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27 Feb 2020

Brighter future for hundreds of children in residential care as criminalisation rate falls

Hundreds of boys and girls can look forward to a brighter future today (Thursday 27 February) as official figures reveal the positive impact of the Howard League for Penal Reform’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care.

Data collected by the Department for Education (DfE) indicate that, while the number of children being placed in children’s homes continues to rise, the number of children being criminalised is falling significantly.

It follows a concerted effort by the Howard League, police, Ofsted, the DfE, and some children’s homes and local authorities to address the issue. The programme began after the Howard League published research showing that children living in residential care were more likely to be criminalised than other children, including those in other types of care placement.

Academic research has shown that each contact a child has with the criminal justice system drags them deeper into it, leading to more crime. This is why the Howard League is working to keep as many children as possible out of the system in the first place.

The DfE figures show that the number of children living in children’s homes in England, who had been looked after continuously for at least 12 months, rose by more than 20 per cent in five years – from 4,050 in 2013-14 to 4,980 in 2018-19.

Over the same period, the number of those children who were convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand fell from 610 to 370. The statistics indicate that the proportion of children in residential care who have been criminalised has more than halved in five years.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Every child wants and deserves the chance to grow and fulfil their potential. We must do all we can to ensure they are not held back by a criminal record.

“Most children in residential care have experienced a range of problems early in life, from acute family stress to abuse and neglect. They need nurture and support, not repeated contact with the police.

“There is more work to do, but our programme is already starting to make a difference. If we build on this and help more boys and girls to thrive, it will not only transform children’s lives; it will reduce crime and make communities safer.”

The disproportionate criminalisation of children in residential care was exposed by the Howard League in 2016. A scoping briefing published by the charity highlighted a systemic problem across the country, where staff in some children’s homes would routinely resort to contacting the police, often over minor incidents that would never come to officers’ attention if they happened in family homes.

The Howard League has gone on to publish five more briefings on the issue, promoting best practice in policing and children’s homes and telling the stories of children who were criminalised while living in residential care. The charity also helped to create a step-by-step guide to help lawyers advocate for looked-after children at the police station.


Annual figures collected by the DfE show the number of children living in children’s homes who have been criminalised in the 12-month period to 31 March. The data only include children who had been looked after continuously for at least 12 months.

Year ending… Number of children looked after continuously for at least 12 months Number of children convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during the year Percentage convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during the year
31 March 2014 4,050 610 15
31 March 2015 4,200 580 14
31 March 2016 4,300 580 13
31 March 2017 4,470 560 13
31 March 2018 4,690 470 10
31 March 2019 4,980 370 7

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The figures were obtained by the Howard League through Freedom of Information requests. Full data can be made available on request.
  3. More information about the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care, including links to all briefings published so far, can be found on the charity’s website.
  4. In November 2018 three government departments – the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice – launched a national protocol on reducing unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers. The protocol was developed by a large group of stakeholders, including the Howard League, other charities, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Youth Justice Board, the Independent Children’s Homes Association, Ofsted, fostering and children’s homes providers, and representatives from local and national government. It can be read online.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
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