Features: June 11th, 2007

Children After Custody

Frances Crook

This article was first published in Public Money and Management and is reproduced by permission of the Association.

Following on from Review articles on prisons earlier this year, I want to air my organization’s concerns about the way local authorities address the accommodation and support needs of vulnerable children leaving custody.

Despite legislation and guidance requiring the early and detailed assessment of a child’s needs for release and provision for those needs, our legal team receives, on an almost daily basis, case referrals from a range of sources including staff at custodial establishments (including secure children’s homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions) and advocacy organizations. Almost all of these cases involve vulnerable children who have inadequate plans in place for their release. This is often despite the efforts of professionals to obtain the assistance of children services.

The children referred to us invariably come from acutely disadvantaged, abused and neglected backgrounds. Around 6,500 children pass through penal custody in young offender institutions, secure training centres or local authority secure children’s homes each year. Of these, over 40% had been in local authority care at some point; 18% were subject to care order; 31% had mental health problems; 45% had used more than one type of illegal drug; 40 of girls and 5% of boys reported previous sexual abuse.

We have found that the child’s survivalist behaviour, within a chaotic and ‘deviant’ environment, is triggered to cope with their traumatic past, desperate present and ‘doomed’ future. Crime is the method of getting-by, drugs a way of coping and anger and violence a way of communicating. Children’s services join the ranks of ‘professionals’ perceived to be unable or unwilling to listen, help or engage with these children.

Back in 2002 the Howard League for Penal Reform successfully challenged the home secretary in the courts, and now children’s service have a duty to ensure that children are safe while in custody and supported on release.

Following this judicial review, the Howard League set up a legal department and now has solicitors who represent children in custody and deal with complaints about their treatment and the failure to support them on release. In the past two years we have acted on behalf of more than 100 children who were about to be released from custody. They came from more than 50 different local authority areas. All faced homelessness or precarious and or dangerous housing. None of them had proper plans prepared with them before release. Most have been resolved before court action became necessary, but sometime local authorities have been intransigent and we have had to take judicial review proceedings.

Many of our child clients have been told that on release they would be taken to the local authority’s housing department homeless person unit, where emergency accommodation would be provided, probably a hostel or bed and breakfast. These children have been and continue to be, wrongly advised and badly served and local authorities are acting unlawfully.

The Children Act 1989 defines the duties of children’s services towards children, in particular children in need. A child leaving custody, without a home or support, is by any standard a child in need. Local Authority Circular LAC2004(26) explained the duties that local authorities have towards children in custody and towards children about to be released from custody.

Children’s services should not wait until a child leaves custody to plan for their release but should plan from the beginning of their time in custody. The National Standards of Youth Justice Services places a requirement on Youth Offending Teams to ensure that ‘education, health and accommodation needs on transfer to the community’ are ‘addressed from the beginning of the sentence and firm arrangements agreed for suitable accommodation education, training or employment from a seamless transition from custody to the community’. Youth Offending Teams regularly indicate to the Howard League for Penal Reform legal team that where they do seek the assistance and support of children’s services, it is not forthcoming or simply refused.

Youth Offending Teams were created by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and have role which may be complementary to, but not in place of, the services being provided by children’s services. Youth Offending Teams were never intended to replace children’s services nor are they equipped, trained or resourced to provide Children Act support. They are also unable to provide continuing involvement with children once their licence expires.

There are huge resource implications for local authorities here. The Howard League estimates that at least a half of the 6,500 children released from custody every year may fall into the category of children who require considerable support.

This is an issue of authorities failing to comply with their legal obligations. This is an issue of failure to care for these most difficult children which means they will almost inevitably continue to create mayhem in our communities. The Howard League is working to persuade ministers to provide additional resources so local authorities can do this vital work.