A new report from the Prison Reform Trust prepared by a group chaired by Lord Laming comes to eminently sensible conclusions. The Guardian reports that the main findings are that children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of a crime than other young people and that half the children in youth custody have been in care. The main recommendation is that great care needs to be taken not unnecessarily criminalise children who are in care.
The report points to the shocking phenomenon of children who are in care being dealt by the police in trivial situations that would normally be dealt with by parents, for example when a child “steals” food from a kitchen of a care home or when a teenager trashes his own room. Lord Laming is quoted as saying: “Most families deal with this sort of challenging behaviour within the family. Once the police are called, it becomes theft or criminal damage and it goes on the child’s record.”
In recent times I have reported in this blog on two other similar reports.
In August 2015 I drew attention to an excellent report by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission examining the rights of children in care. This says (page 158) that some young people in residential care are “… being penalised for offences in a way that they would not if they resided with their parents”. Police, it is said, are called out to deal with incidents that occur within residential homes, in circumstances which would never result in police action if the children were living with their parents. The report concludes that “… the practice of police involvement and potential subsequent engagement with the youth justice system (have) profound negative implications for young people’s subsequent life chances”.
Another report which I commented on in July 2015 points to similar practices occurring in England. The police regulator, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, produced a report (In Harm’s Way) which concludes: “We were surprised to find examples of children who had been accused of offences such as pushing a sibling, criminal damage in their (own) children’s home, or for wasting police time by running away from home. Sometimes, children were accused of lying or perverting the course of justice when their accounts of offences against them were disbelieved.” (Page 11)
In my view the Government needs to get a grip on this issue and provide clear and unambiguous guidance to police and care agencies that the criminal law is not to be used as an easy alternative to dealing constructively with challenging behaviour. Unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people is a form of abuse; it must stop.