Sentenced to exile

Continuing support for looked-after young people when they are sent to jail is essential. But some children’s services prefer to sidestep  the issue, leaving the child feeling abandoned, writes Di Hart

Who is responsible for a looked-after child when they are sent to jail? It seems a simple question to answer but is one that still exercises social care chief inspectors four years after the High Court confirmed that children in prison are eligible for support under the Children Act 1989.(1)

Looked-after children and care leavers are over-represented in prisons: one recent estimate suggested that 46 per cent were, or had been, in care.(2) In theory, it should be easier to safeguard and promote their welfare through involvement of children’s services. The reality is different.

In one case a year ago, Mr Justice Munby ruled that a local authority’s plans for a looked-after child in prison were “little more than worthless”.(3) Why is this the case? One problem is the confusion surrounding the care status of looked-after children in prison. While those on care orders remain looked after, those who are accommodated voluntarily do not. The Department for Education and Skills has stated that such children should continue to receive support,(4) but hard-pressed authorities may not see this as a priority. Even where the need for ongoing involvement is uncontested, the continuing separation of “welfare” and “justice” services creates practical difficulties for front-line staff.

In recognition of these problems, the DfES commissioned the National Children’s Bureau to consider the care planning system for looked-after children and care leavers in prison. The project was informed by 12 case studies of individual children. The picture that emerged was one of fragmented planning and poor outcomes.

A recurring theme was the tendency of children’s services to disappear when children go inside. Social workers’ contact with the children during their time in prison was patchy and there was a perception by prison and youth offending staff that children’s services sometimes “heave a sigh of relief” when children go into prison because it allows them to opt out. Some social workers felt under pressure from managers not to visit children in prison because of scarce resources. Another deterrent was their uncertainty about how to remain involved when a child is in an institution where the social worker has no control and little understanding about how it works.

It is clear that continuing involvement by children’s services is essential. The children we spoke to listed many people responsible for helping them but reserved their highest expectations for children’s services, which are “like your mum and your dad”. This led to a real sense of abandonment if their social worker did not visit.

Children’s services must also remain involved because of their unique responsibility for providing resources. The primary aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending, not to promote children’s welfare. Youth offending teams (YOTs) and prison staff can never hope to provide the holistic support into adulthood that looked-after children need.

Complicating matters further, there are two distinct planning systems with no formal links between them: the looking-after children system and the sentence planning system. Practitioners talked about “gatecrashing” or “hijacking” each other’s meetings rather than having a clear structure to work together.

In the cases we looked at, the care planning process was confused when the child was imprisoned and normal review meetings did not take place. There were sentence planning meetings but social workers were either not involved or unclear about their role. This fragmentation led to gaps in the services available to the young people both in prison and on release.

The lack of children’s services involvement in planning can seriously affect the child’s rehabilitation. There was consensus about the factors that would improve the children’s outcomes, suitable accommodation and activities to occupy them. Yet there were problems in achieving these objectives, with some plans having vague statements of intent that they were “to be arranged”. The most specific aspects of release plans tended to be those relating to surveillance, such as arrangements for electronic tagging and reporting to the YOT.

Many of the children in our study were in difficulties soon after release. Only two of the 12 returned to their previous placement, the rest had to adapt to new arrangements or negotiated a stay with family or friends. Within three months most placements had broken down. Four children had returned to prison, others had re-offended and promised education or employment opportunities had not materialised. The children with the most rigorous surveillance seemed to struggle the most: electronic tags were cut off and reporting arrangements breached.

One factor that did make a positive difference was a feeling of being supported as well as monitored. Some children described relationships with individuals who they felt cared about them and would fight their corner. This was demonstrated partly by practitioners who “actually did something”, like attending appointments at the job centre, but one child valued his mentor simply because she rang to ask how he was. Again, though, this support is patchy.

Children’s and youth justice services need to work together from the point a looked-after child begins to offend right through to rehabilitation after a custodial sentence. This would require agencies to share information, co-ordinate plans and identify clear roles at each stage of the child’s pathway through services. Rather than handing responsibility for the child backwards and forwards, there would be an acknowledgement that all agencies have a part to play. The new social work posts within juvenile prisons will facilitate this process, as will the strengthened role of independent reviewing officers.

To aid practitioners, the National Children’s Bureau has drawn together the lessons from this project into a series of resources. The title for these materials was suggested by one of the children participating in the project and is a key message for all involved: tell them not to forget about us!

Cycle of imprisonment

Mathew was subject to a full care order when he went into prison but his social worker left and his case was still unallocated when plans were made for his release. It was decided that Mathew would live with his sister and be subject to an Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme and monitoring using an electronic tag.

It was believed that this would provide him with the structured activity he needed, including basic education and vocational training. There was no specified role for children’s services other than to provide financial support. Mathew says he found it difficult to understand the complicated timetable required by his ISSP; he could never work out where he was meant to be and missed some sessions.

The promised training failed to materialise and he became bored and discouraged. Children’s services gave him money but he still had no allocated worker. Tensions arose with his sister and her boyfriend and he decided to move out. His youth offending worker warned him he was breaching the conditions of his release and would have to return to court. Mathew gave up hope of surviving in the community so cut off his tag, used heroin and committed several robberies.

He was returned to prison within six weeks of release for breaching his sentence and for new offences. He was nearly 18 but was not aware of any pathway plan or arrangements for support from children’s services.

Di Hart is principal officer for children in public care at the National Children’s Bureau. She has a particular interest in the interface between welfare and youth justice issues and in children in secure settings. She worked as a local authority social worker and manager in children’s services before joining the NCB in 2002.

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This article looks at the crossover between social care and youth justice systems and asks whether looked-after children who enter prison receive enough support. It argues that social workers must continue to be involved in children’s lives to help them plan for the future and prevent them feeling abandoned.

(1) Commission for Social Care Inspection, Safeguarding Children: The Second Joint Chief Inspectors’ Report on Arrangements to Safeguard Children, 2005
(2) C Holmes, K Gibbs, “In safe hands”, Community Care, 18 March 2004, pp35-36
(3) R (J) v Caerphilly County Borough Council, 11 April 2005
(4) DfES, LAC (2004) 26: Safeguarding and Promoting the Welfare of Children and Young People in Custody, 2004

Further reading
B Goldson, Vulnerable Inside: Children in Secure and Penal Settings, The Children’s Society, 2002
Nacro, A Handbook on Reducing Offending by Looked After Children, 2005
C Taylor, Young People in Care and Criminal Behaviour, Jessica Kingsley, 2006
Voice for the Child in Care, Locked up, Looked After?, 2004

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