- Multi-agency approach encourages practices that strengthen relationships between police, care staff and young people.
- The buy-in of Dorset Police has been key to success.
An approach known as "slow time" is helping to reduce the criminalisation of young people in children's homes in Dorset.
The principle - embedded in the pan-Dorset protocol drawn up in 2016 in response to the level of inappropriate police callouts to care facilities in the county - stipulates that police should be called only when there is an immediate risk to people or property. Otherwise the decision to call police should not be decided there and then but instead should be made the next day.
Figures from the Department for Education for 2017/18, reveal that looked-after children who have been in care for at least 12 months are five times more likely to offend than all children. The pan-Dorset protocol - a forerunner of the national protocol launched in November 2018 - was established to tackle the criminalisation of those in care by providing guidance to carers about when to involve the police, thus reducing looked-after children's contact with the criminal justice system.
The document sets out key principles, including appropriate actions for different levels of incident, police roles and responsibilities, and the use of restorative justice. While the aim of the protocol is to reduce the criminalisation of children and young people in care, it acknowledges the rights and needs of victims and in any decision-making process.
David Webb, service manager at Dorset Combined Youth Offending Service, chairs the multi-agency group responsible for drawing up the guidelines and ensuring they are followed. The group, made up of Dorset Police, Dorset youth offending team, local authorities and private care home providers, meets three times a year to analyse callouts to care homes. At the last meeting, it looked at seven incidents, with a representative from the police responsible for following up with care providers whose actions transgressed the protocol.
Webb explains that prior to the introduction of the protocol, calls to the police were about managing behaviour and not necessarily criminal behaviour. Other inappropriate callouts concerned low-level criminal damage - for example, breaking a piece of crockery.
According to a report by the Howard League, the more contact a child has with the criminal justice system, the more entrenched they are likely to become, which increases reoffending rates.
Reducing callouts, and encouraging the use of alternative resolution approaches in response to low-level incidents, help to prevent crime.
To counteract this culture of calling the police in the first instance, care home staff in Dorset have been trained in restorative conversations, meaning they are now better able to deal with challenging behaviour without recourse to the police. The force has also worked with care home staff and managers to make them more confident in dealing with such things as first-time use of class B and class C drugs.
Webb attributes the success of the protocol to the "good buy-in from the police", which has been "critical" to ensuring it works.
Each children's home has a single point of contact from the neighbourhood policing team. That officer will visit the setting on a regular basis, enabling children to see the police in a positive light. Dorset Police control room staff have been trained on the protocol and it forms part of staff inductions at care homes in the area. Webb says: "No one thought it wasn't a good idea. Everyone agrees with it in principle."
The protocol has seen numbers of callouts decrease steadily but it remains an ongoing issue, as staff at children's homes move on and police roles change. For example, last summer, the use of agency staff at one home led to an increase in callouts. Webb says: "We have to keep at it. We need to keep the protocol fresh in people's minds."
The Howard League highlighted the protocol as good practice in a report published in December 2017.
Following its introduction there has been a steady reduction in the number of callouts involving children in residential care, says Webb, from 52 in 2016 to 37 in 2017.
In the first three-quarters of 2018, there were 20. More significantly, perhaps, calls from residential child care staff to manage behaviour or regarding low-level criminal damage have stopped.
Webb believes the introduction of the national concordat will lead to a further reduction in callouts in the county as it will provide an opportunity to review and promote the pan-Dorset protocol and will lead to consistency regarding cared-for children placed outside the county.