Only 2% of the children in care in England are there due to socially unacceptable behaviour. But children in care are 6 times more likely to receive a caution or a conviction for a criminal offence and around 50% of young people in custody have been in care at some point in their childhood.
If only 2% of children are in care for behaviour which can be expected to lead to a criminal record, how are so many children in care ending up in custody? Lord Laming published a report this May for the Prison Reform Trust, “In Care, Out of Trouble”, which aims to explain and tackle this alarming statistic.
Many of the children in care have had a traumatic start to their life, and instead of providing support and understanding to the children who need it the most, the Police are being involved in the most trivial of matters. A retired Magistrate told the review of cases before his Court of children throwing ice creams, kicking doors, squirting shower gel on carpets and using abusive language to staff. In one incident, the Police were called out in response to a broken cup. If the same was done by a child in their family home, their parents would not dream of calling the Police. This unnecessary criminalisation of children hinders their future by giving them a criminal record for normal childhood behaviour.
As specialist solicitors in crime dealing with many youths in care, we have the responsibility of highlighting this issue not only in the police station and court. Who else will protect those most in need of protection?
The report calls for the Government to implement new procedures which allow for the Police to deal with low-level criminal behaviour by way of referral to a welfare agency rather than prosecuting them through our criminal justice system and creating a criminal record which can greatly affect their future. David Cameron shared his support for a new system during his party conference speech in October 2015, “These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for… the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
The report recognises that some children in care do commit serious offences and in these circumstances it would entirely appropriate to involve the Police. The National Police Chiefs’ Council recently tweeted their support for change and advised that staff at children’s’ homes should ask themselves, “Would I call the Police if this was my own son or daughter?”