We need a common-sense approach to keeping children in care out of custody

Ben Ashcroft writes on the criminalisation of children in care, and what common-sense approaches could be used to help avoid it

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by Ben Ashcroft

Periodically, the issue of ‘the criminalisation of children in care’ arises.

In Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential child care in England he rightly explains that this is a complex issue and that some instances have been misunderstood, misreported or are simply apocryphal. Yet it still worries me that so many children from residential and foster care end up in custody or secure establishments.

I think having children arrested and convicted should be the very last resort and there is literally no other option left. There are a, proportionately, very small number of very serious incidents (crimes) that can’t and shouldn’t be dealt with ‘in house’ by staff or carers.

Mistakes made as a child can have a negative long-term impact and consequences that can determine the rest of that child’s life. It can wreck futures, careers and people’s health. Often, these relatively minor crimes can adversely determine the willingness of others to give these children a chance or working opportunity in the future.

Culture change

Why then do some children find themselves in these situations? Why are some staff or carers so quick to get on the phone to the police?

I appreciate that these are complex questions with no simple answer but personally I think much of it comes down to lack of training, understanding or staff looking for an easy shift or day at the expense of the child.

This culture needs to be changed and dealt with. On the flipside there are many staff and carers who are assaulted, sometimes seriously, and don’t have the child locked up or convicted but are happy to accept a letter of apology from the child.

This form of restorative practice may not make headlines but it may be the difference between a child being ‘condemned for life’ and learning that they are cared about and cared for by adults who accept their occasional transgressions if a sincere apology is offered.

I think to a certain extent assaults, tough days or tough nights should be expected. Many children who find themselves in care (few of whom asked to be placed in this situation) can often be vulnerable with complex and challenging behaviours. It is not acceptable, but it is understandable.

Behaviour change

Imagine being moved to a new area and placement, away from all of the people you love and care for and into the home of strange people. It doesn’t matter at the time that perhaps you weren’t as well cared for as you should have been at home, this doesn’t make the disruption any easier to manage.

Imagine building relationships again for the first, tenth or perhaps 50th time. Why would a child have reason to believe that this time would be any different from the previous ones? Now imagine how that would make you feel.

Is there any surprise that a child’s behaviour changes while they are in care?

Of children in care, 60% have been abused, neglected or both. Only a small proportion are in care because of socially unacceptable behaviour. It is wholly unfair to say kids in care are there because they are naughty.

Less than 1% of the population experience care at some point, but its estimated that half of children in custody are either in, or have experienced, local authority care, which is disgraceful.

Common sense

It is time to use common sense and give staff more training to deal with the situations that arise in care.

We need to understand the impact trauma and attachment can have on a child’s behaviour, the links between care and custody, and the links between abuse and drug abuse. Some children will hit out at us but that is generally never personal, it is because we are there and the closest to them.

It is often unnecessary to ring the police. Police I’ve come across are reluctant to arrest or charge the children. However, this is not consistent enough across the country. It is often not in the child’s interest or the public interest to have them arrested and convicted.

Maybe there should be better support, and people with good experience that can be sent to help when an incident is happening and weaker staff are struggling. This would surely reduce the need for police involvement. I’m not presuming to answer all the questions, or suggesting a solution to the criminalisation of (too many) children in care, I’m just inviting you to think.

It is a shame we cannot teach common sense. We need to see the bigger picture and think what we would do with our child.

Ben Ashcroft is an author who grew up in care. His book, 51 Moves, is available on Amazon.

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