The offending rate of looked-after children varies widely from area to area. Helen McCormack finds out why
The importance of keeping looked-after children away from the police is obvious, given the high proportion of adult prisoners who have been through the care system.
But government figures on outcomes for looked-after children in the year to September 2005 show ministers have made little progress towards meeting a 2002 target to cut offending among looked-after children to 7 per cent.
The figures show big disparities in offending rates and trends between councils.
The offending rate for looked-after children aged over 10, from 2002-3 to 2004-5, has remained at above 9 per cent – two-and-a-half times the general population rate.
However, rates rose from 13 per cent to 25 per cent in the Isle of Wight over the same period but fell from 10 per cent to zero in Ealing, west London. And while Ealing’s figure compares with a 3 per cent offending rate among all children aged 10-17 in the borough, offending rates by looked-after children in several other areas were more than five times the area average.
Many of the areas with the highest rates have low numbers of looked-after children, meaning small changes in the number of crimes can cause large changes in percentage rates.
Chris Stanley, head of youth crime at crime-reduction charity Nacro, claims the disparities can be partly explained by differences in practice, including quality of staff and superior training in early interventions.
There is a growing recognition at some authorities that the threshold for police intervention needs to be raised, he says.
“Children have been unnecessarily criminalised for behaviour that would be tolerated in a ‘normal’ family, and would never result in the police being called,” Stanley adds.
Although some councils have addressed this problem in recent years, others may be spurred on by the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to produce revised guidance last month for offending behaviour in residential homes.
Stanley says: “Magistrates were seeing children in the court for having thrown a cup across the room. They were saying ‘we do not know what to do with these children’. Court was not the solution for them.”
A focus on addressing when staff should call the police has been a key priority for James Clarke, who heads the looked-after children team at Liverpool Council, where offending rates fell from 10 per cent in 2002-3 to 6 per cent last year.
Staff are now expected to account for every 999 call to a manager. The approach initially met with a negative response, Clarke says, but training has helped those suited to the role to adapt. “You are trying to avoid the position where they are brought to the attention of the police, where a pattern of offending can then emerge,” says Clarke.
“You have to contextualise the matter and realise that when a child walks out of a phone box and kicks you in the shin after his mother has told them him she doesn’t love him, that is quite different to when an adult does, and the response needs to be different also.”
Foster parents are also expected to sign agreements stating they will not intentionally criminalise children in their care, he adds.
The sometimes fractious relationship between youth offending teams and children’s services is often blamed when a looked-after child is criminalised, and building a strong relationship has been crucial for the council, Clarke adds.
This approach also worked for Lewisham, where offending rates have fallen from 12 to 3 per cent since 2002-3.
Ann McDermott, youth offending team manager at Lewisham, says it was crucial to develop more effective relationships between her team and children’s services.
“The relationship between Yots and children’s services has always been challenging, but it is about not abdicating responsibility to each other,” she adds.