by Jack Brookes
At the Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Boarding school I attended throughout my secondary school years a group of us would regularly abscond into the local town and shoplift.
We didn’t really care what we stole – it wasn’t about things we needed, or even particularly wanted – it was a game, a competition and it was fun.
One day we stood at the top of a multi-storey car park and threw the things we had stolen at cars driving out of the exit. I feel sick now, thinking about how breathtakingly dangerous this was.
Later, we discovered a modern housing estate which received Its Littlewood’s Catalogue deliveries every Thursday. The drivers would leave the packages outside the front doors – so we would nick them. We didn’t know what was in them – it was like lucky dip.
One day we broke into an uninhabited house on the estate and used it as a place to hang out for a couple of weeks.
Afterwards, the police came to the school and interviewed some of the kids about the house break-in. No one was prosecuted – I am not sure why.
But here’s the thing – we were terrified.
We were terrified of being arrested, going to court and ending up in a secure unit. Police intervention, in this case, worked because our crime spree stopped.
And it needed to stop because we were pretty out of control – high on the visceral thrill of delinquency. Had the tin of beans I threw from the top of the car park hit a car windscreen and seriously injured the driver, I am not sure my difficult past would have meant much to him or her.
The police were never called by school staff – despite the odd chair being thrown through a window, or assault on staff members. These were contained within the school. How? By the regular use of forceful physical intervention of a type that would be illegal now and probably was then.
Guess what – I don’t see much wrong with this. What were they meant to do? Allow us to attack them? I suppose they could have called the police. Violent, abusive teenagers don’t just stop because you ask them nicely. They stop when someone stops them.
During my career in residential care I have been assaulted numerous times. Kicked, punched, bitten and so on – things that could perhaps be described as lashing out in anger. But I have also had experiences, such as being head-butted, struck in the face with a wooden coat hanger, and threatened with a golf club held to my face, that were not just about in-the-moment anger and frustration.
Fairly recently I was pinned to a wall by my throat and slapped around the face – don’t picture a child here but an older teenage boy, the size and strength of a grown man. These experiences are genuinely frightening. Believe me when I say – none of the current methods of physical intervention we are trained in would have been effective in these situations.
Nevertheless, I have never called the police or pressed charges for any of these attacks. I accept, to an extent, that it comes with the territory.
This is a point police officers will often make to colleagues who do call them for similar acts. Although there is hypocrisy here – I notice whenever there is a possibility of it being difficult, four officers turn up, wearing stab vests and carrying handcuffs, pepper spray and batons – they seem to expect children’s home staff to take risks with their personal safety, which the police never would.
I notice too that if a young person assaults a police officer, he or she is always arrested. But surely being attacked, as a police officer, comes with the territory too?
Report a crime
I have called the police when I have felt I could not safely contain a situation – usually when a young person is angrily marauding around the home and trashing it and I am worried someone (including potentially other young people) might get hurt. These are judgement calls and there is a tendency to err on the side of caution – I can’t wait until someone is hurt.
Unfortunately I cannot just call the police and say – “I am worried the situation is escalating, can I have support”. I have to report a crime. So I use what I can – a staff member being pushed, furniture being broken or similar. Not because I want the child to be prosecuted but because I want the police to attend before something worse happens. The police, to help contain the incident, then arrest the child for the offence I have reported.
This is one of the many reasons children in care can end up being criminalised unnecessarily. I don’t doubt that it is true some children’s homes overuse the police – because I have seen it happen.
But it is also true that children’s home staff and foster carers can be faced with dangerous and aggressive behaviour that is far beyond what would occur in an ordinary family home.
Need police support
Lord Laming’s report for the Prison Reform Trust is excellent in many ways, and if its recommendations were adopted wholesale then eventually we would see a reduction in the kinds of behaviours I describe above. But this would take years to have a significant impact.
For now, at least, children’s homes and foster carers will continue to need the regular support of the police and thought needs to be given as to how that can happen without too many looked-after children ending up with criminal records.
It is fair enough for Laming to say children’s homes should give figures to Ofsted on the number of times they have called the police to the home. But each individual use of the police needs to be taken on its merits.
If there is a sense of a quota – where if a home calls the police too much the home will be marked down by Ofsted – then children with a history of violence or damaging property will become very hard to place. Outstanding homes will not risk their reputations.
The kids will eventually be placed in homes desperate for referrals – in other words homes with poor inspection results. Meaning the kids that need the most help won’t get it.