The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a government review of how police forces record information on the topic, after analysis identified potential missed opportunities to help rather than criminalise children.
The report, Know your numbers: Using data to monitor and address criminalisation, analyses the results of freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
The charity asked police to report on callouts to Ofsted-registered homes between 2012 and 2018, broken down by missing incidents, alleged crimes, and safeguarding issues.
Results from the 26 areas that responded, reveal how some homes do not call the police at all, while others pick up the phone repeatedly and sometimes for matters that would not involve police if they happened in the family home.
Nearly 23,000 calls were made in 2018, some individual settings called police more than 200 times, and most forces said they had a home which had called them more than 100 times.
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Responses also highlight a series of problems with the data, the campaign says.
These include inconsistencies on recording between forces, incomplete data, a lack of clarity around whether incidents related to a resident child or someone else, and confusion over whether crimes had been "perpetrated by or against children".
The charity is calling for better data management and analysis across forces, adding that some did not recognise the "need to collect and draw on the data to assist their policing of children's homes".
The most common reason for callouts were missing incidents - which accounted for about half of the number, and are associated with a higher likelihood of children being criminalised.
Durham good practice
The report highlights Durham Police as an example of good practice - the force is using data as part of a programme of work with children's homes to reduce criminalisation and safeguard children.
The force's Task and Coordination Command Centre monitors and analyses police contact with all homes and any issues affecting children living there, aiming to identify issues much earlier.
A specialist, multi-agency team also flags children who are regularly going missing and looks at what can be done to reduce risk.
The force also keeps detailed records of its involvement with individual homes that can be accessed by any officer in the force.
These records contain a wealth of information, including details of call-outs and issues including problems with staffing.
These records are used to develop bespoke problem-solving plans for homes.
A senior officer told researchers: "You can't manage the dynamic response challenges to a children's home unless you have a place to pull together long-term problem solving solutions for it."
Callout is opportunity to help
The report states: "We know that some of the calls to the police will be an entirely appropriate response by children's homes to a serious situation.
"Every call to the police, however, whether appropriate or not, indicates a serious problem in the life of that child.
"These may be personal issues for that child or failings within the home or other parts of the care system that are adversely affecting them.
"The data can be the starting point to identifying a problem exists and starting to address it.
"Better recording, interrogation and monitoring of data is key to addressing problem areas.
"We urge the government and police forces to review and improve current recording and reporting systems in order to build on successes and prevent more children in residential care from being unnecessarily criminalised."
Despite the high call rates, the proportion who have been criminalised during their stay in a children's home fell from 15 per cent to 10 per cent between 2014 to 2018, with a three per cent drop seen over the last year.
A FoI request submitted to the DfE by the Howard League revealed that 77 percent of children who had been formally criminalised while living in a children's home between April 2017 and March 2018, had gone missing from placement at some point during the year.
The report suggests this reflects falling rates of child arrests across the child population, but underlines that children in residential care are more likely to be criminalised than all other children, including those in other types of care placement.
The charity has been campaigning on the issue since 2016, calling for children's homes, police and the government to do more to prevent criminalisation.
Chief executive Frances Crook, said that children living in residential care need nurture and support, not repeated contact with the police and criminalisation.
"While the figures we publish today show there is some way to go before the police and children's homes properly understand the scale of the problem, official figures from the Department for Education suggest the efforts of the Howard League and others are now having an impact.
"We need to see everyone build on this, with more action to stop children in residential care having their lives blighted with a criminal record."