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Criminal Care? · 10 May 2018

Young people in Scotland on why children in residential care are criminalised

Who Cares? Scotland (WCS) is an independent advocacy and influencing organisation working with care-experienced people. It has more than 2,000 members, of all ages, who have experienced care in Scotland. Over the past four years, it has spoken to many of its members about various aspects of the criminal justice system.

They found that there are many reasons why care-experienced people face higher rates of criminal convictions in Scotland. These include: over-involvement with, and a feeling of stigmatisation by the police; increased scrutiny through being in care; and a lack of understanding over the reasons behind children’s challenging behaviour.

They have written a report on their findings. We have pulled out a few of the quotes from the children and young people they have spoken to, which highlight some of the issues we are also encountering through our research in England.

WCS found that running away – going missing from placement – was a common reason for increased involvement with the police. One young person explained why she kept running away:

“The first time I ran away was from my family home due to neglect, I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of looking after my younger siblings… After a year in a foster placement I was asked to leave and was left feeling rejected and really let down by the care system that I had once ran to for help. I was then moved into residential care where I met other young people who frequently ran away. I was soon running with them.

“There were many reasons why we ran; I ran away from school because I faced bullying daily because I was labelled as ‘mental’ because I was in care, I ran away from residential care because I didn’t feel ‘normal’ and felt controlled by the care system. I also ran away home to my Mum’s house on a regular basis because I longed to be back home with my family and where I felt I should belong even though my Mum was unable to cope.”

Children and young people told WCS that some staff in children’s homes were too quick to call the police and that the police were used to ‘control’ children. They cite examples of the police being called for a child pinging a boiled carrot at a member of staff with a spoon and for smashing a plate.

“Young people in residential units are being ‘controlled’ by police coming out when staff can’t cope – this shouldn’t happen!”

“Staff working on night shift are quick to call police and this resulted in young people receiving charges. There is less staff on a night shift, so they feel more vulnerable. Night-time is a really vulnerable time for a young person when charged, they can’t contact legal representation or get hold of advocates.”

This young person spoke of how being known by the police led to increased police contact and scrutiny:

“The staff in my home called the police in for nothing and when I’m out with my pals the police stop me just because they know me.”

Young people told WCS that challenging behaviour was sometimes the only way they could demonstrate how they were feeling. They wished that professionals would recognise this and help rather than criminalise them.

“People noticed my behaviour, but not my trauma.”

“I turned getting into trouble as a way of communicating, like asking for help.”

“I’m not a bad person, but I get classed as a criminal. I’ve just got issues that make me do things, like having no family. And drinking makes things come to the surface.”

Young people spoke a lot about their experiences of the police, and of the difference skilled, child-friendly policing could make:

“My experiences with the police as a young person were mainly very negative, particularly within one local authority where I was labelled as a ‘trouble maker’, and I was often told that ‘police have better things to do with their time’ than run after me. I did however meet some really skilled and experienced police officers that took the time to listen to me, and did not judge me.  I believe that good training and an understanding of the care experience is crucial to the work of the police.”

One of WCS’s members, Dionne, has made a video in which she talks about being criminalised in residential care.

She speaks very powerfully and clearly about a range of factors which led to her being criminalised and about what did and can help children in her position. Do watch it.

Claire Sands


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