Frances Crook's blog · 15 May 2017
Our lawyers speak to children and young people in prison, as well as their loved ones and professionals who work with them every day.
More and more often, what we are told causes us concern that they have either been harmed or are at risk of being seriously harmed. This can include self-harm, harm by another young person, or the way they are being treated by the authorities who are supposed to care for them.
Safeguarding and child protection practice means that we take action when we hear that a child or young person is being harmed or is at risk of being harmed. Our lawyers either guide supporting adults through the process or, if this is not possible, we make safeguarding referrals ourselves. These referrals are not part of our legal work. They are designed to make sure that the people responsible for the child know what the concerns are so they can take appropriate action.
Our lawyers often phone and send emails to prison staff, the Youth Justice Board, and local authority social work departments, including out of hours. In the last eight months we have made safeguarding referrals on 50 occasions. In the last month, we have made safeguarding referrals about 14 different young people.
We regularly receive calls and emails from parents, who are frightened that their child is not safe in prison but who feel utterly powerless to help and support them
One of those referrals was on behalf of a 14-year-old boy, who had been assaulted by a member of staff and called us not knowing what he could do to stop what was happening to him.
A second referral concerned a 15-year-old boy, who called us to say he had been kept in isolation for three days. He was extremely distressed and told us that he did not understand why he was being isolated.
A third was on behalf of a 16-year-old, who had been subject to racist abuse by a prison officer. He reported the abuse but remained on the same wing as the officer he had complained about and felt unsafe.
Another concerned a 17-year-old boy, who had told staff that he felt suicidal. His mother was concerned that, despite this information, nobody came to talk to him for an hour and a half.
We have sometimes received hostile telephone calls from prison officers, telling us that the young people we are calling about are a nuisance and urging us not to take them seriously
We regularly receive calls and emails from parents, like the mother in the post-script of my last blog, who are frightened that their child is not safe in prison but who feel utterly powerless to help and support them. Parents have often told us that they have not been informed when their child has been assaulted or taken to hospital.
We check that these safeguarding referrals have been received. The point of these referrals is to make sure that the people in charge know everything they ought to know to make sure the children and young people in their care are safe. We get very different reactions to the referrals we make. Sometimes, we are thanked for our trouble. The Youth Justice Board has told us that it follows up on the referrals we make.
Too often, we are provided with requests to fill out forms if the matter is to be explored by the statutory agency. That was the response we received from the local authority designated officer for the safeguarding referral about the child who was threatening to kill himself recently.
Worse still, we have sometimes received hostile telephone calls from prison officers, telling us that the young people we are calling about are a nuisance and urging us not to take them seriously.
Children in prison are children, and should be afforded the same protection from danger and violence as any child
Making referrals to highlight information of concern is standard safeguarding procedure. Last summer, we met with the regional heads of safeguarding for the prison service to talk about how to make sure we can do this effectively. We received a warm reception from senior management, but that needs to be replicated throughout the entire system.
It is not rocket science – if you contacted someone in authority about the well-being and safety of a child you knew in the community, you would expect those concerns to be taken seriously.
Children in prison are children, and should be afforded the same protection from danger and violence as any child.