The Children’s Commissioner released a report at the end of March 2023 on “Family contact in youth custody” as one of a number of annexes to Part II of the Children’s Commissioner’s Independent Family Review.
The report sought to understand how children in the secure estate are supported to maintain meaningful relationships with their families and wider social networks, through physical, phone and video contact with the outside community. Through conducting visits to youth custody settings and making statutory data requests to prepare the report, it was revealed that there are many structural barriers preventing children from maintaining these important relationships.
The report begins by analysing the youth custody population. Generally, only children sentenced for serious and violent crimes end up in custodial detention. However, the report notes this population is not demographically representative as 98% are male and 24% are Black. A large proportion of children in youth custody are also particularly vulnerable. For instance, 93% have received support for special educational needs; 85% have been eligible for free school meals; and 26% have been in care.
As the youth custody population has reduced, so have the number of settings where children are detained under custodial sentence or remand in England and Wales, meaning that children are often placed hundreds of miles away from home, creating additional barriers to maintaining relationships and support.
Between October-November 2022, almost half of all children in custody (44%) did not receive an in-person visit and 83% did not receive a video call. For physical visits, a combination of institutional failures, including inadequate leadership, poor oversight, and a lack of priority given to family relationships, resulted in poor visitation figures despite statutory entitlement. The report also notes that visits were frequently cancelled at short notice due to understaffing and poor coordination. As for video calls, supporting technology was rolled out as a positive consequence of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the report found that video calls were difficult for children to access, beset with technical issues, and prohibitively expensive (approximately around £1.40 for a 20-minute call in most Young Offender Institutions (YOIs)).
Wider problems around life in youth custody were also discovered through the research, including violence between boys in YOIs and a lack of time outside cells, partly a result of inadequate staffing levels. In some of the YOIs visited by the research team, children accessed less than one hour a day outside their cells at the weekend. Smaller settings appeared to have better conditions for children, with less time spent alone and more time spent engaging in enriching activities.
The report includes recommendations focused on three timescales:
(a) immediate actions to improve conditions, in both family contact policy and regime delivery;
(b) interventions to address violence in YOIs, including increasing time out of cells and improving safeguarding; and
(c) long-term ambitions to reform secure provision for children and accelerate improvements.
The issue of family contact time is something that practitioners may wish to highlight in mitigation where custodial sentences are being considered and this report will serve as a useful authority when doing so. Lack of family contact time can have an effect on a child’s future, on the success of rehabilitation measures and rates of re-offending and therefore is highly relevant to sentencing. This issue needs to be approached particularly sensitively for children in care, who are the least likely cohort to receive visits.
Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP