Another worrying headline about children in care hit the news this week; half of children in custody in England and Wales have at some point in their life, been in care.
The headlines were triggered and then picked up by national news channels due to Lord Laming’s report (a review for the Prison Reform Trust called In Care, Out of Trouble) and it highlighted yet another disadvantage that Looked After Children are faced with; being more likely to have committed a crime than children not in the care system.
The report focuses on the causes of why children in care are so over represented in the criminal justice system and goes on to outline recommendations such as earlier intervention and more importantly earlier support for children and families along with reducing the elevated levels of minority group representation.[i] A disturbing figure comes out of the report which states that 94% of children in care in England do not get into trouble with the law, however children in care in England are six times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence than other children.[ii] Lord Lamming also asks for a more cohesive working relationship between Local Authorities, police, families and mental health services to tackle and bring down these figures.
Another aspect to this story are the lower level accusations that are made against children in care which would never be made against other children should the same situations arise in a family such as shouting loudly during a heated argument, kicking doors or walls or slamming doors. I’m not trivialising how upsetting or in some cases frightening it can be to have a child or teenager shout and scream or bash walls around you but if it were a birth child, would the call to the police have been made?
I talk from personal experience as I had a teenage placement who came to me in the middle of the night, after being been dropped off by two police officers in a squad car. They banged on my door and said ‘are you the foster carer’? When I nodded, they said he’s in the back of the car. They brought a very scared and silent 12 year old boy out and handed him over without another word. The child, very small and slight for his age, followed me into the house and stood nervously in the doorway. I’d had a call at 2am from a social worker asking if I could take him for a 24 hour emergency period and they were required to tell me he was at the police station as a result of a violent crime. Not knowing the details but being very aware there was nowhere else for him to go, as the emergency placement team been trying to place him for several hours, we said yes.
His ‘violent’ crime was slamming and kicking a door and shouting back at a male family member who was acting as a special guardian to him after he had been removed from his mother’s care. The situation was not straightforward and of course there are always two sides to the story but the next day, I was given more information and the police were clearly fed up as the family guardian member was always calling the police because he couldn’t handle the kid or couldn’t be bothered to (the police officer’s words). The boy was virtually silent for two days before he finally spoke and he told me how scared he’d been in a police cell. He also told me one of the police men had given him a comic and promised not to turn the light off in his cell. He was told he might face criminal charges and this statement really affected him, giving him nightmares for months and he often referred to it during periods of stress. He stayed with me for several years after it was finally decided he would not return back to his family or guardian and yes, he could be difficult, moody and liked to slam an occasional door but there’s a name for this condition: Teenager! He was never violent to me, Hubby, our dog at the time or others in my family.
Lord Laming’s report doesn’t just refer to foster carers but to children’s residential units as well and the BBC reports ‘A government spokesman said: “The rules are clear that no child living in a children’s home should be criminalised for behaviour that would not concern the police if it happened in a family home.’
Nothing happens overnight and I’m sure the figures will continue to show that a disproportionate number of children in residential homes or foster care will be criminalised as a result of early poor basic emotional and physical needs not being met at home before coming into care alongside a trigger finger call to police to intervene. However, there is hope at the end of this review as Lord Laming does not hide from the facts and makes clearly stated recommendations not just for reducing the alarming figures but to prevent Looked After Children from offending or reoffending once they have left care. Maybe more importantly, the views of children have been sought and children have described their experiences in their own words. Below are a few quotes from the review.
“When I was two years old my Dad left and it messed my Mum’s head up. I’ve been in care since I was nine or ten. I first went into care when my Mum hospitalised my little sister, due to mental health.” Young person aged 15 years
“Since July 2013 I have been to 16 schools and I have been in 15 different placements all around the country… All of my offending has been whilst in care.” Young review panel member, aged 15 years, 25 June 2015
Sebastian, the boy who came to me in the middle of the night has since moved on and is a Looked After Child success story, having left school with A and B grade GCSE’s he went into his chosen field and is now happily married and has a little boy of his own. We don’t see a lot of him but he keeps in touch with me and sends me pictures of his baby. He still talks about his night in a cell.