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Criminal Care? · 31 Oct 2018

Views from the cells

Picture the scene. Just before midnight a very distressed 16-year-old girl is brought into the custody area of a police station. We’ll call her Leah. She has been arrested for criminal damage, arising from a disturbance in her residential care home when staff intervened to prevent her from self-harming. A risk assessment conducted in a busy booking-in area sees her questioned about her history of self-harm, and reveals that she has a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition and suffers from depression arising from severe childhood trauma.

Previous experiences in police custody have resulted in Leah having a ‘marker’ on the force custody system for concealing blades on her person, and so she is placed in a cell with an officer sitting outside the open door, on ‘constant watch’, until an appropriate adult can attend at the police station the following morning. At this point she is strip searched. She is returned to her cell where she is held until early afternoon, during which time her various attempts to damage the cell, and harm herself, result in her spending an hour in handcuffs and leg restraints. A new placement has to be identified, since her residential home refuse to receive her back. She is finally released at 3pm, after 15 hours in custody.

Leah is not a single individual. The account above is a composite picture, drawing together data on the experiences of a number of children from residential care whilst detained in police custody. The picture arises out of a piece of research looking at the experience of young suspects generally in police custody, which has involved interviewing 41 children and young people with recent experience of being detained as a ‘juvenile’ (the police term for a 10-17 year old). The research also included time spent tracking and observing ‘juvenile’ detentions in three police force areas, and discussing the challenges arising from the detention of children and young people with a range of officers, and other professionals and lay adults, who work in police custody.

Leah’s ‘story’ is, of course, not representative of the experience of all young suspects with a history of residential care. However it captures a concerning pattern of experience for the more ‘vulnerable’ members of that group which I observed on several occasions in police custody, heard repeated in the accounts of young interviewees with residential care experience, and which resonates with examples raised by custody sergeants in all three force areas that I visited.

Happily, there seems now to be real impetus behind the drive to reduce the numbers of children and young people in residential care who, like Leah, find themselves detained in the police station. This is in large part because of the efforts of committed police officers and professionals in the care sector, now fostered by the work of the Howard League’s Criminal Care? project, as well as the recommendations of the Laming Review. Indeed when I was conducting observations in the second half of 2016, of my three observation sites, only one force area revealed evidence of disproportionate arrest rates for children in residential care. However, in that area 9 of the 17 ‘juvenile’ suspects tracked were in, or had recent experience of, residential care. Indeed of those 9, two young people experienced two lengthy periods detained in the same custody suite within the space of a single week.

Children from residential care tend to have harsher and longer experiences in police custody

Undoubtedly there is much work still to be done. However, I present Leah’s ‘story’ because it demonstrates an important point that emerges from my data.  Quite apart from the myriad problems which arise from the formal criminalisation of young people like Leah, the experience of police detention itself is often harsher for young people in residential care than others, with very concerning results. Her ‘story’ underlines the critical importance of further progress.

In my data young suspects from a residential care background tended to be detained for longer than other young suspects. The five longest detention periods that I tracked related to young suspects with residential care experience. Young interviewees who had been in residential care also provided histories with markedly long periods in custody in comparison to others. Difficulties securing an appropriate adult to attend from the children’s home, and arranging new placements on release, where homes refused to accept the young person back, could often, as in Leah’s case, be identified as factors in such long delays.

I was continually struck by the extraordinary resourcefulness and resilience of many of the care-experienced young interviewees, and suspects, that I encountered during the research. Nonetheless, like Leah, my research participants with residential care experience tended to have a number of ‘vulnerabilities’. Their diagnoses of emotional, developmental or behavioural difficulties and conditions, in particular ADHD, autism spectrum conditions and learning disability, often intersected with histories of severe childhood trauma and self-harm.[1]

The reality in custody is that safety and risk can trump welfare concerns

All police forces should treat young detainees as ‘children first’, and adjust their care to account for such vulnerabilities. Yet, however much a child-centred approach may be the aim of a force or an individual officer, the reality in custody is that safety and risk tend to trump welfare concerns. The result is that those identified as the most ‘vulnerable’ often undergo measures which result in a harsher custody experience. Not only is the risk assessment process, generally lengthy and not in private, likely to be more intrusive. But interview accounts and observations suggest that Leah’s experience of having a ‘marker’, which routinely triggers strip search or constant watch, is relatively common for care-experienced suspects regularly detained by the police. Additionally, for fear of self harm, such a vulnerable detainee is unlikely to be allowed to retain any coping or comfort item, or any personal effects likely to provide distraction during their detention.

Lengthy detention periods in a bare cell can be particularly difficult for a young person coming from the busy atmosphere of a children’s home. Some young participants described the distress of dealing with encroaching thoughts about difficulties in their life or past history, or worrying about whether their behaviour had jeopardised their placement.  Attempts at self harm in the cell, as with Leah, frequently resulted in officers feeling they had no option but to use force, or to remove clothing or bedding. Young participants were often reluctant to engage with medical or other professionals available for support. This was sometimes as a result of distrust, arising particularly from perceived collusion with the police, or from weariness at repeated professional input and questioning. Custody staff frequently identified that they had limited specialist training themselves, or lacked suitable facilities, particularly alternative accommodation, to enable them to adjust their care appropriately.

Unsurprisingly, such police custody episodes were commonly experienced by young people as punitive. In addition to their often traumatic experiences in the cells, young participants with residential care experience spoke of the disruption caused to their lives when long custody episodes strained relations with carers, prevented attendance at education or jeopardised family contact arrangements. But perhaps equally concerning is the anger, deep distrust, and sense of injustice that pervaded many young participants’ accounts of their treatment by police.

In light of what we know about the victimisation of young people, particularly those in residential care, this alienation is deeply concerning. Given the duty of care that we have to these most vulnerable of young people, it is crucial that we do not add further to their experiences of trauma and the barriers that face them in life. The more progress that can be made in keeping children in residential care out of police custody, the better.

Miranda Bevan is a PhD candidate at the LSE and was a winner of the Howard League’s Sunley Prize in 2014

[1] In line with prevalence research with young people in contact with the criminal justice system. See for example Jacobson, J. et al, Punishing disadvantage – a profile of children in custody, Prison Reform Trust, 2010.


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