Challenging secrecy in child prisons

Article 39 has today (6 December 2019) submitted a request for a freedom of information (FOI) internal review to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), which has refused to release details of very serious child abuse in an unnamed child prison.

Our probing follows the publication of the PPO’s annual report in October. It contained a summary of a very serious complaint made by a child – see below. The PPO investigation concluded the boy had been subject to excessive force, but the prison rejected this finding.

Taken from PPO annual report, published October 2019

Article 39 contends that the excessive force described here meets official definitions of physical and emotional abuse.

Article 39’s freedom of information request

We submitted an FOI request in October 2019 for the following:

1.       The name of the young offender institution in which this restraint incident took place.

2.       With any necessary redactions, a) a copy of the complaints investigation report pertaining to ‘Mr K’ and b) correspondence and documents showing the response of the young offender institution and the Youth Custody Service to your findings and recommendations.

3.       Indication as to whether the boy made the complaint to the PPO after he had left, or been moved from, the YOI in which the incident took place.

Our request for an internal review – as submitted to PPO today

There is a legitimate interest in disclosure of the above information (with necessary redactions) because it concerns the protection of vulnerable children in closed institutions. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s finding that excessive force had been used on the boy was rejected by the young offender institution. This could indicate inadequate safeguarding awareness and arrangements within the institution, which may put other children at risk of significant harm (see especially the governor’s safeguarding duties under s11 of the Children Act 2004). 

Excessive force of the kind described in your case study fits the definitions of physical and emotional abuse in the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children (attached, pages 102-103). It may also have been a criminal offence.  

We draw your attention to the investigation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which reported in February this year. It concluded: “Children are particularly vulnerable when placed in a closed institution where access to the outside world is necessarily restricted and those in authority are distrusted by the children themselves. It is all the more difficult to escape an abuser when there is nowhere to hide” (page 98 of attached report). 

As a registered charity promoting and protecting the rights of children in institutional settings, we have a legitimate interest in seeking information about the location of this disputed serious child abuse, the reasons the institution rejected your finding and what happened as a consequence (including any action by the Youth Custody Service). 

The Youth Custody Service’s own internal safeguarding review (published October 2019) included among its 100+ recommendations actions relating to complaints, including a proposal for a centralised register of recommendations by PPO and others, and improvements made as a consequence (report attached). Our FOI request reflects this call for transparency for the purposes of child safeguarding. The Youth Custody Service report states: “Evidence suggests that perceptions of procedural injustice can act as a driver for violence in custody, and conversely, perceived procedural justice can act as a driver for safety” (page 49). This speaks directly to our concern that the prison was able to reject your organisation’s finding: we want to understand why it was able to do so, the consequences for the child, and what, if any, wider safeguarding improvements arose from your investigation. 

Our third question is of legitimate interest because there is longstanding evidence of children being unable to complain about abuse in institutional settings while still living within the establishment where the abuse is taking place. The Government is currently preparing statutory guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Custody (following a recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) and we are very keen to ensure that what happened to this boy, and the circumstances of him being able to make the complaint to your organisation, form part of the learning contributing to this statutory guidance.

As we indicated in the original request, we fully appreciate the need for redactions to protect the privacy of the boy and other affected individuals. However, we contend that there is a legitimate interest in the publication of the name of the prison in which you found this child had been subject to excessive force, and related information.

Documents referenced in our internal review request:

Working Together to Safeguard Children

IICSA’s investigation into sexual abuse in custodial institutions

Youth Custody Service’s Safeguarding Review

CHILDREN’S COALITION LAUNCHES ITS ELECTION PRIORITIES

A coalition of over 70 organisations and experts concerned with children’s rights and welfare has today (6 November) published a series of 30 pledges which would transform the lives of children and young people, and their parents and carers. The priorities include tackling child and family poverty, building an inclusive education system, ensuring children in care and care leavers are loved and supported and providing timely and close to home mental health support. Several measures seek to end the harmful treatment of children in contact with the immigration and criminal justice systems. Carolyne Willow, Director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said:

“Children have no vote but what’s promised and delivered through this general election will have a massive impact on their lives, happiness and future. We want to see children and their rights at the heart of manifestos – not the odd mention here and there but a systematic strategy for making our country among the best in the world for children’s rights. Five years can make or break a childhood, so the weeks ahead really matter.”

With a quarter of children growing up in poverty, a number of pledges concern social security support for families and fighting socio-economic disadvantage. Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said:

“Child poverty is on track to reach a record high yet, incredibly, in the UK we no longer have a strategy to reduce it. Every corner of a child’s life is jeopardised by poverty – from school results to health outcomes to predicted wellbeing in adulthood. As a nation that cares about children, we must make sure that childhood is a joyful time for all. Every party leader must now publicly commit to bringing in a cross-departmental strategy to reduce child poverty – with  clear targets and success measures. If that doesn’t happen we will compromise the life chances of a whole new generation.”

This general election coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Children Act, which Parliament passed in November 1989. The Act requires local authorities to provide comprehensive support to children and families, as well as care and protection to children unable to live with their families.

It is also 30 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international treaty guaranteeing all children an adequate standard of living, development to their full potential, the best health, equal access to education, and the right to be heard and taken seriously. Children’s best interests are meant to be a primary consideration in all government action and decision-making. Bringing the treaty fully into domestic law is the coalition’s first pledge. Louise King, Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law, said:

“A comprehensive child rights law would ensure that children are placed at the heart of both central and local government decision-making and result in a more extensive realisation of the CRC. It would also empower children to seek redress when their rights are not being respected. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly called on the UK Government to take this step and the children we work with desperately want the government to do much more to ensure their rights are protected.  We urge all parties to commit to full CRC incorporation to make sure all children, including the most vulnerable, have the best possible childhood and the opportunity to reach their potential.”

Kathy Evans, Chief Executive of Children England, added: 

“Over the thirty years since we signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, government policy affecting children has been increasingly fragmented, and departments have struggled to co-operate on a shared, holistic vision for children’s wellbeing. These pledges set out a thorough framework that all departments can use to ensure children are at the heart of policy-making.” 

Many of those signing the pledges have direct experience of the care system. Ian Dickson was in care in the 1950s and 1960s and then spent 40 years as a social worker, children’s homes manager and an Ofsted inspector. He recently helped to organise the country’s first national conference for people of all ages (14 to 82 years) with care experience, and said:

“Notwithstanding the overwhelming moral imperative to protect and care for our children, (which should be enough on its own), it simply is unfathomable that we wouldn’t want to. No business would fail to invest in research and development if it wants to survive. Yet our children are our future. If you fail our children, you fail their today and everyone’s future. It seems so obvious. The question should not be ‘Can we support these 30 general election pledges?’ but ‘Can we, morally, ethically and practically, afford not to!’”

David Graham, National Director of The Care Leavers’ Association, added: 

“People with direct experience of the care system know more than anyone what makes them feel loved, secure and hopeful for the future. They also know what needs to change urgently to ensure every child in care has their rights upheld. We invite all political parties to adopt our 30 pledges and work with us to guarantee no young person leaves care until they’re ready and that support in adulthood is there for as long as they need it. This is what good parenting looks and feel like.” 

Maggie Atkinson, who was Children’s Commissioner for England between 2010 and 2015, is one of many children’s rights experts backing the pledges. She said:

“Children, and how they fare, are central to a civilised, progressive society: its education and health provision, interventions by social care teams, or what happens to children cared for by the state. We have refreshed opportunities to do this well whenever we choose who is going to govern us. These 30 pledges are not trying to steer voters’ choices on the 12th of December. They are challenges, put to powerful adults on children’s behalf, in a society with decisions to make about its future whoever is returned to Parliament. How we protect and promote our children’s rights and safeguard their life chances matters for every child, family and neighbourhood in the country. The pledges ask us to step up and make that happen.”

Rita Waters, Chief Executive of NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service), said:

“By putting our weight behind one clear set of demands, Together for Children is sending a clear message to politicians that the sector is united in recognising changes that need to be prioritised. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the voices of care-experienced children and young people are heard and acted upon, and with these pledges there is no excuse for any future UK Government not to really hit the ground running.”

Read the 30 election pledges here.

Children abandoned at Feltham prison

Today’s inspection report on Feltham child prison, in the London Borough of Hounslow, shows children have been effectively abandoned by our child welfare system. They are not safe, they are not being educated, they are in a lawless, violent environment and safeguards introduced after the deaths and mistreatment of other children are not followed.

The inspection took place in July this year and concerns were so serious that the Chief Inspector of Prisons invoked the urgent notification process. This is where the Secretary of State for Justice is alerted of grave failures in prisons.

At the time of the inspection, 82% of children had involvement with children’s social care, 35% had health problems and 22% were disabled. Over half had been in care. Eight of the 106 children in the prison were presently the subject of a full care order. Eight in 10 of the children were from black and minority ethnic communities.

  • In the previous inspection, in January 2019, 11 recommendations relating to children’s safety were made. Not one of these had been achieved by the time of this follow-up inspection six months later.
  • Seven officers had drew extendable batons in one incident, even though the weapon is prohibited in children’s prisons. No investigation was undertaken within the prison and no child protection referral was made to the local authority.
  • Children are spending around 20 hours a day confined in prison cells in the week, longer at weekend.
  • Caseworkers and other professionals had to speak with children through locked cell doors.
  • Self-harm was 14 times higher than in 2017.
  • Five children were routinely strip-searched and they were handcuffed when moving around the prison grounds. Inspectors found this disproportionate and inappropriate for children.
  • Barnardo’s advocacy service was automatically notified when a child was strip-searched though inspectors found no advocacy support was given to children before or after they were forced to strip.
  • Inspectors found incidents of children being given epilepsy and antibiotic medication up to six hours late.
  • Three-quarters of children had been physically restrained.
  • Pain-inducing restraint was used on children when there was no serious threat to anybody.
  • There had been over 700 incidents of use of force in the preceding six months. Nearly 300 incidents had not been reviewed by specialist staff and over 900 use of force reports were outstanding, meaning no accountability or checks that children were not being abused/assaulted.
  • The overview of the use of segregation was similarly poor.
  • Ofsted found education to be inadequate in all areas.
  • Some window vents were broken which meant air was not coming into children’s cells (including during the very hot days in summer).
  • Only 22% of children reported that officers told them when they had done something good.
  • Only one family day had taken place within the preceding six months and this was attended by only one child in the prison.
  • Just 11% of children reported having someone in the prison to help them prepare for when they leave, and only 28% said their experiences at the prison made them less likely to offend in the future.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“As we celebrate 30 years of the Children Act 1989, this report brings shame on us all but especially on those politicians who have, over successive administrations, dodged their responsibilities to protect incarcerated children. Children should be nowhere near Feltham prison, the institution must close. Every day it remains open is a day that Ministers are prepared to have children terrified, uneducated, abandoned and cast aside. A civilised country protects and provides for all of its children, including the ones we find difficult and challenging.”

Special accommodation cell for children at Feltham prison
Showers for children at Feltham prison

Care experienced family show how it is done, and what is to be done

Article 39 sends love and solidarity to our friends at #CareExpConf who held an historic conference in Liverpool earlier this year, and today launch two ground-breaking reports.

The first report, from the Research and Academic Group, shares the themes and messages of five workshops held across the day. Unusual for conference reports, and to the Group’s great credit, it contains reflections on the conference itself – what worked well, what didn’t work and what could be done differently next time. We hope this signals the #CareExpConf is here to stay.

The second document is a summary report of the whole process – the build-up, the event itself and what must now be done. Heavily oversubscribed, 141 care experienced people, aged between 14 and 82, attended the day. The conference’s top 10 messages clearly and powerfully set out what changes are necessary for the care system to be worthy of its name:

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

I have worked in and around the care system for over 30 years. This was the most loving, stimulating, energising and inspiring event I’ve ever attended. In fact, I feel I’m still there – because it’s left me with an abiding connection and determination to do everything in my power to honour the dignity, intelligence, humanity and imagination of all those behind this event. Gratitude and sincere respect to #CareExpConf. This is only the start!

READ THE REPORTS HERE.

Government publishes 70 targets to bring Feltham child prison to an acceptable level

The Ministry of Justice has today (21 August) published an action plan in response to the grave concerns about children’s safety and care raised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last month.

On 22 July, Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector, invoked the Urgent Notification procedure whereby significant concerns about the treatment and conditions within prisons are communicated directly to the Secretary of State for Justice within seven days of an inspection.

The announced inspection of Feltham child prison took place between 4 and 19 July. The Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has today released an action plan with 70 dated targets. Deadlines for the targets range from ‘immediate’ to ‘June 2020’.

Among the grave concerns reported by the Chief inspector to the Secretary of State were:

  • 40% of children had felt unsafe at Feltham. Nearly half reported victimisation by other children; and around two-thirds said staff had victimised them.
  • Violence is higher than in any other child prison – including verbal and physical abuse by staff.
  • Self-harm among children was 14 times higher than in 2017, and this was largely attributed to them being locked in cells for long periods of time.
  • Only a quarter of children said their (emergency) cell bell was answered within 5 minutes.
  • Over 900 use of force reports were missing: these are written accounts of restraint used on children, including the use of pain-inducing techniques.
  • Children’s perspectives were not routinely gathered after the use of restraint, so it was impossible for managers to know whether there were any child protection concerns and/or force was used lawfully.
  • The longest period a child had been separated from the ordinary prison regime was 89 days. Inspectors found the treatment and conditions of children in these situations was “very poor”. Many ‘separated’ children spent fewer than two hours out of their cells in each 24-hour period.
  • Windows did not allow adequate ventilation and less than a quarter of children were able to have a shower every day.

After the Urgent Notification was invoked, the Ministry of Justice stopped sending children to Feltham. Today’s letter from the Secretary of State to the Chief Inspector states this arrangement will continue until senior managers consider the prison to be suitable for children.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“The Chief Inspector’s letter last month set out a desperate, intolerable panoply of failures to meet basic levels of care and protection. Many of the 70 actions published by the Ministry of Justice today are rudimentary building blocks for any children’s residential setting, including the appointment of a head of safeguarding, staff training and adequate shower facilities.

“But the biggest problem is: we have been here before. And before that. Feltham has a very long and sad history of severe child suffering. Ministers should have taken the Chief Inspector’s letter as the final confirmation that the institution cannot be saved. Today’s announcement should have been bold and principled, signalling the closure of Feltham and investment in approaches and services known to turn around young lives. This document with its 70 targets is about rescuing a prison which started its life in the 1800s; if it was truly about children, it would be a closure plan.”

Read the 22 July 2019 Urgent Notification here.
Read the Secretary of State’s letter in response here.
Read HM Prison and Probation Service’s action plan here.
More information about the Urgent Notification process is here.