accommodation staff or organising release on temporary licence so that they could visit accommodation before release.
  • Education outcomes for looked-after children, especially those placed away from their home area was particularly bad, with none of those boys having an education placement ready for release.
  • Arrangements for much needed mental health support were frequently not put in place for release.

These findings reflect the experiences of the Howard League legal team. In the last quarter of 2019, the legal team was contacted on behalf of 46 children and young people with complaints against Children’s Services relating to accommodation or support on release from prison. Examples of cases that the Howard League worked on include:

  • A care leaver was released on home detention curfew after the Howard League successfully challenged children’s services to provide him with accommodation.
  • A 15-year-old was transferred to suitable accommodation close to his family after being released on home detention curfew to unsuitable accommodation.
  • An autistic 18-year-old, who had no placement the day before release was supported to challenge social services and suitable supported accommodation was found.
  • A 15-year-old child was supported to challenge the unsuitability of a placement arranged by children’s services, resulting in a placement which is closer to his family.

There is clearly an urgent need to improve support for looked-after children on release from prison. The Howard League guide gives practical guidance to help professionals plan for the release of looked-after (and non-looked-after) children. As the guide states, planning needs to begin early and involve all relevant professionals to ensure smooth transitions into suitable accommodation with appropriate services, placements and services in place on the day of release. It also contains guidance on children’s rights, including the child’s right to be consulted about their needs and preferences – with these being taken into consideration – and informed about what is happening to them in a timely way that takes into account any additional needs and vulnerabilities.

Particular thought needs to be given to finding the right placement for looked-after children with a view to providing stability and a chance to move forwards. As the Howard League’s publication, More than a roof overhead, shows, children who are released from prison want more than a place to stay; they want a home where, they told us, they can experience love, warmth, happiness, caring and safety. Children’s homes must be equipped with the skills to provide individualised emotional and practical support that gives children a home rather than just a bed.

“Every interaction a child has with a professional can help or hinder their positive identity development. It means that we need to reflect on everything we do in custody and resettlement … through an identity lens.” Professor Neal Hazel, board member, Youth Justice Board (click here to read more)

The Howard League guide complements the Youth Justice Board’s guidance on resettlement, which is a strategic priority for the YJB. The YJB advocates for a “constructive resettlement” approach to resettlement work, which emphasises the importance of enabling a child to develop a pro-social identity that promotes a positive future. Looked-after children often report feelings of stigma associated with that “label”. This negative sense of identity is further exacerbated by contact with the criminal justice system, an additional negative “label”, as highlighted by the recently published “British twins study”. It is part of the job of all professionals working with looked-after children post-custody, including children’s homes staff, to find ways to support and encourage children to develop a future-looking, positive sense of self-identity.

HM Inspectorates of Prison and Probation stated in their report that where agencies worked together well it benefited the child. They reported that although they had seen some excellent work where agencies were working together well and interventions and approaches were coordinated and integrated that this was only present in 24 per cent of cases they had looked at. Multiagency working needs to improve and, in the case, of looked-after children, it must include relationships with children’s homes that have the necessary staff skills and resources to support highly vulnerable children.

As ever, more and better data is needed to enable us to understand what is happening to looked-after children. The government does not publish figures on the numbers of looked-after children detained in the Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) that make up the child prison estate. We also don’t currently have the data to definitively compare outcomes for looked-after and non-looked after children.

Supporting children from custody into the community: a step-by-step guide was designed by the Howard League’s legal service which provides free and confidential information to professionals and direct advice and representation to children. In developing this guide, the Howard League has drawn on the charity’s legal work, as well as the views of over 100 staff working in secure establishments and almost 100 children across the secure estate over a two-year period.

Claire Sands


  • Helen W. says:

    One of the purposes of imprisonment is rehabilitation; to turn them into a new leaf. This article enlightens people that the process must not just stop after being released back to the community but they must be guided and as said to be look-after. We should support this to let those lost young ones back to the right track and as a result to have a lesser crime rate in the future.

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