Ending the Criminalisation of Children in Residential Care - Good Practice in Children's Homes

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Over the last two years, Howard League has conducted extensive qualitative research on good practice in the prevention of criminalisation of children in residential care. This report is based on its research findings.

  • Howard League for Penal Reform
  • December 2017

Children living in residential care are at least 13 times more likely to be criminalised than all other children (Howard League, 2017). Over the last two years, Howard League has conducted extensive qualitative research on good practice in the prevention of criminalisation of children in residential care. Owners and staff of private, voluntary and local authority homes and children and young people who are, or who have recently, lived in children's homes have been spoken to. This report is based on its research findings.

Principled approach

This report sets out some core principles that should be applied in all children's homes to help protect children from unnecessary criminalisation; many echo government guidance to the Children's Homes Regulations and Quality Standards (2015). The focus is on providing some foundational elements that will improve the emotional wellbeing of abused and traumatised children with a view to improving behaviour and reducing the need for these interventions.

These core principles were put into two categories: "hearts" - the emotional needs of children, and "heads"- the business side of running a children's home, and relate to things like placements, staffing and police contact.


Nearly 10 per cent of the children in prison were asked what they wanted from "home". The findings showed that the children and young people were not concerned about material things, they wanted affection and kindness and patience so they could grow through their challenges and thrive. These included:

The job of a care worker is that of "professional parent"; it is parenting to the highest possible standard.

Good children's homes understand how important it is for children to feel love and acceptance and how this can impact on behaviour.

Researchers heard that strong relationships between staff and children lead to improvements in behaviour.

Working with councils
Children's homes are in co-parenting relationships with local authorities, which can sometimes prove difficult. The authors say the best providers find ways of working through the difficulties to build strong relationships because they know that this is in the best interests of the children in their care.

A proper home
Children's homes should be comfortable, not like offices. They have photos, artwork and achievement certificates on the walls and fridge door. Children are much less likely to damage property in a home they respect.

Many low-level incidents that have led to criminalisation started with disputes over food, the research found. Parents do not lock fridges and kitchens; they have snacks available for hungry teenagers; they encourage healthy eating but allow treats; and they don't let children go hungry or force them to eat meals they wouldn't touch.

Good children's homes strive to implement routines and other elements of a normal childhood. The report says that this means children having clothes and possessions that allow them to explore and express who they are and fit in with their peers.


Robust strategies for ensuring that new children are well matched to homes and the other children already living in them should be in place. Emergency placements should be avoided wherever possible.

Paperwork about children tends to be inaccurate, out-of-date, judgmental and incomplete. The authors say good owners will train staff to build up a true picture of the child by obtaining other relevant documentation and speaking to people who know the child.

Missing incidents and behavioural issues leading to criminalisation often occur around moves. Placement moves need to be carefully managed to make sure that the new child and other children already in the home are prepared and their individual needs considered.

The report states a good staff team, with a mix of personal qualities, is essential to providing the culture and care that protects children from being criminalised. Successful homes have strong, skilled managers who are capable of bringing together a team and acting as champions for staff as well as for children.

Owners should enforce rigorous recruitment procedures so that children's homes are only staffed by people who care about and want to work with complex children. Debate about the need for qualifications is unresolved, with many emphasising the value of personal qualities and experience. There is consensus, however, that all children's home staff need to have sufficient, relevant, ongoing training that enables them to understand, support and manage the high levels of need of children in residential care.

The police should only be called immediately in an emergency situation; at other times staff should be required to talk the matter over with the on-call manager and to have a "cooling off period" before making any decisions. Records should be kept and incidents analysed so that contact with the police can be properly monitored.

Implications for practice

  • The report foregrounds relationship-based practice as a key element of improving young people's behaviour.
  • This means that staff need to adopt a parenting role that enables young people to live as normal lives as possible - provided with love, acceptance and a homely environment; being listened to without judgment; with staff responding as parents would to missing incidents based on individual risk profiles without involving the police; and facilitating normal routines that enable young people to want to go to school, mix with peers outside of the home and engage in activities in the community.
  • Staff and managers can also prevent "informal criminalisation" by ensuring that young people in residential settings have as little unnecessary contact with the police at the home as possible.

Click here to read more in CYP Now's Residential Care special report

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