Addressing Criminalisation in London’s Care System from a Lived Experience Perspective at City Hall
It is the morning of the first day of February 2019. It may be torrentially raining but members of the Drive Forward Policy Forum are leaving city hall feeling happy and excited. Some of them have just met with Sophie Linden (the London Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime) and she has agreed to chair an event on the issue of unnecessary criminalisation in the care system. Crucially this will be a conference entirely organised by the Drive Forward Policy Forum, ensuring it comes from those with lived experience of the care system.
Seven months later, eight policy forum members are nervously awaiting the start of a conference they have spent the last four months extensively planning. Some of them have been preparing to share their own personal experiences of criminalisation, others are waiting to screen a short film they have put weeks of effort into and all of them are steadying themselves to make the case for their key ask: a joined up London strategy spear-headed by City Hall to address this issue.
Encouragingly, people have showed up and the room is packed. Councillors, Deputy Mayors, representatives from the MET, the Department for Education, the Magistrates Association, CPS, Local Government Association and more fill the room. In an opening exercise, all attendees are encouraged to ask themselves whether they have full trust in the police to protect them. There is complete silence as a video is screened sharing the experiences of two young people criminalised as children in care. Audible gasps can be heard when the three panellists discuss their damaging experiences with the police; instances of being marched out of a playground by officers for answering back to a teacher; and being strip searched for being found with a blade the person in question was using to self-harm. The audience is shocked and shaken by what they are hearing.
These testimonies paint a small part of a much larger picture where care experienced people are disproportionately over-represented in England’s criminal justice system. We were joined by representatives from the Howard League, who shared their in-depth research which found that children living in residential care are 13 times more likely to be criminalised than their peers. Additionally, some children’s homes called the police over 200 times last year, often for incidents that parents would resolve with domestic discipline.
This is only further compounded by the fact that England’s criminal records system is highly punitive in regards to childhood convictions. Unlike many other European countries, records and cautions acquired in youth cannot be erased until you are 100 years old. Couple this with an employment culture that has a penchant for DBS checks and many care experienced people have found themselves unable to move on from their background in care. Convictions and cautions obtained for things as small as throwing sugar at a painting have inhibited their ability to progress. Many of these care experienced people are even unaware they have these convictions in the first place, owing to a confusing legal system not equipped to deal with vulnerable children and young people.
It is also important to keep in mind that this is happening to children who are already amongst society’s most vulnerable and overlooked. Typically, a child who is put into care will have adverse childhood experiences that create lasting trauma they must live with for the rest of their lives. As Tayo Hassan – a care experienced Criminal Barrister speaking at the event – reflected, the experience of being detained in a police cell for even a few hours will only compound this trauma and may have triggering effects. The criminal justice system will continue to fail these looked-after children by not properly seeking to understand the impact of the trauma the vast majority of them have and how this can manifest in their behaviour and interaction with the environment and the people around them.
The criminal justice system is multifaceted with many different institutions and individuals playing a significant role in how a case proceeds. In respect to care experienced individuals, the care system is part of this process. With no family to champion them, care experienced young people need their social workers, teachers, foster carers and any other responsible adult in their lives to take up this task. In other words, this problem is one that requires a crosscutting societal solution. Something that is far from unique to other issues that care experience people face.
It was for this very reason that the room was filled with such a cross section of public servants and decision makers. The policy forum was using this event to demand a multi-agency approach and wanted their audience to reflect that ambition. This was perfectly reflected in their key ask, a bespoke London strategy – developing on from the template laid out in the Department for Education’s 2018 protocol – to be created by them and all the other relevant stakeholders in the room.
When a child can no longer rely on their family they become not only beholden to the care system but to the many institutions that make up our society. It is when these institutions do not recognise the responsibility they have to these children that problems such as unnecessary childhood criminalisation occur. The problem therefore cannot be adequately remedied if there is not a true commitment to act from all stakeholders.
Closing the event, one of the policy forum members called on everyone attending to act. Stressing that to criminalise children requires many, so to comprehensively decriminalise care requires action from everyone.
Head of Political Engagement