Children describe how they were criminalised while in care

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Four children and young people who were criminalised while living in residential care have told their stories in a new briefing published by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One young person, Eddie*, who was taken into care at 11 and again at 13, reveals that he attempted suicide in a children’s home on Christmas Day. He says that a care worker’s response to his self-harming led to him being charged with assault and spending a night in a police cell.

Sophie*, who was placed in secure care on welfare grounds when she was 14, describes how feelings of loneliness and isolation, along with uncaring staff, led to her receiving a criminal record.

Jodie*, who went into care at 15, talks about what makes a good children’s home. She says that while good homes and staff can protect children, bad ones make it more likely that they will be criminalised.

Samantha*, who went into care at 11 and lived in more than 20 different placements, reveals that the experience was so traumatic that she has blocked out parts of it. She describes being handcuffed by police as she came out of a GCSE exam so that she would not go missing.

The four moving accounts are brought together in This is our story: Children and young people on criminalisation in residential care – the fourth briefing to be published as part of the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care.

The Howard League launched the programme after finding that children living in residential care were at least 13 times more likely to be criminalised than other children.

The campaign is already making a difference. Last month, the Department for Education published a national protocol on reducing criminalisation of looked-after children, which was developed with help from leaders in children’s social care, justice, health and policing.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “These shocking stories, told by young people in their own words, are required reading for anyone working with children in residential care.

“All four of the young people who have shared their experiences with us are articulate and resilient, and able to explain what went wrong with the care that they received. But there will be many others like them who are unable or will not get the opportunity to tell anyone what happened to them.

“The best scenario for a child living in a children’s home is to not have any contact with the police at all, just like any child living in a family home. Instead of being criminalised, children in good homes are being loved, cared for, nurtured and supported.”

Eddie

When he was 11, Eddie and his mother were assaulted by one of his mother’s boyfriends. Eddie suffered a fractured skull and his mother’s nose was broken so badly that she had to have several operations. Eddie and his younger brother went into care, living with foster carers for several weeks while their mother had the operations and recuperated. When she finally came out of hospital, the family moved into a bedsit.

The three of them lived in a single room for about a year until Christmas Eve when Eddie was 13. That night, the police came to take Eddie and his brother into care. Eddie did not know it at the time but he was never going to live with either his mother or his brother again. He was taken to a children’s home, where he attempted suicide on Christmas morning.

Eddie did not receive any mental health support and he was moved around children’s homes, living in a total of seven during his teenage years. He had been a high achiever at school before he went into care, but he missed so much school that he did not take his GCSEs. He self-harmed.

In the briefing, Eddie explains how a care worker’s response to his self-harming led to him being arrested, held overnight in a police cell and prosecuted for assault.

Sophie

Sophie was 14 when she was placed in secure care on welfare grounds. After three months she was moved to a children’s home in a rural village located an-hour-and-a-half’s drive from home. She did not have a phone or access to the internet and she was not allowed out. She felt isolated, and this was made worse by the actions of some of the staff in the home.

In the briefing, Sophie explains how her loneliness and isolation led to her receiving a Community Order. She says: “It was kind of like I was stuck in the house and couldn’t really do nothing…I just started smashing cups and plates and didn’t really know what else to do, because no one was really listening to how angry I was. No one was kind of taking me out or nothing like that. I smashed all the cups and they called the police.”

Sophie goes on to describe an incident where the manager of the children’s home reported her to the police for assault because she had thrown a yogurt. She received a caution.

Jodie

Jodie went into care at the age of 15. She felt that she had been let down by the system and that she could have stayed at home if there had been more edge-of-care support.

Before going into care she had been the victim of child sexual exploitation, witnessed domestic violence and parental separation, been thrown out of three schools, and attended a Pupil Referral Unit. She had been the victim of bullying and had been involved in fights with other children that had led to police involvement.

In the briefing, Jodie explains that her first experience of a children’s home was terrible, but later she moved into a good home, run by an excellent manager. In the poor home she was criminalised. In the good home she was parented and nurtured.

Samantha

Samantha went into care when she was 11. She lost count of how many placements she lived in, but it was more than 20 and a mixture of foster placements and children’s homes.

In the briefing, Samantha talks about how it felt to move so frequently. She says: “You’d come home or be picked up from school and your stuff would be packed and it would be at your new placement waiting for you in bin bags. You’d get told ‘Oh, you’ve been moved’ and sometimes…there was one time I was sat with the police and it was gone seven o’clock and they couldn’t find me anywhere, so I had to stay with the police until they find someone that’ll take you.”

Samantha goes on to describe a time when she tried to go to school but the staff at her children’s home would not give her a bus fare or drop her off. In the end, she was picked up by the police.

Samantha says: “…[T]he only way I knew to get there was down the motorway, the way that they used to take me in the car to get to school, so I walked down the motorway…and then the police came and picked me up and took me on the bus and said if I got caught again, I would be arrested for jaywalking on the motorway.”

*Stories have been anonymised to protect interviewees and others involved.

* Read This is our story: Children and young people on criminalisation in residential care here

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