Protecting children in care from prosecution and punishment

Article 39’s submission to Lord Laming’s independent review into looked after children in the criminal justice system stresses the importance of protecting children from the known harms of the criminal justice system, including being labelled and publicly identified as a criminal, increased contact with more experienced offenders, detention in abusive penal institutions and restrictions on future employment. We argue that meeting children’s needs, and upholding their rights, together with ensuring their long-term care and prospects are secure, are key factors in reducing children in care’s involvement with the criminal justice system.

The Prison Reform Trust launched the independent review in June 2015, “to consider why looked after children are more likely than other children in England and Wales to get involved with the criminal justice system, and what can be done to help more children in care stay out of trouble”.

Last week the media reported the case of a 15 year-old vulnerable boy who was prosecuted for burglary after entering a locked room through an open window in his children’s home, and taking a box of ASDA choc ices from the staff fridge. The boy apparently ate one of the ice creams. Magistrates dismissed the case after the boy’s lawyer, Jason La Corbiniere, successfully argued that this was the child’s home. Corbiniere later told a journalist: “Can you imagine the state prosecuting your child for not asking can he have an ice cream from the freezer?”.

Crown Prosecution Service guidance in relation to children in care states, “The police are more likely to be called to a children’s home than a domestic setting to deal with an incident of offending behaviour by an adolescent. Specialists should bear this in mind when dealing with incidents that take place in a children’s home”.

Immigration detention staff not trained to care for children

A report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons says Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire “is rightly a place of national concern”.

Most of those detained are single women, though children are held there sometimes. Inspectors report that, across the past year, 23 individuals have been detained at Yarl’s Wood who said they were children. Of these, 13 (57%) had been assessed to be children. Although child detainees “were appropriately cared for in the centre”, there was no regular safeguarding training for custody officers. Some had not been trained “for several years”.

Yarl’s Wood is run by Serco under contract with the UK Government. The inspection took place in April and May this year.

NHS must say when you have been harmed

The National Health Service (NHS) Constitution has been amended to take in the new duty to notify patients (or their families) when there has been a “safety incident” resulting in death or harm.

This duty applies equally to child and adult patients.

The revised Constitution, dated 27 July 2015, states:

“You must be told about any safety incident relating to your care which, in the opinion of a healthcare professional, has caused, or could still cause, significant harm or death. You must be given the facts, an apology, and any reasonable support you need.”

The accompanying Handbook to the NHS Constitution defines significant harm as:

“a permanent lessening of bodily, sensory, motor, physiologic or intellectual functions, including removal of the wrong limb or organ or brain damage, that is related directly to the incident and not related to the natural course of the service user’s illness or underlying condition.”

Although the Handbook’s definition uses the word “permanent”, the regulations governing the new duty of candour require incidents leading to moderate harm, prolonged pain or prolonged psychological harm to be reported to the patient, or his or her family. Article 39 has written to health minister, Ben Gummer MP, for clarification as to the different thresholds. We have also asked whether children’s distinct developmental needs were considered during the drafting of the statutory definitions of prolonged pain and prolonged pyschological harm, which both have time periods of 28 days for children and adults alike.

Restraint research published

The Youth Justice Board has published research it commissioned in 2013 on the use of head-holds in child prisons. Twenty-two adults studying at Coventry University, aged between 18 and 24, volunteered to have their heart and lung function tested in a laboratory whilst they were subject to 12 different head-holds. The psychological impact on the students was also recorded.

The researchers recommend that children be held in as upright position as possible, since head-holds at a 70 degree angle were found to be more uncomfortable than a 30 degree angle. They also warn about the risks of children’s mouths being “held closed” during this type of restraint, and say the dangers should be emphasised in training.

In April 2004, 15 year-old Gareth Myatt died whilst being subject to the ‘seated double embrace’ form of restraint then authorised for use on children in secure training centres and immigration detention. A mixed race child, Gareth had been looked after by his local authority on five separate occasions and was very vulnerable. He weighed around 41kg and was just 1.5 metres tall. The three G4S officers holding him down at Rainsbrook secure training centre ignored his cries that he couldn’t breathe.

Introduce statutory limits to immigration detention, says UN

UK law must set limits on how long an individual can be held in immigration detention, says the UN Human Rights Committee.

The UN body of experts monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose rights were drawn from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights established after the Second World War.

There is currently no upper limit on the time a child or an adult is held in immigration detention in the UK.

Latest statistics published by the government show 121 children entered immigration detention in the year ending March 2015. Of the 43 children leaving detention in the first three months of 2015:

  • 29 had been held for less than 4 days
  • 11 were held for between 4 and 7 days
  • 3 were held for between 15 and 28 days.

The UN Committee also urged the UK to increase the age of criminal responsbility, which is currently 10 in England and Wales. Such a move would reduce the use of imprisonment, since welfare rather than criminal justice agencies would be required to respond to the needs of children at a much earlier stage.

Consistent with successive recommendations from other human rights bodies, at home and abroad, the UK Government was also told to give children the same protection from assault as adults.

Read the UN report here.