Looked-after children more likely to experience isolation in youth justice setting, report finds

A report by the Children's Commissioner for England has called for the government to focus on smaller secure units for children, and scale back young offender institutions

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Looked-after children are almost two-thirds more likely to experience isolation than other children in a secure youth justice setting, a report has revealed.

Isolation is the practice of keeping children away from their peers within the secure establishment, usually against their will, and a report published today by the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, found that looked-after children are more likely to experience this than their peers within the secure estate.

The secure estate includes young offender institutions (YOIs), secure training centres, and secure children’s homes.

The report said that isolation was likely to exacerbate the mental or physical health problems commonly held by children in the secure estate, and that a low staff to child ratio, a larger sized facility population and the institutional culture contributed to increased use of isolation.

“Staff confirmed that even short periods of isolation could trigger self-harm, exacerbate the impact of trauma experienced in the past and cause psychotic episodes,” the report said.

The report found that children in young offender institutions would experience isolation for eight or nine times longer than children in secure children’s homes. Although secure children’s homes more commonly use isolation, as the data suggested, “this is likely to be explained by differences in recording”. The fieldwork undertaken to produce the report confirmed “that young offender institutions make quite frequent use of cellular confinement”.

Incompatible

Black and mixed heritage children are three times as likely to experience isolation, the report found. Those assessed as a suicide risk, and those with a recorded disability, are also more likely to experience isolation.

The youth custody population has decreased in recent years, from around 3,000 in 2008 to 971 as of August this year. During the same time, the proportion of boys in custody with a history of local authority care has increased from a quarter to a third.

Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, has used the report and its findings to call for more smaller secure units for children, and scaling back the number of large young offender institutions because, as the report said, they are “incompatible with a minimum use of isolation and a maximisation of the potential for reintegrating children into mainstream society”.

Longfield said: “When children are kept in isolation their education is disrupted and it is far harder to reintegrate them into society once they have served their sentences.”

She added: “The justice secretary needs to take note of this report and consider replacing large children’s prisons with small secure units. These may be more expensive to run in the short term because they require a higher adult to child ratio but would be cost effective if they help to keep young people out of trouble in the future.”

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