Anti-social behaviour services for under-18s should be managed by children’s services departments, according to a report launched in parliament today by the Prison Reform Trust.
The recommendation is to ensure that vulnerable young people subject to anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) – which might include looked-after children and children with learning disabilities or mental health problems – are identified and given more help to comply with the terms of their orders.
Commissioned by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), the report – which examined the experiences of children who breached their court orders – found many young people are imprisoned for failing to comply with the terms of court orders, even when their personal circumstances make compliance unrealistic.
It concluded that many court orders, including Asbos, are setting vulnerable children and teenagers up to fail.
Nearly three-quarters of 10- to 14-year-olds given an Asbo will breach it, the report revealed. One in eight (13%) of under-18s in prisons across England and Wales are there mainly for breaching the terms of a court order – which can include missing an appointment with their youth offending team (YOT) worker, difficult behaviour or failing to meet the conditions of a curfew.
Di Hart, author of the report, said: “The way court orders against children are currently enforced risks setting them up to fail. Such a rigid approach doesn’t recognise the chaotic lives that many of the children are leading – or even the impulsivity that characterises normal adolescence.”
One youth court magistrate told researchers: “Although magistrates are told not to set young people up to fail, we are limited and impose orders we know aren’t going to work.”
Hart said the emphasis should be on “engaging them in activities that will change their behaviour rather than in punishing them when they don’t, or can’t, comply.”
Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble programme, said tough enforcement of the breach system is neither reducing crime nor helping young people.
“One in eight of those under 18-year-olds imprisoned in England and Wales is there mainly for missing appointments or breaking their curfew. It is wasteful and expensive to use imprisonment for this purpose, particularly given that over 70% of teenagers leaving custody re-offend within a year.”
The report recommends ensuring the welfare needs of young people subject to court orders are identified. YOT workers should ensure orders are achievable and have more discretion to deal appropriately with those who cannot comply.
Whole-family interventions should be developed, rather than interventions focusing solely on the child, and “rigorously evaluated” for their effectiveness in improving outcomes.
Andrew Webb, policy lead on youth justice at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Services to young people whose behaviour causes concern should be coordinated and include the full spectrum of partners from schools to neighbourhood police and ideally be seen as part of a local children and young people’s plan.
“Given the reduced funding for early intervention and family support services, it would be inappropriate to transfer new responsibilities without sufficient funding to meet the needs of these vulnerable young people,” he said.
The report echoes calls from children’s charity Barnardo’s for courts to ask for information about the home lives of children who are being sanctioned for anti-social behaviour to see what support, or lack of it, is in place.
The charity has also criticised government proposals to give police powers to take children suspected of anti-social behaviour back to their homes, arguing that children could be at risk if their households are abusive or unsafe.
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