Young people in custody overlooked in child protection agenda

The government is promoting child protection with gusto, but not for those young people in custody, writes Barry Goldson

In the UK, public inquiries are a recognised method of examining tragic circumstances, including those involving young people, and have provided invaluable insights into complex child abuse cases. Between 1973 and 1996, for example, there were 70 such inquiries.

Many led directly to reforms in law, policy and practice. The inquiry into the death of Victoria ClimbiŽ, chaired by Lord Laming and published in 2003, provides a perfect illustration. The report’s 108 recommendations have underpinned: fundamental workforce reform; the government’s Every Child Matters agenda; the Children Act 2004; and the most far-reaching reconfiguration of children’s services since the welfare state was launched.

The government has been less keen on public inquiries into the damage, harm and death of young people in custodial facilities. Thus, the public inquiry into the murder of 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek at Feltham Young Offender Institution (YOI) was allowed only after a four-year campaign by his family and other supporters, and the publication of the report was in effect delayed until six years after his death.

Further, despite the deaths of 29 children in penal custody in England and Wales since July 1990, successive governments have failed to establish a single public inquiry. More specifically, since the inquest in April 2004 into the death of 16-year-old Joseph Scholes at Stoke Heath YOI, the most authoritative representations have been made to ministers urging a full public inquiry. Joseph’s family, the coroner, MPs and peers, the General Synod of the Church of England and leading child welfare and penal reform agencies have all supported the call. All have been met with resistance, however.

The government’s refusal to allow a public inquiry or an independent investigation into the other 28 child deaths negates the spirit of democratic accountability, obfuscates truth, denies justice, withholds the lessons and frustrates progress.

Barry Goldson is professor of criminology and social policy at the University of Liverpool

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