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Criminal Care? · 14 Jun 2018

Who’s treated better – puppies or 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 a panel member 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 promise you that this has reason and logic, it is just a very extended analogy, so please stick with me on this. It’s a little tongue and cheek, it’s not meant to be taken literally.

Let’s talk about puppies. Puppies need food, water, love, affection,  education, guidance and exercise. If any one of these needs wasn’t met we as a society would consider it to be abusive or neglectful. If a puppy wasn’t taught not to bark, is it the puppy’s or the owner’s fault when he barks constantly? I am going to go out on a limb and say, the owner’s. If a puppy isn’t given the opportunity to exercise enough and then they become obese, is that the puppy’s fault or the owner’s? Again I believe it’s the owner’s fault.

From 2014 to 2016 the RSPCA put down 366 dogs due to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, so that’s 366 dogs in two years punished for criminal behaviour.

Stick with me. I promise this has logic.

Now let’s talk about 10- to 18-year-olds. Children need food, water, love, affection, education, guidance and exercise. If any one of these needs wasn’t met we as a society would consider it to be abusive or neglectful. If a child was never taught it is wrong to steal would it be their fault if they stole or would it be their parent’s/guardian’s fault? It would be the child’s fault as they would be criminally liable.

If a child was never taught that it was wrong to hurt others, would that be the fault of the child or the fault of the parents who domestically abused each other? It would be the child’s fault that they committed the offence of assault.

Just for the record, I think it is wrong that any 10-year-old can be criminally liable for their actions and the UN agrees with me; they have stated that the absolute minimum age on criminal liability should be 12, although they want countries to make it higher. But that’s my personal view and I can’t change the world in a day.

The Department for Education reports that, in 2016-17, ‘1,580 children who were looked after for at least 12 months were convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand’, so that’s 1,580 children in a year punished for criminal behaviour.

Children have to wait 18 months to receive mental health support. On average, a looked-after child will have lived in three placements during this time

I am not saying that a child who commits murder or rape should not be dealt with by the criminal justice system. I am saying that children that have experienced neglect or abuse or family dysfunction should not be criminalised. They should have all of their needs met, they should be given food, water, love, affection, education, guidance, exercise and therapeutic support.

Looked-after children will receive food and water and usually receive some level of guidance, but let’s think about if they truly get these other needs met.

Do they always receive love and affection? I don’t believe so. The median duration of placements that ended in 2016/2017 was 140 days – that’s roughly five months. So imagine this … I take you from your home and make you live with complete strangers; are you going to feel genuine love and affection in five months?

Do they always receive education? Statistically they are better attenders than all children, which is positive, but by Year 2 only 32 per cent of looked-after children are reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths compared to 61 per cent of non-looked-after children, and this academic divide continues to grow throughout looked-after children’s education.

Do they always get therapeutic support? Well, 53 per cent of looked-after children aged 10 have borderline or cause for concern responses to strength and difficulties questionnaires, which are used to measure emotional and behavioural health, and 62 per cent of looked-after children are in care due to neglect or abuse. Which indicates to me they likely need some support.

But there has been report after report of children having to wait up to 18 months to receive Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) support. On average, a looked-after child will have lived in three placements during this time.

So what point am I trying to make? I am trying to say that as a society we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and see if we believe it is acceptable for us to criminalise children when their corporate parents aren’t parenting.

I also think there’s a moral argument in this about whether you should throw rocks from a glass house. This country is not doing enough for its children, but then it criminalises these same children.

Ella Dhillon

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