Home Office looks to children’s homes in bid to bypass prisons

Are open children’s homes suitable settings for young offenders seeing out the custodial part of their sentences? The Home Office and some prison reform groups appear to think so, but many professionals disagree, find Maria Ahmed and Helen McCormack

There are fears that the spirit of the criminal care order, repealed in 1989, could be back in the guise of a Home Office proposal to allow certain young offenders to see out the custodial part of their sentences in open children’s homes.

Published in the Offender Management Bill in November, the clause is designed for those sentenced to detention and training orders – currently served half in young offender institutions and half in the community.

The plan has sharply divided the social care and criminal justice sectors, with children’s services leaders and magistrates vehemently opposed and penal and children’s charities broadly in favour, provided safeguards are put in place. But how worried should practitioners be?

Confirm to Barnet if article about them usedPotentially, very, according to the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Magistrates’ Association. Neither were consulted on the proposal. Paul Fallon (pictured left), joint chair of the ADSS children and families committee is concerned the government’s agenda is being driven by the pressures of record prison populations. 

“Beds in children’s homes should not be hijacked to alleviate prison numbers,” he says, adding that the proposal goes against the Children Act 1989, which repealed the criminal care order. “The triumph of the Act was the removal of the option for children to go into care as punishment for crime. We jeopardise this principle at our peril.”

Serious offenders
Concerns centre on the impact on looked-after children already living in homes where placements are made. The Home Office states that offenders and non-offenders could be housed together, but emphasises that serious offenders will not be considered and “full account” of the needs of other children in the home will be considered, with the offender “fully risk assessed”.

But Magistrates’ Association youth justice lead John Fassenfelt says most young offenders given a DTO will fall into the serious offender bracket.

“We don’t put anybody on a DTO unless it is necessary. It’s not just for minor offences. Looked-after children could be put at risk,” he says.

For Fallon, the plan to mix the two could create a volatile situation which goes against social care principles for looked-after children. “It would be difficult to say to children in residential care ‘this is your home’ and then tell them these other children are being parachuted in as part of punishment for crime.”

Although there is no indication of how many offenders on DTOs will be considered for open children’s homes placements, the Home Office says it would be the minority. But with around 6,500 orders – which range in length from four months to two years – given out in 2005, the numbers could still place a significant burden on the children’s home sector, currently accommodating around 8,600 children.(1)

The department might well be expecting to utilise some of the 30-40 per cent spare capacity in open children’s homes identified  in a Department for Education and Skills report published this autumn.(2)

But Jonathan Stanley, head of the National Centre for Excellence in Childcare at the National Children’s Bureau, says the findings were incorrectly based on the maximum number of places and did not allow for empty spaces to act as a buffer.

“That capacity doesn’t exist”, he says. Among those calling for more funding are Martyn Reid, development officer at the Independent Children’s Home Association, which represents over half of the independent children’s homes in England and Wales. He points to the closure of some homes as councils make fewer residential placements and says the home care market is “very volatile”.

With the Youth Justice Board and magistrates already arguing that insufficient staff guidance on behaviour management is leading to looked-after children being “fasttracked” into the criminal justice system, more training would be needed to manage  offenders, Reid adds.

He adds that the legal framework for open children’s homes might have to change. “Placing restric tions on children’s liberty would be a problem unless homes were defined as secure units,” he says.

Using existing beds in Local Authority Secure Children’s Homes (Laschs) – which have been running high vacancies – should be considered as an alternative to the plans, according to both Reid and Fallon. But the Secure Accommodation Network, which represents all 24 Laschs in England and Wales, says that so far there has not been any suggestion that they could be converted to open settings. 

Support for the plan
Each of the eight children’s and penal reform charities contacted by Community Care support the proposal, because of the positive impact it could have on the welfare and reoffending rates of young, often vulnerable, people entering the criminal justice system. But concerns that the proposal could lead to more DTOs being given out have also been raised.

Barnardo’s principal policy officer Pam Hibbert warns the courts must not see the plan as providing “a fresh supply” of prison places. Many charities, including the  NSPCC, NCH and A National Voice, which is run by looked-after children, believe foster placements for young offenders might be more suitable alternatives to children’s homes.

Any potential benefits the plan might bring, they add, will be lost if the Home Office is planning to execute this as a “cheap option”.

For David Coulter, youth justice lead at the NSPCC, priority will need to be placed on the needs assessments of both the young offender and the looked-after child, ensuring that any placement does not conflict  either child’s needs.

But most charities take issue with the idea that looked-after children would be unfairly stigmatised by living with those seeing out a sentence.

Chris Wright, Rainer services director, sums up their view: “Many looked-after young people manifest the same difficulties and problems as young offenders. They don’t necessarily commit offences but their backgrounds are not dissimilar.

“The [prison population] pressures are so great that it is almost forcing people to think differently about what to do. This really is an opportunity to look at alternatives for vulnerable young people.” 

Detention and training orders were introduced in 2000. Anyone given a DTO is sent to secure accommodation for the custodial part of their sentence. A youth offending team then oversees the education and training part of the order which takes place in the community.

DTOs are for repeat offenders or those who pose a high risk and can be given out for anything from repeat shoplifting to common assault, possession of a knife or GBH.

Further information
1) DfES, March 2006. Figure includes secure units, homes and hostels but excludes residential schools.
(2) Children’s Homes and Fostering, PricewaterhouseCoopers commissioned by the DfES, September 2006

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Maria Ahmed

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