Providing all children with the best start in life is something that we can all agree should be a top priority of any government, not least for those children living in residential care.
With many of these children coming from some of the most troubled families in society, it is our duty as their ‘corporate parents’ to make sure they get the right kind of care and support that allows them to achieve a full and productive life as adults.
Yet, last week a report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform showed a concerning increase in the criminalisation of children in residential care. Research found that across 16 police forces in England more than 10,299 police callouts to children’s homes – almost two for every child currently in residential care – had been made and in 12 of those constabularies the number is continuing to rise significantly.
Every measure must be taken to protect and safeguard children who live in residential care but it is clear from these findings that the practice in children’s homes is steadily moving towards an overburdening criminalisation of children in care, sometimes for the most minor of incidents.
This is supported by research conducted by the all-party parliamentary group for children, which found that many police callouts to residential children’s homes are for minor incidents. The research concluded that if these incidents had happened in the family home or within a school, the police may never have been called out and the situation could have been resolved without any police intervention.
These children are in the care of all of us, and must be treated as if they are our own children. For example, our own child may have an outburst due to temper or exacerbation at not being understood or getting their own way, yet we would not call the police on such a minor incident. Therefore, why do we think it is an acceptable practice for those children living in residential care?
Instead of escalating matters to a criminal level when a child in residential care acts out, we must have measures in place to deal with these situations with the same parental discipline and behaviour management as we would have with our own children, rather than instantly calling the police.
Not only is making these minor incidents criminal in nature a waste of our already overstretched police forces, but also that of the staff and children living in the care home. With each phonecall to the police, the ethos of the home moves closer to maintaining and controlling the child’s behaviour as if they were a hardened criminal, and away from understanding the reason behind why they act out and their life circumstances which have been completely out of their control.
The issue of criminalising children in residential care is even more worrying when we look at the figures which show that a high proportion of children currently in the youth justice system come from looked-after backgrounds.
Though the Home Office has said more must be done to put in place a robust reporting framework to ensure reporting of incidents is not abused, there is still much more action that the government could take now. It should be developing a joined-up approach between Whitehall, its agencies, such as Ofsted, and private care home providers, ensuring better oversight and strategy is in place so we give these children the very best chance to turn their lives around. Of course, we need to challenge their behaviour, as a good parent would with appropriate boundaries, but then also redirecting them and helping them to deal with all the trauma they have gone through in their often very troubled short lives. We need to give them the best possible start in life when they leave us as their corporate parents, not send them off with a criminal record.
Failing the next generation is something we must always avoid and instead we should work towards seeing all children, regardless of their background or circumstances, achieving their greatest potential in life. If we allow this practice of criminalising residential care children to continue unchecked, then we risk criminalising a whole generation of some of the most disadvantaged children in our society and burdening them with a label which will follow them well into adulthood and impede any life opportunities that may come their way.
Sharon Hodgson MP is shadow minister for children. She tweets @SharonHodgsonMP
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