UK kids heading from care to jail

An alarming number of young UK offenders with criminal records were previously in the care of local authorities.

UK justice
Many children from UK's care system end up in the criminal justice system [Oli Scarff/Getty Images]

Yorkshire, United Kingdom – Growing up in a variety of foster and care homes was a frustrating time for Sam Davey.

No one fully explained to him why he had been taken away from his parents when he was 20 months old, he only saw a social worker once every three months and when he acted out the first response was to call the police.


Now 22, Sam is working for the Care Leavers’ Association (CLA) and is involved with the Prison Reform Trust which has launched a care review, a project looking at children who have been in the UK’s care system and then end up in trouble.

“In care homes, if you slam the door, or kick something, you end up being done for criminal damage,” he told Al Jazeera.

“If you grew up at home your mum would never call the police on you for slamming a door. You get treated like a criminal early on and that starts this cycle where you act like a criminal because that’s how people treat you,” Sam said.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, a UK charity that oversees the penal system, children who are in the care of local authorities in England and Wales are far more likely to become offenders and end up in the criminal justice system.

In a statement, Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said the link between care and custody is “a depressing route … which can, and must, be stopped”.

“We need to listen to children in care about how they got drawn into trouble and hear their views on ways to get out of it,” Lyon said.

It is five times more likely that a looked-after child between 10 and 17 will end up with a criminal record than other children.

Despite the fact that less than one percent of children in the UK are in care, a 2013 survey conducted by the Prison Reform Trust, found that a third of boys and 61 percent of girls in young offenders institutions had been in state care.

What you have is a situation where he was told 'This is your home and you need to make it your home but at the same time if you swear in it, we'll have you arrested.'

by Darren Coyne, Care Leavers' Association

On top of that, two-thirds of children in care are there because they suffered abuse or neglect. According to the Prison Reform Trust review, only two percent of looked-after children are in the system because of their own behaviour.

“It is a huge step for the state to assume the parenting of a child or young person. With that comes the responsibility to provide stability, security and hope for the future,” said Lord Laming, who is chairing the review.

“We cannot stand by and allow wasted opportunities to result in wasted later lives,” said Laming.

“We are determined to ensure this review makes practical recommendations … to help children in care transform their life chances and stay out of trouble,” Laming stated.

The review will include consultations with social workers, academics, police, magistrates and other experts.

It will also take into account evidence from children who leave care prematurely, and children still in foster homes or care homes.

Voiceless minority

Darren Coyne, a project manager at the CLA, told Al Jazeera that this would be the first time any of the children have been asked about their experiences of care.

“Children in care and care leavers [are] a voiceless minority,” he said. At 43, Coyne is a care leaver himself, as are all the members of staff at the CLA.

“As long as we’re voiceless, we’ll continue to be represented in negative statistics, and nobody is ever going to try to impact that,” Coyne said. 

“The review will go a long way to take significant amounts of evidence from young people. That in itself gives the young people a voice,” explained Coyne.

He is helping the care review using his own experiences and those of the care leavers with whom he works.

“Children in care are more likely to have been cautioned, reprimanded or convicted, but you need to consider what some of those convictions are,” Coyne said.

“I have worked with young people who have been convicted of a section 5 public order offence for things like swearing in their care home.

“What you have is a situation where he was told ‘This is your home and you need to make it your home but at the same time if you swear in it, we’ll have you arrested.'”

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Coyne pointed out that most of the children in care come from circumstances of abuse and neglect, which when coupled with the experience of adolescence, is likely to lead to behavioural difficulties. 

“An adolescent who is traumatised is going to be a challenging person,” Coyne said.

“You can’t take that challenging behaviour and label that as deviant or criminal and have you arrested – that’s the wrong response.”

Coyne told Al Jazeera that this also leads to long-term consequences for the children who leave care and then cannot find work because of their young offenders’ record.

Sam agreed.

“I’d never worked before the CLA, people judge you on your record and won’t give you a chance. I ended up getting into debt,” told Sam.

Systemic change

More organisations are concerned and point out the inadequacies of the care system.

“It’s a damning reflection on the system that so many children who have been in care end up in prison,” the spokesperson for the children’s charity NSPCC told Al Jazeera.

One way to remove this group of young people from the grasp of the criminal justice system, thinks Coyne, is to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

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The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10, which means anyone over that age can be arrested and charged with an offence.

“If there is a care worker who is not qualified to deal with challenging behaviour, then the criminal justice system is the perfect weapon,” said Coyne.

“It is an absolute outrage that children in the care system are criminalised for behaviours they would not be criminalised for were they in a family home.”

But heavy reliance on the criminal justice system is not the only issue. Inadequate resources are also a major reason why children end up in troubling circumstances.

The spokesperson for children’s charity NSPCC told Al Jazeera that the shortage in service resources for children in care who are struggling with behavioural or emotional issues is a major problem in the UK.

“Being a victim of abuse is not an excuse for criminal behaviour, but nor should the care system be a stepping-stone to a life behind bars,” said the spokesperson.

For Sam, that lack of support played a major role in his life and his decisions.

A social worker assigned to him when he left care at 18 had 30 other cases, meaning she was unable to provide the help he needed.

As a child he was never really sure who was on his side because he had so many different care workers.

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“You feel like you’ve been abandoned. I’ve been in hostels with other kids who were in care and we have all experienced the same thing: ending up in jail or getting into debt,” Sam told Al Jazeera.

“It is hard when you don’t have a mum or dad or any support. I went to the House of Lords and told the review about my story and how to make it better.

“I hope they listen to us.”

You can follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart

Source: Al Jazeera