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The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.
The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.
A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.
These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?
What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.
Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.
This week’s blog begins with a game: youth or adult, secure estate in England and Wales. Below are some statements, and you simply need to guess (educated guesses please), whether the statement is about the youth, or adult secure estate. So, are the statements about children in custody (those under the age of 18 years old) or adults in custody (18+). When you’re ready…
- 70% decrease in custody in comparison to 10 years ago
- Segregation, A.K.A Solitary Confinement, used as a way of managing the most difficult individuals and those who pose a risk to themselves or others
- Racial disproportionality in relation to experiencing custody and being remanded to custody
- Self-harm is alarmingly high
- 1/3 have a known mental health disability
- Homelessness after release is a reality for a high proportion of individuals
- Over half of individuals released from custody reoffend, this number increases when looking at those sentenced to 6months of less
How many did you answer youth secure estate, and how many adult secure estate? Tally up! Did you find a 50/50 split? Did you find it difficult to answer? Should it be difficult to spot the differences between how children and adults are treated/experience custody?
All of the above relate specifically to children in custody. The House of Commons Committee (2021) have argued that the secure estate for children in England and Wales is STILL a violent, dangerous set of environments which do little to address the needs of children sentenced to custody or on remand. Across the academic literature, there is agreement that the youth estate houses some of the most vulnerable children within our society, yet very little is done to address these vulnerabilities. Ultimately we are failing children in custody! The Government said they would create Secure Schools as a custody option, where education and support would be the focus for the children sent here. These were supposed to be ready for 2020, and in all fairness, we have had a global pandemic to contend with, so the date was pushed to 2022: and yet where are they? Where is the press coverage on the positive impact a Secure School will make to the Youth estate? Does anyone really care? A number of Secure Training Centres (STCs) have closed down across the past 10 years, with an alarmingly high number of the institutions which house children in custody failing Ofsted inspections and HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) found violence and safety within these institutions STILL a major concern. Children experience bullying from staff, could not shower daily, experience physical restraint, 66% of children in custody experienced segregation which was an increase from the year prior (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2021). These experiences are not new, they are re-occurring, year-on-year, inspection after inspection: when will we learn?
The sad, angry, disgusting truth is you could have answered ‘adult secure estate’ to most of the statements above and still have been accurate. And this rings further alarm bells. In England and Wales, we are supposed to treat children as ‘children first, offenders second’. Yet if we look to the similarities between the youth and adult secure estate, what evidence is there that children are treated as children first? We treat all offenders the same, and we treat them appallingly. This is not a new argument, many have raised the same points and concerns for years, but we appear to be doing very little about it.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we have a separate system for dealing with children who commit crime, especially in relation to custody! It pains me to continue seeing, year on year, report after report, the same failings within the secure estate, and the same points made in relation to children being seen as children first in England and Wales: I just can’t see it in relation to custody- feel free to show me otherwise!
House of Commons Committees (2021) Does the secure estate meet the needs of young people in custody? High levels of violence, use of force and self-harm suggest the youth secure estate is not fit for purpose [Online]. Available at: https://houseofcommons.shorthandstories.com/justice-youth-secure-estate/index.html. [Last accessed 4th April 2022].
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) Children in Custody 2019-2020: An analysis of 12-18-year-old’s perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.
As you know from our last #CriminologyBookClub entry a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. This blog entry is very different from any other we’ve published before, in that it has seven bloggers contributing! There is a very good reason why and that is because @manosdaskalou managed to choose a book that delighted all of us, and believe me, that is a challenge for a group of bibliophiles. Without more ado, let’s see what everyone thought:
“The second book of book club was a huge success- excellent choice @manosdaskalou! The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan was delightful! Whilst fulfilling all the ‘usual stuff’ associated with a crime novel, it also adds a layer of fantasy and wonder which is usually alien to crime fiction. As I raced through the novel, falling in love with characters- Poppy is kick ass, the complete opposite of drippy Carol (The Yellow Room) and safe to say I now want a baby Elephant; I was transformed into another world, something which crime fiction has never done for me before. It brought back feelings of nostalgia and memories of reading David Eddings and Derek Landy in the summer after GCSEs, when life was simpler and full of joy! A wonderful, intriguing and mysterious crime novel with a hint of fantasy, pulling you away to a different place. An enchanting and wonderful read which blends serious social injustices and issues with mystery, suspense and humour- I cannot wait to see what Inspector Chopra and Ganesha get up to next!”@jesjames50
“The problem with writing a mere paragraph for a blog about a book that I really did enjoy is that I fear I won’t be able to do it justice. The story, well I’m sure others might tell you what the book is about but, if you want to know, really want to know, read it. Rarely can I say that I couldn’t wait to finish the book and yet didn’t want it to finish. The characters come to life, especially the elephant, in a way that makes it seem almost real, but not quite. The story moves on at a fast pace and yet has a steadiness to it. There are surprises along the way and, yet they are almost expected, it was always going to be that way. Within the narrative there is a demonstration of what we know to be good in humans and, yet it encompasses so much of what we know to be bad. How then can I have left the final page, sad that the book was finished, but uplifted by the narrative and almost salivating at the anticipation of reading the next in the series? The plaudits on the cover don’t do it justice, to answer my question, all I can reiterate is that you have to read it to understand.”@5teveh
“When I first received this book, I was a bit sceptical, as I did not know how an elephant was going to be incorporated into a detective crime novel. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The first book in the series was a delight and a much-needed escape in these uncertain times. This book captured my attention very quickly and whisked me off on a colourful, picturesque adventure to Mumbai, with the amazing inspector Chopra and of course the star of the story, Ganesh the mysterious baby elephant. The book introduces you to an interesting plot. At first you are made to think that the focus of the book will be on Inspector Chopra investigating the murder of a young man. However, you are quickly introduced to the wider issues that sit at the heart of social and economic challenges present in India. Without leaving you glum, the book has a nice balance of crime and mystery, coupled with humour, great food, wonderful scenery and lovable characters. I liked this book as it was unique to any other books that I have read. I am looking forward to continuing the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series.”@svr2727
“Vaseem’s novel had me from to get-go. Set in bustling Mumbai this novel has more depth than the usual “whodunit” scenario. This book is a criminologist’s dream, as yes, we all find out who did it in the end, and yes the case is also solved but there are also issues of poverty and corruption to contend with. The story would not be complete without Ganesha the elephant who makes solving the case possible (and survivable). Ganesha goes through a lot in the story. From being depressed and chained up outside an apartment complex, to being mistakenly left to drown during heavy rain and fed chocolate. Despite all of this, Ganesha is often the hero of the hour, so for me the book symbolises the true greatness of animals: We do not deserve them.”@haleysread
“I really enjoyed this book. It was great to lose myself in a different country and culture and to meet so many relatable characters there – even (especially?) the chocolate loving elephant! I can’t wait to find out what happens next…”@saffrongarside
As well as having the joy of reading The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, we also had the very unexpected pleasure of welcoming the author Vaseem Khan to our book club meeting today. To be able to hear about Vaseem’s motivations for creating the colourful world in which Inspector Chopra and Ganesha work and play was fascinating. The opportunity to ask questions was fantastic and we’d like to say a big thank you to Vaseem for allowing us a peak inside his world of writing. It is now easy to see where Inspector Chopra gets his generosity of spirit from. And now we’ll leave the final word to @manosdaskalou….after all he did choose the book 😉
“What does a gang of criminologists do at lockdown? We read crime books and talk about them. On this occasion The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was a welcomed distraction from reality. The book introduces the retired inspector with a very unusual sidekick! The retired inspector is a very honourable, incorruptible professional whose investigation will bring him in conflict with the criminal underbelly of Mumbai. The retired inspector is not fazed, and he is determined to carry on regardless. The investigation takes inspector Chopra around the city; which gives the reader a unique opportunity to get to know a metropolitan megapolis.”@manosdaskalou
“These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents- and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave? I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister October 2015 at the Conservative Party Conference.
Well, I think it would be fair to say that politicians’ minds have not been exercised unduly over the fate of care leavers since David Cameron made the above promise in 2015. I worked with children in care and care leavers involved in the youth justice system for over thirty years and although his analysis of the outcomes for care leavers was simplistic and crude, tragically Cameron’s statement rings true for many of those leaving care.
With regard to the criminal justice system, Lord Laming’s independent review “In Care, Out of Trouble” http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf, notes that there is no reliable data on the numbers of looked after children in custody. However, based on data from a number of sources, the review came to the conclusion that around 400 looked after children are in custody at any one time. The total number of children in custody for July 2019 is 817. So, slightly less than half of those children in custody are looked after children according to the best estimates available, drawn from different sources. http://youthjusticeboard.newsweaver.co.uk/yots2/1g2x6m3h9q315chudc9elc?email=trueYJBulletin
Moving the spotlight, a huge 40% of care leavers are not engaged in Education, Training or Employment and only 6% of care leavers gain entry to university https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464756/SFR34_2015_Text.pdf . This at a time when around 50% of children now have access to Higher Education and the opportunities that this can provide. Also, 20% of young people who are homeless have previously been in care.
Naturally, we have to be careful to provide a level of balance to the above rather desperate and shocking figures. Lord Laming’s review found that 94% of children in care did not get in trouble with the law. However, children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned, or convicted of an offence than children in the wider population. Furthermore, children in care who come to police attention are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than cautioned when compared to the wider child population.
So, what has happened since 2015 when David Cameron declared his intention to “put it right”? In truth, there have been some steps forward and these need to be celebrated and built upon. The Care Leaver Covenant, a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 has meant the availability of employment opportunities for young care leavers in the Civil Service, local authorities and a range of private sector organisations. Closer to home, here at the University of Northampton, we have launched a new package of support for care leavers who want to study with us. The package offers the possibility, from 2020, of a fully funded place in our Halls of Residence for the first academic year, a contract which extends their accommodation lease to include the summer vacation. A block for many care leavers entering Higher Education is the very real issue of where to live at the end of the academic year, so this tries to address this issue. Another block experienced is financial hardship; the offer provides a non-means tested financial award of up to £1,500 per year to help with course and living costs, and this alongside the local authority’s statutory responsibility to support access to higher education may also help. We also have a designated member of support staff to provide advice and guidance. All these demonstrate our commitment to widening participation and encouraging ambition.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. Arguably, our engagement with young people in care needs to start shortly after their transition to secondary school. The wider social structures which perpetuate disadvantage and poverty will continue to challenge those who are children in care and leaving care. The “adverse childhood experiences” – a rather unedifying term for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by carers or parents-will still have an impact for this group and potentially impair their ability or commitment to study.
If however, I learnt anything from my years working with children in care and children leaving care, it is that you should not underestimate their ability to overcome the obstacles placed in their way. With the right support and a child centred approach, education can provide the right framework for opportunities. Victor Hugo famously said that if you open a school door, you close a prison. Let’s kick open the door of Higher Education a little wider and increase the life chances of these children in OUR care.
As a footnote, I should say that my mum was in care from the age of four until she was fifteen when she was adopted. I would therefore be happy to acknowledge that this has some influence on my perspective and my interest in this group of young people.
Dave Palmer Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services