By Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns, Howard League for Penal Reform
The Howard League has been campaigning on the issue of child arrests for many years. In the latest figures, we hailed a 68 per cent reduction in child arrests since 2010 (see graphic). That is a massive achievement.
We do however think there is room for even further improvement. One of these areas is in the policing of children in residential care. As we have met with forces across the country, time and again officers raised concerns about unnecessary police contact with children's homes.
In 2016, we launched a specific programme of work to end the criminalisation of children in residential care. We have found widespread concern in police forces about the demand placed on them by some children's homes. Police officers have told us they can feel like a "respite" service for staff struggling to cope with vulnerable young people and we have been presented with a catalogue of cases where the police have been called to deal with behaviour that would never see a parent pick up the phone to dial 101 - let alone 999.
Despite these concerns, we also acknowledge there is a real problem with data when it comes to police contact with children's homes. Exploratory research we conducted was unable to come up with reliable country-wide data from police forces on call-outs and arrests made. The data we did receive, however, pointed to a high level of police involvement in children's homes.
Progress is being made: Ofsted has started collecting data on police call-outs from children's homes; police forces have improved their data recording and practices; children's homes have begun implementing strategies to reduce criminalisation; and the issue is higher up the agenda of councils.
We hope this means change is already happening on the ground. If so, the benefits could be huge. One police force, West Mercia, is working with its children's homes to reduce inappropriate call-outs and has been hugely successful in doing so. Since commencing that work, overall child arrests in West Mercia have dropped by more than a third in a year.
As we move into our programme's next phase, the Howard League will be focusing on improving available data around police involvement in children's homes and foregrounding the individual stories of young people experiencing criminalisation.
We will also be looking at emerging issues, such as concern around unregistered settings and the interface between county lines gangs and the market in residential care.
Jonathan Stanley, chair, Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA)
NO The association was among the first to adopt the South East protocol for the decriminalisation of looked-after children and have consistently advocated for its implementation.
ICHA has been part of a Department for Education working group on a decriminalisation protocol for looked-after children that should lead to national procedures and guidance aiming to reduce unnecessary police involvement in managing behaviour.
There is good evidence that young people are receiving, in the words of the Howard League 2016 publication concerning children's homes, "the help and support these children so desperately need".
The successful performance of the sector is shown in inspection outcomes. Analysis of all inspection data finds the charge of criminalisation of young people living in children's homes is absent. The Narey report on residential care concluded instances of criminalisation of young people was "genuinely small". The Prison Reform Trust agrees.
We asked the sector in 2016: How many times have you called the police to your home(s)? The response was yearly, if at all. Homes and staff deal with risky and/or violent behaviour as part of their task. This can result in people getting hurt or property damaged; regardless, staff often prefer to work restoratively with the person.
The reality is that involvement with the police is low and declining further. We met with a regional police authority who agreed with this analysis.
The Howard League creates a distorting image that does not reflect reality and is unrecognised by the sector. We are concerned that in making this misrepresentation of children's homes, the Howard League loses credibility detracting from its work elsewhere.
Rather than the annual charge and response, we need to move on. Here are two suggestions how we can: first, children's homes are fastidious as to the young people who they can now accept. So the question is what homes are being included in the data the Howard League reports? We need forensic data. Does Howard League data only include Ofsted-registered homes, or does it include unregistered settings and other children's homes, such as 16+ settings and hostels? Can we distinguish local authority and independent sectors?
Second, we need indisputable evidence, differentiating varying types of police involvement. How is "incident" defined? The police attend homes for many reasons, most not related to any criminal activity. Without classification, a mundane "involvement" can be interpreted in any way.