Children leaving custody lacking support ‘set up to fail'

By agency reporter
October 9, 2019

Children and young people released from young offender institutions are getting too little support in the community and are being “set up to fail”, according to a new report.

HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons followed the experiences of 50 children and young people released from all five young offender institutions across England and Wales. The report looks at the support they received from youth justice services in their first three months after release.

Twelve to seventeen-year-old boys and young men who have committed serious or multiple offences are sentenced to detention and training orders, with half the time served in custody and half in the community. Inspectors found the second half of the sentence often did not build on – or even worse, ignored – what had taken place in custody. Of the 50 young people tracked by inspectors:

  • 37 needed input from children’s social care services but only six of these received help with resettlement
  • only 44 per cent got the specialist support for their substance misuse problems that they should have had after release
  • only 11 went into education or training immediately after release.

Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, said: “Children and young people are not getting the help they need to prepare for release and to resettle back into the community. There are specific programmes to help individuals prepare for release, but none of the people in our sample attended one.

“We found staff in youth offending teams had little knowledge of the activity that had taken place in custody, and were unable to build on this work in the community.

“Many of these children and young people need help to find accommodation and to get into education, training or employment. Those with substance misuse and mental health issues also need seamless support in the community. If the right services are not in place, these often-vulnerable people are being set up to fail.”

The two Inspectorates published an interim report in August that looked at the experiences of the same group as they prepared for release. Inspectors found frequent examples of poor planning.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, said: “In some cases, planning started just 10 days prior to release or even after release – this is too little, too late to be effective. A lot of the activity that we saw in custody focussed on containing children and young people, managing their behaviour or simply trying to fill their time.”

In the three months after release, half of the group had been subject to police investigation and a further 10 individuals had been convicted of a further offence. Six of the group had gone missing.

Mr Russell concluded: “The Inspectorate published a report on youth resettlement in 2015 and it is immensely disappointing to find that many of the same issues remain.

“Our recent inspection found that a lack of suitable and safe accommodation is still an ongoing problem. Local authority reluctance to pay for accommodation in advance means that some individuals were only informed of their new address on the eve or day of release. And we saw young people being offered accommodation many miles away from family and in places where they did not know anybody. Yet staff did not consider the emotional impact this could have on individuals. It is little wonder that one young man told us he felt ‘like a parcel’ sometimes.

“We have made a number of recommendations in this report aimed at government departments and agencies. There needs to be a national network of community based accommodation for children who pose the highest risks to the public and better coordination between staff in custody and in the community to ensure children and young people get help to plan, prepare and thrive on release. This is not just in the individual’s interests. Their families, communities and society as a whole stand to gain from people living crime-free lives.”

Responding to the report, the Howard League for Penal Reform said the inspectors’ findings are in line with what the Howard League sees through its legal work. The charity runs a free and confidential legal advice line for children and young people in custody. In the last 12 months, the legal team has received about 100 inquiries about children and young people who do not know where they will be living on release.

Laura Janes, Legal Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The concerns raised in this important report mirror what the Howard League sees through its legal work every day. Children are being let down and set up to fail.

“We have seen an alarming rise in the number of children going missing. Children leaving custody are not going somewhere they feel safe or wanted, and they do not feel that they can rely on the authorities around them, so they take matters into their own hands.

“The inspectors have found that the authorities supposed to be helping children are passive and offer too little, too late. Howard League lawyers see this time and again. Building on what we have found over our 15 years of legal work, and following consultation with 100 custody caseworkers, the Howard League is about to launch a toolkit to help professionals act sooner and do better for children leaving custody.

“Ten of the children that the inspectors followed turned 18 while in custody. We are seeing more and more teenagers in this position, being placed in approved premises that are designed primarily for those adults assessed as being at highest risk. These are inappropriate and frightening places for young people to be.

“Through its legal work, the Howard League has transformed law, policy and practice for children in the criminal justice system. But today’s report underlines the fact that there is still so much more to do.”

Ministry of Justice figures, obtained by the Howard League through a freedom of information request, show that the number of 18-year-olds placed in probation approved premises has risen significantly this year. In 2017 and 2018, the numbers were 58 and 63 respectively. There were 50 such placements in the first six months of 2019.

Howard League lawyers have noticed a worrying increase in children going missing following release from custody. Typically, children who go missing have been provided with rushed and last-minute release plans from social care that do not take account of their wishes and feelings. The children often revert to their own way of coping with little faith in the authorities to protect them.

Sam is a child who has been in and out of custody for the last two years. He is assessed as being vulnerable. He has undiagnosed learning difficulties. He was extremely worried about the plan for release. Despite being well known to the local authority and being on a full care order, Sam still did not know where he was going to be living just days before his release. He was so anxious about not knowing where he would live on release that he set a fire in his cell with the intention of trying to hurt himself. Sam was placed in a care home that was unfamiliar to him and immediately went missing.

Charlotte is a child who has significant learning difficulties and has been placed in a range of secure environments in previous years. Her local authority failed to come up with a plan in advance of her release and repeatedly ignored the advice of specialists, who had assessed her in custody and recommended a highly specialised placement with support. Since her release, Charlotte has been missing for most of the time and the local authority has not come up with any firm plans to keep her safe.

* Read the inspection report here

* Criminal Justice Joint Inspection https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/cjji/

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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