The Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the Department of Education have published a national protocol on reducing unnecessary criminalisation of looked after children and care leavers.
The protocol acknowledges the state’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their care and notes that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes preventing the criminalisation of children. The protocol sets out best practice for avoiding the criminalisation of looked after children and care leavers up to the age of 25.
Looked after children are over-represented in the criminal justice system. They are particularly vulnerable and often the victims of trauma and exploitation. All professionals working with looked after children (including magistrates) should receive training on the ‘impact of trauma and abuse on development, particularly their effect on emotional and behavioural development and self-regulation’ (page 9).
Key points in the protocol include:
- Restorative and diversionary approaches should underpin responses, whether the behaviour occurs in a child’s placement or the wider community (see section on A restorative approach and Annex 2 Restorative Approaches).
- Many of the causes of youth offending lie beyond the reach of the youth justice system. All professionals should pursue a child-centred approach based on a broad range of agencies providing an integrated, co-ordinated and pro-active response to preventing and addressing challenging or offending behaviour.
- Children and young people already within the youth and criminal justice systems need protection from escalation and these principles apply equally to them. Persistent and more serious offending can indicate that the young person has significant unmet needs and responses to offending should recognise this.
- Children and young people on remand or custodial sentence are often highly vulnerable with multiple over-lapping risks and needs. They require careful multi-agency oversight and support, including from youth offending teams, Children’s Services, health services and custodial facilities.
The protocol strongly dissuades authorities from involving the police in incidents which occur in residential care placements. It also states that a local authority responsible for a child who is charged with a criminal offence should ensure the child is represented by a solicitor with expertise in youth justice.
The protocol is essential reading for practitioners representing children or young adults who have been in care. It is unequivocal in it’s message that looked after children should be protected from criminalisation and sets out practical guidance in how this can. be achieved.