Response to Lord laming’s review of the treatment by the Criminal justice System of Children in Care
The recent publication of the Laming report and the Government’s sudden interest in the wellbeing of looked after children is certainly to be welcomed but not without considerable caution and qualification.
Firstly, it barely touches the sides and in fact much of what is identified, particularly in the report is in fact redundant.
The report concentrates, in the main on the criminalisation of children and considers how to best avoid the unnecessary arrest and subsequent prosecution of looked after children for “offences” that had a child not in care committed would never have resulted in police involvement and would in fact have been dealt with within the family.
For several years, I and many others can attest to the fact that across the different regions, the care homes, local authorities, police and prosecutors offices have been increasingly avoiding bringing children into the system for such trivial matters.
It was the case a decade ago that in every court across the land a youth court sat daily, they were the busiest courts and they were filled with cases of children who had thrown tantrums, damaged their own bedroom furniture or kicked off with care home staff who had refused them permission to make a phone call to their brother who was homed some 200 miles away.
Successive areas have all but ceased this archaic practice. Hence I question the actual usefulness of the Laming report. It may benefit those children in those areas where practices are yet to fully catch up and it has, albeit momentarily brought the plight of looked after children to the fore.
Secondly, Cameron’s recent “concern” for looked after children is not misplaced. But is it really concern or is an attempt to demonstrate for political purposes alone that an issue which has long been hidden away from the public awareness is being addressed. He claims to want to provide a mentor for every young person leaving care to the age of 25. However, the mentoring is unlikely to be anything more than an extension of the Personal advocate scheme which frankly is not particularly successful.
The Advocate is assigned 40-50 young people, he or she cannot possibly serve the needs of each one. The advocate is employed by Social Services or the Local Authority and is seen by the Young person as just another enforcement officer rather than a friend.
What we urgently need is a full review of the care system including the provision for those who leave care.
Young people who enter the care system have inevitably had some enormous emotional and sometimes physical trauma suffered and by definition at a very early age. They are damaged. They need support. Instead what they get is an overworked, underpaid social worker with insufficient time to address their needs and a roof over their head.
In the absence of an attentive social worker these often damaged young people fail to adequately deal with the trauma that has befallen them. For those who are fostered into a family environment, this often results in a breakdown of that placement partly because the foster carers are ill-equipped to deal with the levels of damage these children are suffering and there is a significant lack of support both before and after the placement. For those who are placed within an institution, (usually too damaged to be fostered or having been fostered but the placement broke down) they suffer all sorts of negative connotations from the outset:
- Imagine how terrifying it must be to be placed in a care home where other children already reside;
- The staff at these homes are often assigned on a temporary basis due to poor levels of pay and a lack of motivation (regulation etc.);
- Accordingly, children in care homes often fail to make the relationships with the people who might otherwise exercise the best influence in their lives;
- There is a noticeable lack of support, encouragement, guidance friendship and love;
- Again as consequence these young people often fail to excel at school, fail to learn appropriate behaviour and often learn pro-criminal attitudes and tendencies. Who can blame them?
- Add to the above the considerable mental health implications of all they have suffered with a failure to at any time address these issues.
It is no wonder that children leaving care are 4 x more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide, 80+% leave without 5 GCSEs, a significant proportion of prisoners were once in care etc. etc….
We are taking young people who are already damaged and as a consequence of their lives in care disadvantaged and compounding their problems.
Young people who have left care are almost inevitably going to live in poverty. These young adults are already the most disadvantaged people within our society and through no fault of their own.
What can we do as a society to first address the failings of the care system and secondly to assist those who have since left care.
We can look to our European counter-parts where children in care and those who have left are not suffering the same plight as ours. They take a different approach to care whereby a career in the industry is highly regarded and well paid. Carers build relationships with the young people and there is a strong emphasis on love and support, akin to what a natural parent would provide. There is a distinct lack of regulation and no real worries about health and safety and allegations of abuse that tie up the care workers in this country and restrict their ability to do their job.
The solution is beyond the scope of this work but while we concern ourselves with it we need to take account of the young people in our community for who m and such reforms will be too late.
- Make allowances for young people in care and those who have left. This might mean more empathy and recognition of what they have been through. This should extend to the police, courts and wider judicial system and if more training is needed then so be it;
- We must offer unconditional support (like a natural parent would) to our young care leavers in the form of non-enforcement style agencies whether they be public or third sector driven. Support cannot be withdrawn immediately for a lack of engagement. I prefer a one to one mentoring style model and there is empirical evidence of its effectiveness. This can be undertaken by volunteers if necessary but they must be trained and supported thereafter by appropriately qualified people;
- We must give the young people back their autonomy. So often they find decisions made for them without and consultation. They are never the masters of their destiny, even when they reach adulthood. They come to understand that everyone knows about them, there are no new starts because their records follow them everywhere. What other person would experience such a situation and imagine how debilitating that will become. After reaching adulthood they are allowed a small allowance to help them set up on their own in the real world and even that is held for them by a third party who then has to agree what they can as adults chose to spend their own money on.
This is not rocket science and so much of it can be volunteer led and so cost neutral but the training and support required to be given to the people who will be working with these young people has to be paid for. The money spent now will save a far greater amount in due course. Until we address these issue nothing will change the plight and disadvantage suffered by young care leavers.
Details about the author:
Oliver Gardner is a criminal Solicitor and Director at Howards Solicitors with offices in Manchester and South Cheshire. Oliver is a committee member of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and is trained in psychotherapy to level 3.
Howards Solicitors now also incorporates Henry & Co. The combined firms have offices in Manchester & Macclesfield and specialise in Criminal Defence & Prison Law, Road Traffic / Motoring Offenses, Personal Injury & Family Law.