Local authorities ‘criminalise’ children in care

Family|News|March 18th 2013

Everyone who cares about the welfare of children should be disturbed by a new report from the Commons Justice Committee into the welfare of youngsters in care.

The report – the Committee’s seventh into the youth justice system – claims the courts are turning to the police to resolve issues with children in care far too quickly.

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith is chair of the Committee. He said:

“We were shocked by evidence we heard that vulnerable children across the UK are effectively being abandoned by children’s and social services.”

They may not always look especially angelic but ‘looked after children’ are perhaps the most vulnerable of all youngsters. Yes, they have been taken away from neglectful or even abusive families and can that can only be a good thing. But then, adrift in children’s homes, most grow up without the dedication and one-to-one attention enjoyed by children still living with their parents.

Except in the most extreme of cases, most parents are responsible and that means  taking responsibility for their children. If they behave badly, they discipline them and teach – or least try to teach them – right from wrong. Most parents anticipate – even expect – tantrums and bad behaviour from time to time.

Not so in many children’s homes it seems. According to the Committee, some local authorities are prone to wildly over the top interventions when it comes to disciplining children living there.

The report notes:

“Looked after children have not benefited from the shift towards a more informal approach to minor offending to the same extent as other children. While serious misdemeanours must be dealt with in a serious manner, it is completely disproportionate for police officers to be called to a children’s home to investigate trivial incidents.”

Alan Beith is forthright:

“We heard one example of the police being called to a children’s home to investigate a broken cup.”

Why would local authorities waste police resources in this way? The answer is simple, if sad. Because nobody is wiling to take responsibility for these children. It’s easier for a risk-averse, rule-by-committee organisation like a local authority to delegate responsibility instead, to an external body like the police.

The result? Vulnerable children in care are made to feel like criminals for the kind of behaviour that would never leave the four walls of a family home.

To quote Sir Alan again:

“Poor behaviour which would be dealt with within the family should not be an express route into the criminal justice system for children who do not have the benefit of a normal family life.”

The Committee is absolutely correct here. Looked after already have disadvantaged backgrounds and are at much higher risk of physical, psychological and social problems than other children. Local authorities charged with shepherding these kids into adult life should be going out of their way to protect such children from the criminal justice system, not exposing them to it.

Make a child feel like a criminal and he is much more likely to become one.

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