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10 Jul 2017

Criminalisation of children in residential care should be “a national concern”

The criminalisation of children in residential care risks compounding a sense of rejection and damaging children’s mental health and emotional well-being, research published by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveals today (Monday 10 July).

A briefing paper, which tells the stories of several children supported by the charity, recommends that children’s homes and police need to be aware of the damage  caused by frequent placement moves and other instabilities, such as changes of social worker or school.

Children aged 16 and 17 living in children’s homes are 15 times more likely to be criminalised than other children of the same age. Instead of being criminalised, these children need acceptance, stability, affection, help and support.

Like any child, children who are criminalised while living in children’s homes have great potential to live fulfilled and successful lives. Opportunities are being missed to recognise their potential and to provide the environment and support to enable them to thrive.

The briefing is the first of a series to be published as part of a two-year Howard League programme to end the criminalisation of children living in residential care.

During the programme, the charity will seek to clarify why so many children in children’s homes find themselves in trouble and to work with police and children’s homes to identify examples of best practice to prevent their unnecessary criminalisation.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The criminalisation of children in residential care should be a national concern and the Howard League is working to address this issue with interested parties across the country – from police forces to residential care providers and government agencies such as Ofsted.

“The Howard League’s legal team, which works with children and young people in trouble with the law, has plentiful evidence that the damage caused by multiple rejections is  at the heart of individual stories of young people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“For many children, they may feel rejection from being taken into care, may be rejected and excluded from school, and then, once in the care system, they face a series of rejections through changes in care placements and social workers. These feelings of rejection can be compounded if children are criminalised and not supported in the appropriate way.

“Challenging behaviour must be recognised for what it is. Children’s homes and police ought to respond sensitively so that children do not have their life chances blighted by an unnecessary criminal record.”

It is not known exactly how many children are being criminalised while they are living in children’s homes. Local authorities are only required to tell the government about convictions by children who have been looked after continuously for at least 12 months. This means that data is not collected on the criminalisation of children if they are in care for less than 12 months.

Given that more than half of children who left care during the year 2015-16 had been in care for under a year (in their latest period of care), it seems likely that official figures hugely under-represent the extent of the problem.

The briefing reveals that 71 per cent of children who were criminalised in 2015-16 while living in residential care, for whom data is available, were found to have emotional and behavioural health that was of borderline or actual concern.

Seventy per cent were taken into care because of acute family stress; family dysfunction; parental illness or disability; or absent parenting. An additional 14 per cent were taken into care primarily because of abuse or neglect.

Case studies

The briefing contains the stories of young people helped by the Howard League’s specialist legal team, all of whom were criminalised whilst living in a children’s home. The stories are based on anonymised material and pseudonyms are used throughout.


Sarah had a row with one of the care home workers; she threw a mug, which broke and a piece caught one of the carers on the jaw. There was no lasting mark. One of the carers later told the police that as soon as the mug was thrown one of the carers had said that they needed to call the police.

Sarah was arrested at the children’s home at around 1am and taken away in handcuffs.


Alex came into care at the age of 13; in two years he has moved between 11 placements, the longest lasting four months. The placements were a mix of foster care and residential children’s homes. They were in a variety of locations, some many miles from his home and outside his home local authority. When a placement couldn’t be found, Alex was sometimes moved back in with his parents for short periods until they said they couldn’t cope and asked for him to be taken back into local authority care.

Alex was diagnosed with several medical conditions which affected his behaviour and emotional well-being, including ADHD and Aspergers. A social worker reported that due to Alex’s constant moves every six to eight weeks, he had been unable to access much-needed services. Another social worker concluded that Alex had not had the opportunity to address the issues in his life because of his many changes of accommodation.

Alex’s education was badly affected by the constant moves, even though he was assessed by a professional as being very capable educationally. In one placement he successfully applied for an apprenticeship but this opportunity was lost when another placement broke down and he was moved on again.

The impact on Alex’s emotional well-being was noted by professionals: one social worker characterised Alex as feeling uncared for and ascribed this to his apparent lack of empathy for others. The case notes suggest that Alex’s feelings were accurate; in addition to the many moves, there are references to a care home manager telling the police that the home no longer wanted Alex to live there following damage to items valued at under £10. Alex was keenly aware that the manager wanted to get rid of him; he told the police that he had been in lots of different homes in the past and that he knew the manager didn’t want him in this one.


Rosie intervened in an argument between two other girls at a children’s home she had recently been moved to against her wishes. The argument became heated and one of the girls accused Rosie of grabbing her hair and spitting at her.

The home called the police and Rosie was later stopped in the street by the police and arrested for assault. After several months of uncertainty, the Crown Prosecution Service informed Rosie that she would not be prosecuted.

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. Ending the criminalisation of children in residential care: Briefing one can be downloaded here.
  3. Information about the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care can be found on the Howard League website.
  4. The Howard League briefing, Child arrests in England and Wales 2015, can be downloaded here.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system

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