- Residential staff were trained in restorative justice skills to manage low-level incidents without police involvement
- Multi-agency police-chaired forums decide how to respond to reported offences by these young people, preventing their entry to the criminal justice system wherever possible
In Care, Out of Trouble, published last year by the Prison Reform Trust following a review chaired by Lord Laming, calls for "close joint work" between police, social care and others to protect looked-after children from criminalisation. These children are six times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of offences than others, according to government figures, and 13- to 15-year-olds in children's homes are six times more at risk of this than looked-after peers in other placements, according to the 2016 Howard League for Penal Reform report Criminal Care: Children's Homes and Criminalising Children.
When taking up post in March 2015, Jennie Mattinson, West Mercia Police's chief inspector of uniform operations, based in Shropshire, was struck by the challenges of policing a county with one of the highest numbers of children's homes - there were 72, run by 19 providers. Young people from 91 local authorities had been placed in Shropshire homes - a group most vulnerable to missing episodes, abuse and criminalisation, according to a 2014 Ofsted review. West Mercia Police attended 2,010 incidents in 118 children's homes across Shropshire and neighbouring authorities in 2014/15, the highest number cited in the Howard League's Criminal Care report.
Lord Laming's review recommendations were still a year away, but Mattinson was not prepared to wait. "Out-of-county children fall between the cracks because they're away from their responsible corporate parent, making it really difficult to give them the protection they need," she says. "We didn't know where any of them were." So she enlisted a sergeant and two constables to work alongside the force's missing person's co-ordinator. They visited Shropshire's children's homes to build a profile of each young person, including a photo, social worker details, vulnerabilities, risks, and the people or places they may gravitate towards, "so that at the point of them going missing, we weren't trying to find out all these basic details, but were already on the front foot in finding them and understanding the risks they faced".
The Resilient Care Home Team also emphasised to children's home staff their responsibility to act as parents in dealing with behavioural problems and low-level incidents such as domestic criminal damage without involving the police. West Mercia Police offered Level 1 Restorative Justice training to 70 children's home staff in 2015, enabling them to address such incidents themselves, by discussing the impact with the young person and agreeing reparative solutions. "These are some of the most challenging children, because of their backgrounds," explains Mattinson. "So that's the behaviour you have to sometimes expect from them. If my son punched a hole in the door, I wouldn't report him to police for criminal damage at 14."
When offences are reported in Shropshire and neighbouring West Mercia authorities, police now convene a multi-agency decision-making forum, pulling together the young person's social worker, senior care home staff and the youth offending service. The police-chaired forum discusses the young person's history and behaviour leading up to the incident, before agreeing the criminal justice response. This could include a "community resolution" with conditions attached, such as engaging with mental health services. "I see a looked-after child committing a crime or engaging in unacceptable behaviour, much like I see going missing, as a symptom of something else going wrong," says Mattinson. "If we don't deal with the root cause, we're going to see an escalation or a repeat of that behaviour. What's crucial is understanding the trigger for them behaving that way, and all partners going away with actions to deal with the root cause."
Police neighbourhood teams visit children's homes regularly, keeping residents' profiles up-to-date by logging new arrivals or departures, and emerging vulnerabilities or concerns. Their work is overseen by two police officers job-sharing as care home co-ordinator, who also organise the decision-making forums. Similar work is now underway across West Mercia Police's other three authorities and Warwickshire.
Mattinson, now chief inspector, strategic service improvement, is seeking funding from West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner to commission an independent organisation to conduct "return home interviews" with out-of-county young people going missing from Shropshire homes - something she suspects their home authorities often fail to carry out. She believes investment in this 12-month pilot will reap a "massive return", helping police and partners understand and address the issues behind these incidents.
A protocol has now been signed by West Mercia and Warwickshire police and youth justice services and their five authorities - Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Telford and Wrekin and Warwickshire - committing them all to working together to divert looked-after young people from the justice system wherever possible.
West Mercia Police saw a 21 per cent reduction in reported offences by looked-after children in Shropshire in the spring and summer of 2015, compared to the same six-month period in 2014.
Cautions issued to looked-after children made up 7.7 per cent of all children's cautions in 2015/16, down from 14 per cent the previous year. And the 60 missing incidents recorded in Shropshire last July now average around 30 per month.
Steve Ladd, Shropshire County Council's service manager for children's placements, says the Resilient Care Home Team facilitated "some good examples of really joined-up working" following missing episodes, leading to "very speedy response and recovery".