Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 313-319)


23 JUNE 2008

  Q313 Chairman: I welcome Bob Ashford, Chris Callender and Dr Di Hart. We are extremely grateful that you are giving your time for us to ask you about a particularly absorbing and interesting area of our work. The learning curve has been steep, as the territory was unfamiliar to some of us who were more familiar with the narrow educational world. We are finding it very exciting, but be careful with your use of acronyms. Be gentle with us and sometimes do not assume that we know all the acronyms in your area and do spell them out—I could pretend that that is for Hansard, but it is really for some of us. We do not want you to repeat your CV because we have a good CV for each of you, but perhaps you could say particularly in terms of our inquiry into looked-after children what you, in a nutshell, think that we should be considering from your area of expertise.

  Bob Ashford: Obviously, there are many things that we are extremely happy about in terms of the progress that has been made. We welcome Care Matters and the Children and Young Persons Bill. We welcome many of the facets within that Bill, particularly in relation to young people in residential care homes. We also welcome the moves towards trying to restrict out-of-county placements for young people who are looked after, because that has been one of the major risk factors for offending and we are concerned about that. We are also very pleased to see the progress in increasing the emphasis on education for young people who are looked after. As always, the devil will be in the detail. Our remaining concerns are largely related to implementation and are in just a few areas, such as the implementation of the protocols for young people in residential care, which were outlined in Care Matters. Placing fewer young people out of county will be a difficult task. Naturally, the other area of concern is young people who are in custody and are looked after or have been looked after, and the treatment and service that they get from their home local authority. I am encouraged, however, by the development of the youth crime action plan, which is looking at the end to end reform of the youth justice system. A key facet of that concerns young people in custody and young people who are looked after within custody. There are many Governmental moves that we are happy about, but we have some concerns, largely around implementation—actually making these things happen meaningfully.

  Chris Callender: I do not think the Howard League needs any real introduction, but I would like to emphasise the legal department, which I have the honour of heading up, having joined and started it in 2002. Some 3,022 children are in custody today. We represent those children and young people. We must receive about three or four referrals on a daily basis. We have children asking for help and legal representation on a range of issues. The main issue that underpins this matter is access to justice—to having their rights and entitlements met—while they are in custody. We deal with issues around parole and early-release applications. There are children who are in need and who should be looked after being denied release because they have nowhere to go and, therefore, they end up doing additional time in prison in custody. We deal with recalls—children who are not coping on the outside being sent back to prison and asking for our assistance. We deal with children who are locked into conditions of 23½ hour bang-up per day because they have severe mental health problems, and unmet mental health needs. One of the big issues, and one that is of major concern to you, is the question of what we in the business call resettlement. That is what happens when the kids get kicked out of prison or the secure training centres and return to the communities from which they were sentenced. The real question here is the application of the Children Act 1989. I deal with two sections on a day to day basis. Section 17 deals with what is a child in need, and section 20 deals with the duty of local authorities to provide suitable accommodation and support for these children—and not merely a roof over their heads. Such children are the most vulnerable and damaged in our society. We get the files of those children from social services. We clench them and look through them and see that big warning signs have been going up for many years. Local authorities, in their guise as education or children services or youth offending teams, are not picking up and providing those children with the support that they need. I have three propositions. Children in need, before they get in to custody—possibly while they are offending in the community—are not getting the services that sometimes they ask and cry for and for which they are knocking on the door. They are refused those services. When they get them, those services are sometimes of a very poor standard and quality. They can be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation without support. That is inappropriate. They are knocking shoulder to shoulder with adults who have very severe mental health problems or drug abuse problems. There is a failure to undertake an assessment of their needs, as they are duty bound to do, and provide care plans. Once in custody, we find that children's services shut that file as quick as you like. That means that that child is locked up, not provided with ongoing support—you have seen evidence of that from other people who have contributed to this Committee—and they do not get a service when they are released. They are released in almost the same circumstances as they were in when they left. Through the Legal Services Commission, through the public purse, we are then obtaining injunctions in the High Court, almost on a daily basis, to force local authorities to do their duty and to provide such children with their entitlement. I hope that you have seen my biography. I took the liberty of giving you a long list of cases because I am trying to bring to your attention the fact that we have had to go to the House of Lords to emphasise that children are not getting their entitlements. Such children are going on to offend, which is not surprising. I am grateful.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Dr Hart: My concern is also with children who end up in custody. I have undertaken a project with looked-after children who are in custodial establishments. The overwhelming message that they gave me was that they felt abandoned by the social care system. They had had social workers with whom they were very familiar in the looked-after system. Once they started to commit offences, they felt that they had somehow been handed over to the youth justice system. That was while they were in custody, and also when they came out. They lost their placement while they were in custody, so they almost had to start again when they came out. All of the things that had supported them before—the relationships and placements—had been severed. Perhaps I am less cynical than Chris, but I felt that practitioners were trying to do a good job. If they achieved it, it was in spite of the systems and processes that were operating. I should like to see those systems and processes changed so that they support practitioners in retaining contact with those young people and meet their needs. Of the three big things that seem to get in the way, the first is the issue of visibility. We only speculate about how many looked-after children are in the youth justice system. That data is not collected by anybody, and we do not know who those children are or where they are. Because of the way services are inspected, they are not picked out. We do not know anything about their outcomes in relation to other young offenders. Another thing that gets in the way is the systems and processes. There are a lot of anomalies. For instance, if you have been in voluntary care, you are no longer considered to be in care if you go into custody. There are geographical boundaries: if you move to a children's home in another local authority, you will keep your social worker but get a different YOT (Youth Offending Team) worker. There are all sorts of systemic problems that cut across working with young people. More fundamentally, there are different approaches. The social care system is based on welfare needs and the youth justice system is based on criminogenic need, and the two approaches do not necessarily coincide. Although we understand the need for relationships in the social care system, that is not necessarily translated into the youth justice system. Children are moved a lot and their relationships and practitioners change all the time. There is a lack of joining up of the philosophy.

  Q314 Chairman: Thank you very much for those introductory remarks. Let us get started with a question. In a sense, the situation does not sound very good for young people who are looked after and end up in the criminal justice system. Is there a malign influence, or is it just that people fall between the cracks of different departments, local authorities and so on? If there is not a malign influence, as I suspect you will tell me, is it common for there to be real difficulties in other countries such as ours when there are two or more parallel systems?

  Bob Ashford: I cannot accept everything that Di said about the youth justice system focusing just on criminogenic needs and ignoring welfare needs—far from it, actually. The Youth Justice Board and the youth offending teams are very much about trying to make a bridge between welfare and criminal justice. People in a youth offending team are necessarily social workers, health workers, educationists, police officers, youth justice workers and so on. There is a large spread of people within a local YOT who are just as interested in assessing a young person's needs and why they started to offend, and addressing their needs, as in addressing criminogenic factors and holding young people to account. YOTs and the Youth Justice Board very much hold a dual approach.

  Q315 Chairman: But Dr Hart would be right in saying that they lose their local context and start over again if they go into the criminal justice system, would she not?

  Bob Ashford: Young people?

  Chairman: Say they come from Huddersfield, to use my own constituency, and are in a youth offending scheme down in Doncaster. They lose their local context and care workers, do they not?

  Bob Ashford: If they are looked after in one area and placed in another area far from home—I am sure that you are aware that that is often the case with young people, particularly troubled young people—they almost certainly lose not only their care worker, which changes to a local supervising officer, but their YOT worker. That is a positive thing in many ways, because obviously the local YOT worker will be familiar with local resources such as housing and education. That local resource is needed. What we are concerned about is maintaining the relationship between the home, placing authority and the local authority and YOT in which the young person is placed. On what happens nationally, I am aware of very good practice models in which the relationship between the home and placing authority and the home and placing YOT is maintained. There are other local authorities in which that relationship is not maintained. As a result of that, we are working with DCSF to establish good practice guidelines for what happens when young people are placed out of county, and the sort of services and support that they should receive not just from their local youth offending team, but from children's services. Returning to the point that you made originally about whether the separation is malign, I do not believe that it is malign. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is a good piece of legislation which defined services that local youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board would give to young people who were offending, It could have gone further in addressing what other local services, such as children's services and accommodation agencies, could and should have given to those young people who were offending, particularly those who were looked after. What has happened, partly as a result of that, is that many local agencies, such as children's services, now see young people who are offending and who are also looked after, as the remit of the local youth offending team. That is wrong. We certainly want those local partners—not just children's services, but housing, health and so on—to continue to provide that local service to those young people, whether or not they are looked after, when they are in the youth justice system. I am sure that you are aware that that can, hopefully, be fairly transitory. Young people come in, and leave the youth justice system, whereas looked after children will often be looked after for many years and some young people will be looked after for their whole childhood. We must try to ensure that local partners and local services continue to give that support to young people before, during and after their contact with the youth justice system.

  Chris Callender: I think the Committee must be clear about the question that it is asking itself. If a child in your constituency goes into custody and is then moved to a prison in another part of the country, it will be difficult for a social worker, for example, to spend a whole day or perhaps an overnight visit to maintain that contact. Staff in prisons, and most children are detained in prisons, often do not have many resources. There may be two prison officers to 45 kids—you may come to social workers later—but there are not many resources in prisons to maintain contact between the children and their home corporate parent. The next question to be clear about is whether you are talking about children with care orders under section 31, in which case there should be no question about the connection between the home local authority and the child, and the ongoing relationship, and children who are accommodated by voluntary arrangement under section 20. In our experience, children under section 20 find the files closed, so end of job. We brought a case against Manchester City Council—I have picked out that case because we brought it—and the court said loud and clear that it was not for children's services to dump on youth offending teams. That was our experience. The Manchester Youth Offending Team was told by children's services, "You do the job, not us." We had to bring a case to the High Court to knock some common sense into all this. It is clearly the duty of children's services to undertake the appropriate assessments requested and required under the Children Act 1989. Is it malign? I become frustrated in my little office in N1 when dealing with local authorities throughout the country who fight tooth and nail to resist my request to look after a child. That is very frustrating, and I am sometimes bemused at the aggressive attitude to my simple request. Sometimes, I am in the office until 10 o'clock in the evening asking a duty High Court judge to grant an injunction to require a local authority to discharge its duty under the Children Act 1989 to a vulnerable, damaged child with nowhere to go to prevent reoffending and sending the problem back. Is that malign, or is it a budget problem? You will see in our submission that we refer to the corporate parent being more orientated around budgets, accounts, balances and business plans rather than the best interests and the welfare of the child, which the 1989 Act invites them to deal with. I am not sure about that. Some of the answer, when trying to be positive to get around the line, is, "Let's create a financial incentive for local authorities to look after children." A child who goes into the criminal justice system and into a young offender institution becomes the financial burden of the Ministry of Justice. If we can create incentives for local authorities to look after children more thoroughly and appropriately, and to comply with their duties, perhaps they will do a better job and the children can remain in the community. So, it seems to me that it is really a question of enforcement. Regrettably, we often have to go down the route of the High Court to get enforcement. You raised international comparisons. I went to Italy not so long ago, where there are a number of differences—major differences—in the way that they approach children who offend, one being the age of criminal responsibility, which I will not dwell on. What they do do, as a matter of course—automatically when a child is arrested by an officer for committing an offence—is to produce a welfare report immediately, prior to charge. Let us find out the circumstances of the child. Why is this child out in the streets? Why is this child not being looked after? Why is this child not at school on a day to day basis? That was their immediate concern, their immediate response. In our case, in my experience, having worked in police stations representing children, there is no question about the needs of the child. No one ever asks the question about which home we are bailing this child back to—no questions are ever raised about that, and there is no investigation. That seems to be a big hole. We need to understand why these children get into the situations that they do.

  Dr Hart: The system is confusing and complicated, and there are lots of anomalies. There are often a lot of professionals involved with the young people, and it is not always entirely clear who is doing what and who is going to be held to account. Some of the social workers that I talk to were saying, "We would like to go and see them in prison, but we do not understand how prisons work, we do not really know what we are responsible for or what YOT's responsible for." There could certainly be a lot more clarity in terms of who is meant to be doing what. As Chris said, there are issues such as financial disincentives. If you are not going to be held to account for the fact that one of your looked-after children has gone to prison, and you are going to save money, then I found that managers particularly were saying to the social workers, "You don't have to go and visit him. He has got a YOT worker, and there's all these other cases that I would rather you were working on. And he is placed at the other end of the country." So, there are practical disincentives. Again as Chris says, in terms of comparisons with Europe, the fact that they all have a much older age of criminal responsibility obviously means that social care services are involved to an older age. But they also have more joined-up approaches. I know that in Finland, if a child commits an offence, the whole family is offered a joint appointment with a social worker and with someone with a youth justice background, to try and tease out what is going on for this child. "What do we need to do together to put it right?", rather than here, where we tend to pass young people backwards and forwards much more between agencies.

  Chairman: Thank you, that has got us off to a very good start. I would like Annette to drill down on that topic.

  Q316 Annette Brooke: I would like to look at the whole issue of the large number of looked-after children—proportionately—ending up in the criminal justice system. Could you give some idea of the breakdown of reasons why we have such a high proportion ending up in the criminal justice system?

  Dr Hart: There are three reasons. Inevitably, children who end up in the care system will have been disadvantaged. They will have had disruptions. We are increasingly realising how many of those children have had traumatic bereavements that have never been dealt with. There is a whole range of personal factors, which make them more vulnerable to offending, because of their distress. There are then a whole set of factors that operate within the care system. Various people have suggested that the worst thing to do with a turbulent, troubled adolescent is to accommodate them in a residential home with lots of other turbulent, troubled adolescents. There will be all sorts of peer pressures, perhaps an inexperienced staff group, who are not good at responding to challenging behaviour.

  Q317 Annette Brooke: Is there a lack of qualified staff in the children's homes?

  Dr Hart: There is. Residential child care is a low-status profession. Staff have some NVQ training, some staff have no training. There are some qualified social workers, but definitely the skill base can be quite low. Then, if we move children—placement disruption, when they are moved to a new place—that inevitably, with the peer pressures, might cause young people to offend. However, I think that there is a whole other set of factors that we are not aware of—whether the system itself serves to label looked-after children if they commit an offence. We do not know whether magistrates judge them more harshly, perhaps, than other young people in the same situation. People have suggested that magistrates might be reluctant to bail a young person, if they live in a children's home, so there might well be differences in people's response to looked-after children, when they commit offences, compared with other young people. The chances of young people offending, and of being treated more harshly when they do, can come into play at various levels.

  Annette Brooke: Do Bob or Chris have anything to add?

  Bob Ashford: Just a couple of things: the peak age of offending is about 15 and 16, which for many young people, I guess, is also the age at which their care episode might begin—Chris pointed out section 20 and the voluntary accommodation path. For many of those young people, there is almost a belief sometimes that social services are queuing up to take young people into care. In my experience, as a former child care manager, the reality is far from that. I think that social and children's services departments are sometimes reluctant to take young people, particularly 15 and 16-year-olds, into care. Partly as a result of that, I believe, those young people become even more vulnerable, because they have been taken out of their family, but are not receiving any form of care from children's services, which can itself be an even bigger risk factor in terms of their offending behaviour. I would also like to emphasise the point about residential care, on which Di has touched already. I am sure that you have seen from our submission that one of our biggest concerns is that many young people enter residential care without an offending history, but end up with one after becoming involved in "incidents" at the residential home. If the young person was in their own home or in foster care, such incidents would be dealt with by the parents or foster carers. As you have heard, very often, the staff in residential homes involved in such incidents will tend to be among the youngest and most underpaid in the social care field without the necessary qualifications and support. They will, therefore, tend to call the police, as a result of which incidents and behaviour that might be fairly trivial end up as offences heard in court and the young person ends up with a criminal history.

  Q318 Annette Brooke: A magistrate told me about an adolescent who threw a wobbly and starting throwing china everywhere, as a result of which they ended up before a magistrate. Would that be highly unlikely to happen to a child in foster care, as opposed to a residential home?

  Bob Ashford: I think that it would be far more unlikely to happen in foster care.

  Q319 Annette Brooke: But it could still happen?

  Bob Ashford: It can happen in our own homes—dare I say it—when teenagers and children kick off, but we manage that as parents. The difficulty in residential care is that very often the staff working late nights and weekends feel unsupported—sometimes they are unsupported—so things that can and should be dealt with become a major issue for that particular home. That is not just a concern of the YJB—the Magistrates' Association, the police and ACPO have all raised it, as a result of which lines within the Children and Young Persons Bill are now looking at improving the work force and drawing up protocols between local authority children's services departments, local youth offending teams and the police, which have been used to great effect in many local authority areas. As we pointed out in our submission, where that has happened—in places such as Wiltshire and Hertfordshire—there has been a huge reduction in offending by looked-after children, because those young people, who were at risk of offending in residential care homes, have been supported through measures such as restorative justice, mentoring and so on. The staff have also been supported. However, we still have concerns and would like more movement than perhaps there is in the development of those protocols in that area of work. It is a huge area on which we could work more—everyone is agreed on that.

  Chris Callender: I have come across cases where the only convictions that a child has had relate to offences within a children's home, including criminal damage or theft and occasionally more serious robberies. That indicates to me that in some of these homes there is a lack of control. I think that this comes back to Di's point about the quality of care in certain circumstances. Some anecdotal evidence that I get from the children relates to some pretty dire service provision—often on a contracted-out basis. That brings in bigger and more serious questions about who is auditing, who is inspecting and who is going in to check that the systems are in place and that a proper level of care and supervision is being undertaken with such children and children's homes. On top of that, there is the other question of the quality of care: people understanding that they have to undertake needs assessment, produce care plans, engage with the child, establish in detail the child's needs and then create a care plan with that child being part of that process—participating and engaging in their own care. You are mapping out the life of a very fragile human being—often very severely abused and neglected in the past—and it is simply not good enough to go through what I sometimes see as a tick-box process when I look through files. It is terrible to say this, but in the hundreds of cases that I have dealt with, and of all the files that I have had from social services, I have rarely seen an assessment of the child's needs and rarely got a holistic picture of the child or a regularly reviewed care plan in which the social worker was consistent. We referred to our involvement with a case in which there will be an inquiry. I am the only consistent adult among that child's relationships and in her history over the past five years. That is not good enough. If we are going to have to look after children, we really have to do so properly and in the way that Bob mentioned—as a parent, making parental decisions sensitively and in an emotionally appropriate way.

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