Irish Penal Reform Trust

The Howard League for Penal Reform: Ending the Criminalisation of Children in Care, Briefing One

12th July 2017

“The criminalisation of children in residential care should be a national concern” – Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

The Howard League for Penal Reform has published a briefing paper highlighting the need for children’s homes and police to be aware of the serious harm caused by frequent placement moves and other instabilities, to children in care. Repetitive change of residents, change of social worker and moving schools has been proven to have adverse effects on the child, resulting in instability and feelings of rejection which ultimately lead to poor outcomes. 

The briefing is the first of a series to be published as part of a two-year Howard League programme to end the criminalisation of children living in residential care, aimed at finding out why so many children in the care of the state are getting into trouble with the law, and to work with the police and the staff in children’s homes in order to find a model of best practice which would work to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care. 

The Criminalsiation of Children in Care

Children aged 16 and 17 living in children’s homes are at least 15 times more likely to be criminalised than other children of the same age. Of these children 70% had been taken into care because of acute family stress, family dysfunction, parental illness/disability or absent parenting. An additional 14% were taken into care primarily because of abuse or neglect (2016). The brief highlights the fact that children in care are much more likely to be criminalised over minor incidents. In fact, in 2013, the House of Commons Justice Committee reported concerns that children’s homes were calling the police for minor offending and trivial incidents which would never come to police attention if they took place in family homes (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2013).

It is not known exactly how many children are being criminalised while they are living in children’s homes as local authorities are only required to tell the government about convictions by children who have been looked after continuously for at least 12 months. More than half of children who left care during the year 2015-16 had been in care for under a year (in their latest period of care), and so it is likely that official figures hugely under-represent the extent of the problem.

Missing Incidents

According to Department of Education figures in 2014, children living in regulated children’s homes are more likely to go missing than from any other type of placement. However, the extent of the problem is still largely unknown due to poor data recording and collection. HM Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) asked all 43 police forces in England and Wales for data on missing children to inform its 2016 report, ‘Missing children who cares? - The police response to missing and absent children’. The report highlighted huge problems with data quality and collection. There are concerns that there is a high chance that children are being exploited and criminalised while they’re missing from their placement, however, due to a lack of collected data it is impossible to monitor these concerns.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Highly vulnerable children in the care of the State are often being criminalised rather than being given the supports they need. Without these supports, their feelings of instability and rejection are being compounded, as such these children are being failed by the State, their corporate parent, and by all professionals and agencies who have been assigned a duty of care regarding their welfare.

Over the next 18 months the Howard League for Penal Reform will continue to look into the reasons underpinning high criminalisation rates of children in residential care, and look to examples of good practice by both the police force and the staff of children’s home, to help prevent children in care being pulled into the criminal justice system. The results of this research will be presented in future briefings.

Read the full brief here

Read the press release here

For more about the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care here

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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