Denham signals move to use crime as the hook for children’s policies

Should the main aim of services for children be to keep them out
of trouble?

For the government the answer is clearly yes. In the past three
weeks alone the Home Office has announced pre-crime panels, an
expansion of parenting orders, an extension of antisocial behaviour
orders, an antisocial behaviour unit, and the removal of child
offenders from their families to special foster carers.

In the summer Home Office minister John Denham announced a new
regime of identification, referral and tracking (IRT) for young
children deemed at risk of either offending, becoming teenage
parents or abusing drugs. Now it looks as if a green paper, due to
be published in the new year, will explore ways of reorienting all
services for children and young people so that they support this
agenda of intervening with those assessed as “at risk”.

So what does the future look like according to the minister of
state for crime reduction, policing, community safety and young

Denham says: “We are starting from the recognition that services
are frequently not well joined-up at present – that the same young
person may be of concern to a number of different agencies but
there is no way that the agencies would know of each others’
interest, let alone be organised effectively to respond.

“The green paper is to assess where we are at the moment – where we
will be in a few years’ time if we do nothing because obviously the
Connexions service is developing and Sure Start is extending to
other areas of the country. We also have behaviour improvement
programmes in schools and extended schools so there is quite a lot
happening to young people over the next few years – we need to take
account of where that is going to take us, then look at how we join
services up more effectively.”

Identification, referral and tracking is expected to be up and
running everywhere by next April. There has been no piloting and no
formal consultation with parents or with children and young people,
although forthcoming guidance will apparently exhort local
authority chief executives to involve children and young people in
developing local IRT systems.

Denham dismisses concerns that the impact of labelling and
stigmatising young children may outweigh the benefits of any
intervention, and says the proposals have met no significant
resistance from the agencies or professionals involved.

“The dangers are far greater when services don’t work together
effectively. It is not the system that prejudices the child, or the
fact that they are on a database of shared information. It is the
fact that the child is showing through their behaviour, their
educational development, self-harm, whatever it may be, real signs
of risk. That is what you are identifying and you are identifying
it so that you are able to respond properly.”

He believes it is important that people use the kind of information
that is going to be on a tracking system positively as a way of
meeting the needs of those young people. “But I’m confident that
the vast majority of professionals will want to do it in that way.
If teachers feel they will be able to deal with a child with
behavioural problems without having to exclude them they will want
to do that.

“I think we are not doing a good job for children at risk by saying
that the risk of stigmatisation – and you can’t dismiss it entirely
– is so great that it is actually better for schools, probation,
social services, Connexions, Sure Start projects and so on to all
work blindly without any knowledge of what the other is

Denham cites the example of the Scottish reporter system for
identifying young people at risk. “I am not aware of evidence that
it is regarded as failing because by going to the reporter they
have been labelled. In a sense they have been labelled, but the
test is are you then better able to meet their needs?”

One of the first questions for the green paper will be how wide to
cast the net, he says. “If you cast it too broad you can’t respond
to all the young people you are picking up. If you cast it too
narrowly you will miss some young people who are at significant

Everything will be up for grabs in the green paper – children’s
trusts, child and adolescent mental health services, education,
social services, and criminal justice.

Although the minister is leaving it to local agencies to design
their own schemes, he anticipates that there will be a tiered
response to individual children with a light touch for those who
warrant it.

“If, for example, a school was worried about a child’s behaviour
and social services were worried about the family, and the police
were coming across the same child and perhaps their siblings
involved in criminal damage, the ability to identify that common
interest might well provoke a common response from those agencies
without any formal system of referral. At a more serious level of
concern we’ll be wanting to look at something like a panel, so you
can put a package of measures together for the young person,
whether that’s care, or a parenting order, or making sure they have
a social worker, or the service they need from child and adolescent
mental health services.”

Denham accepts that many of the children identified as being at
risk because of bad behaviour are the same children who under the
Children Act 1989 should have been supported as “in need”. In
practice, local authorities have never used their money to
implement the preventive aspects of the Children Act, and social
services departments have focused their resources mainly on
suspected cases of child abuse. Now the government is expecting
mainstream health and education as well as specialist spending to
be re-oriented towards children and young people at risk of
becoming a public nuisance.

“Those local authorities that have done the most in this area have
begun to check whether their services are being delivered to those
young people most in need or whether there are other drivers in the
system which perhaps distort service provision towards those who
perhaps are not so much in need.”

So does he envisage that in a few years the assessment framework
for children in need will have been incorporated into an assessment
of children at risk? And is the government now needlessly
re-inventing the Children Act’s wheel? Or is it instead redefining
the objective from increasing children’s individual welfare to
reducing unwanted outcomes for the rest of us?

“Whether there would legally be one assessment is a very big
question. The way we are approaching the green paper is to look at
policy, and the outcomes we want to achieve – and then look at how
the law should reflect that. But certainly you don’t want a lot of
overlapping assessments by different people because that is going
to bring the same confusion back into the life of the child and its
parents as you can have at the moment.

He stresses that the issue is not purely about crime. “It is not
purely about bad outcomes for the rest of society from the way
young people behave – it is just as much concerned that they will
end up as runaways who get drawn into prostitution or drug abuse,
or have unwanted pregnancies. What I do think though is that you
cannot say that all young people are equally at risk of ending up
with those problems. It is widely recognised that there are some
risk factors, some early behavioural symptoms, which indicate a
much greater likelihood of running into trouble in the future – and
I mean trouble in the broadest sense. And it is that group of young
people that we want to pick up.”

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