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‘Too many children in care end up in prison,’ says new review

Lord Laming calls for effective joint working between children’s agencies

Up to half of all children in custody have been in care at some point. Now an independent review chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Laming has said that this is a tragic waste of young lives which must be addressed if all children in care are to get the best start in life.

The review, established by the Prison Reform Trust, calls for a coherent programme of reform, led from the very top of government, to help improve the life chances of looked after children and prevent future crime.

Around half of the 1,000 children currently in custody in England and Wales have experience of the care system. This is despite fewer than 1% of all children in England, and 2% of those in Wales, being in care. It costs over £200,000 each year to keep a young person in a secure children's home and the yearly cost of a place in a young offender institution is about £60,000.

One young person told the review:

"Since July 2013 I have been to 16 schools and I have been in 15 different placements all around the country...all of my offending has been whilst in care."

While most looked after children do not get into trouble with the law, this group is still six times more likely than children in the general population to be cautioned or convicted of a crime. Evidence submitted to the review highlights how common the experience of being stigmatised is among children in care.

The Prime Minister has committed to transforming the life chances of children in care. The Queen's Speech included proposals for a "care leavers' covenant" to help ensure care leavers have the best start in life and to underpin "zero tolerance" of state failure around social care. The government has commissioned concurrent reviews into residential care and youth custody.

The review welcomes the government's commitment and calls on it to prioritise work to reduce the large numbers of looked after children ending up in prison. It recommends the establishment of a cross-departmental cabinet sub-committee to provide leadership, including through the development of a concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation which social care and education services based in local authorities, police forces and others will be called on to sign up to.

In addition, the review recommends better early support for children and families at risk, the strengthening of joint working between children's social care services and criminal justice agencies, improvements in police practice to reduce the prosecution of children and young people in care and a greater emphasis on the importance of good parenting by the state.

The review profiled examples of good practice from across England and Wales. It found that the rate at which a minority of children move from care into the criminal justice system is not inevitable and can be reduced – for example by as much as 45% over four years in Surrey, as a result of effective joint working.

To read the review, click here.