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Criminal Care? · 27 Apr 2018

Working with Essex Police to reduce the unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care

We have been greatly encouraged and pleased by the response from the police to our briefing on good practice in policing children’s homes, which we published in December.

Forces have been getting in touch to ask for more information and to tell us about their own good practices and commitments to reduce the unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care in their areas.

One of the first forces to contact us was Essex Police. They were keen to learn from the research we had done in order to improve responses to children living in residential homes in their area. They organised a full day’s training event focused on reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care and we were asked along to talk about our work.

The force used the training opportunity to improve partnerships with other professionals and the group on the day was a mix of police officers, magistrates and YOT workers. We heard presentations from Dick Madden, Cabinet Member for Children and Families on Essex County Council; Andrew Dickie of the charity Coram Voice (more about his talk in a moment); Anna Skinner of Sussex Police, who talked about her force’s excellent Youth Ambassadors scheme (see our briefing for more info on that); and Andrew Cawthorpe of the Prince’s Trust.

Project Advocate aims to provide advocacy services to children in care and care leavers up to the age of 25 years in Southend, Essex and Thurrock

One of the themes that kept coming up throughout the day was of how children in residential homes often spoke about not being listened to and the practical and emotional implications this had for them. “No-one’s listening to me” were words the police often heard when attending incidents at children’s homes.

People also raised concerns about the lack of support available to many children living in children’s homes, particularly those who had been placed away from their home area and of how this could impact on children’s well-being and behaviour.

We heard that Essex Police are addressing these types of concerns by launching a joint project with Coram Voice and the Southend, Essex and Thurrock Local Authorities. Project Advocate aims to provide advocacy services to children in care and care leavers up to the age of 25 years in Southend, Essex and Thurrock.

Police officers are able, with the consent of the child, to fill in a very short electronic form requesting advocacy services, which is then sent through via a secure system to Coram Voice.

Coram commit to trying to make contact with the child or young person within 24 hours of receiving the referral to get the child in contact with the correct local advocacy provider.

Our own presentation sparked considerable discussion and debate

Advocates can just be an ear for the child, they can help them with specific problems, they can signpost them to other services and they can be a champion and support for children who don’t have an adult they can easily turn to. The advantage of Project Advocate is that it standardises advocacy services right across the county and also allows children in Essex who have been placed out-of-county to access advocacy services

The police are hoping that this type of support will lead to reduced call-outs and that it will help prevent unnecessary criminalisation.

Our own presentation sparked considerable discussion and debate, particularly in relation to the amount of contact the police should be having with children living in children’s homes.

We advocate for police strategies that lead to the least possible contact between the police and children living in residential care. This is sometimes a difficult principle for police to take on board when they’re dealing with children who are not getting the support they should be from children’s homes and social services.

We find that police officers are taking on roles that ought to be filled by children’s homes staff and social workers – they try to become a trusted adult in that child’s life, often in order to help safeguard children and keep them out of trouble. We commend the commitment of these officers while calling on forces to put strategies in place that shift responsibilities to where they should lie and reduce unnecessary police contact.

It was a fantastic day and wonderful to see the level of understanding of the difficulties facing children living in residential care, and the commitment to child-focused policing and the reduction of unnecessary criminalisation.

We wish Essex Police every success in their ongoing initiatives and look forward to hearing how work progresses.

Claire Sands

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