Tag: Children’s rights

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

Oasis Charitable Trust to run Medway secure school

Days after another child died in prison, the Ministry of Justice has announced that the Oasis Charitable Trust has been selected to run its first experimental secure school.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“The site chosen for the experimental secure school is a child prison beset by abuse scandals and systemic failures.

“Three years ago, BBC Panorama undercover footage showed serious emotional and physical abuse, with officers using restraint as a cover for mistreatment. In January, a serious case review reported that every local and national agency working in and with Medway secure training centre had failed to safeguard children, with a lack of proper analysis of allegations by the Local Safeguarding Children Board. A previous review found there had been 35 separate whistleblowing communications to the Youth Justice Board over a period of seven years. Ofsted found unlawful use of pain-inducing restraint when it last inspected the prison, and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse reported in February that there were 44 alleged sexual abuse incidents in the centre between 2012 and 2017. 

“When we and others wrote to the Minister to object on child protection grounds, the only specific reason he gave for choosing the site was that the Government owns the land and building and doesn’t have to go through a protracted planning permission process. The safety and welfare of very vulnerable children should govern decision-making, not the convenience of already owning a prison building. 

“Oasis Charitable Trust appears to lack any experience of looking after children in a residential setting. There are inevitable parallels with G4S and Serco being handed contracts to run secure training centres in the late 1990s without any relevant experience. Secure training centres were similarly marketed as centres of excellence in children’s education and care. Nothing I have seen or heard shows that the Government has properly reflected on why children suffered so badly for so long in those institutions. There has been no explanation either as to why the law has been changed to allow 16-19 academies to become secure children’s homes, when additional investment in the best of existing provision would have been the most obvious and safer path to take.”

Another child dies in prison

The BBC has reported that a 16 year-old boy, Caden Steward, died in Cookham Wood young offender institution in Kent on Thursday 27 June. His death is not believed to have been self-inflicted, and is said not to be suspicious.

This is the third child to die in Cookham Wood YOI since 2012. An investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will take place.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“This is desperately sad news. No child should ever come to the end of their life in prison. The prison service has apparently said the boy’s death is not suspicious. But we should all question and distrust the morality of keeping very vulnerable children in these unsafe and archaic institutions.”

Two days before the boy’s death, a debate was held in Parliament on closing child prisons, led by Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck. The Minister, Edward Argar, refused to give a timetable for the closure of child prisons, even though the Government agreed two and a half years ago that they would be phased out. In 2016, the Youth Justice Board admitted that young offender institutions and secure training centres are not fit for the purpose of keeping children safe or rehabilitation.

35 children have died in young offender institutions and secure training centres since 1990, the year the UK signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The treaty requires that children are only ever detained as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.

Article 39 is running a national ‘End Child Imprisonment’ campaign with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law, National Association for Youth Justice and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice. Read more about the campaign here.

Advocacy services for children and young people must be strengthened – Children’s Commissioner

The Children’s Commissioner has today (13 June) published her review of independent advocacy services in England. This shows that 29% of local authorities do not know how advocacy services are provided to children in respect of health complaints – despite them having a legal duty to make such arrangements since 2012. Nine local authorities were unable to say what advocacy arrangements are in place for social care complaints, even though this has been a statutory duty for 30 years.

A survey of managers of advocacy services found majority support (68%) for moving towards ‘one-stop’, local advocacy services – working across services and systems.

Advocacy services provide independent information and help to ensure children and young people are heard and their rights protected. The first service was set up by Leicestershire County Council in 1987. This was for children in care and care leavers. Now local authorities have myriad duties to arrange for independent advocacy for children and young people, including:

  • When they receive (or are entitled to) social care services
  • When they wish to make a complaint about a health service
  • When they are detained in a mental health unit
  • Young people who are homeless
  • Children who run away or go missing.

Independent advocates also visit and help children in young offender institutions and secure training centres, though there is no statutory duty for this. Many children’s homes and mental health hospitals have ‘visiting advocates’ who regularly spend time with children, gaining their trust and being there to help them be heard as individuals or collectively.

The Children’s Commissioner makes 10 recommendations for strengthening and improving children and young people’s advocacy, including a consolidation of the law so that entitlements to advocacy are clear and the revision of national standards (statutory guidance). She urges advocacy providers to publish an ‘independence statement’ which sets out to children and young people how the advocacy service is separate from health, social care and other services. Continuing revelations of human rights abuses in prisons and mental health units underline the importance of advocates being able to act robustly and independently for children.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, was a member of the Commissioner’s working group for this review. She said:

“Advocates are vitally important for children and young people living in institutional settings, whether this be children’s homes, mental health units or prisons. They give strength and power to children’s voices and make sure their rights are upheld. For a child who feels alone and unheard, having a person who respects them and takes the time to listen – and makes others listen – can be truly revolutionary.

Advocates are also a lifeline for young people struggling in the community trying to access support and services.

We hope the government, local authorities and advocacy providers will quickly accept and implement the Commissioner’s important recommendations. As we celebrate 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child this year, this report shows how to practically implement the treaty’s obligations. Advocates empower children who are often in extremely powerless situations; they are not an optional extra but a crucial mechanism for making sure all children enjoy their rights.

Article 39’s work with the Children’s Commissioner was instigated by the late John Kemmis, a brilliant champion for children and young people’s rights and advocacy services. We pay tribute to him.

The Commissioner’s report and recommendations can be found here.