ABUSED, CRIMINALISED AND ABANDONED! Howard League condemns treatment of youth

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The Howard League for Penal Reform revealed on Thursday that local authorities ‘are systematically failing to provide suitable accommodation and support for vulnerable children leaving custody’.

It added that this was ‘in breach of their statutory duties, and putting the public in danger of further crime’.

Launching its report Chaos, neglect and abuse: The duties of local authorities to provide children with suitable accommodation and support services, the Howard League said: ‘Lawyers at the Howard League for Penal Reform have represented over 100 children in custody.

‘Almost all the children had suffered abuse and neglect; many had a history of being in care or had been homeless.

‘The Howard League for Penal Reform legal team found that local authorities across the country are flouting a whole range of legislation designed to ensure that children do not leave custody bereft of support.

‘Many children are returning to precisely the same situation that led to their imprisonment in the first place. 

‘One of the success stories achieved by the Howard League for Penal Reform legal team featured in the new report concerns Mike.

‘Mike was 16 years old and in prison.  He had been effectively abandoned by his parents and began offending at the age of 13.

‘He had learning difficulties and had a history of drug and alcohol misuse.

‘Prior to going to prison, Mike had been homeless and was stealing food and clothing in order to survive. 

‘There were no plans in place for his accommodation and support on release.

‘Despite numerous referrals, the local authority social services department had stated that they would not help Mike as he was 16 years old and could claim housing benefit.

‘The Howard League for Penal Reform lawyers wrote to the local authority and reminded them of their duties to support Mike under the Children Act.

‘A few days prior to release, his local authority agreed that it would live up to its legal obligations to care for him.’

The report cites another case study, that of Justin: ‘Justin was a 17-year-old boy serving a 16-month detention and training order, when he approached us for help.

‘Prior to prison he had been living with his grandmother and he had a very disturbed background. He had been abused by a family member from the age of three years, had been given drugs in return for sexual favours, and had developed a drug problem.

‘Justin began committing burglary offences with his mother’s partner and quickly gained a criminal record. His first recorded offence was at the age of ten years and nine months.

‘When he was 11 years old, he was placed in secure local authority accommodation. The local authority obtained a full care order when Justin was 14 years old. He was placed in secure accommodation on at least seven subsequent occasions.

‘He had been assessed as suitable for early release, but his local authority had failed to find him suitable accommodation.

‘As a result, he had to spend Christmas and New Year in prison. He phoned us on our legal helpline and our lawyers took immediate action to urge Caerphilly County Borough Council to assess, plan and provide for his release.

‘We argued that his local authority had failed to produce an assessment and care plan consistent with the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families.’

The judicial review was heard in the High Court in April 200. We argued that Justin had four complaints:

‘1. his personal adviser had not acted appropriately, 2. the assessment and planning process was inadequate, 3. the content of the assessments and plans were inadequate, and 4. the local authority had not provided him with suitable accommodation.

‘In a landmark ruling, Mr Justice Munby found serious failings in the assessment and planning by the local authority.

‘In summing up Justin’s situation, he said that he has a “deeply disturbing constellation of disadvantages and difficulties which afflict so many of our children in young offender institutions”.

‘Mr Justice Munby found that the personal adviser, as in Justin’s case, should not undertake assessment and planning.

‘Part of the role of the adviser is to be an advocate or representative of the child in the course of dealing with the local authority. The adviser will be compromised if they both write the plan and at the same time represent the child’s interests.

‘Mr Justice Munby told the local authority that Justin was “entitled to a personal adviser… whose function is not obscured and compromised by the conflicts and ambiguities, which unfortunately cloud… the present situation cannot continue and must be remedied”.

‘Mr Justice Munby found “the process in this case was characterised by a number of serious failings …” including not complying with obligations under the law.

‘The judge was concerned by the “mindset and culture” of the local authority in its approach to both the child and family involved in this case, warning that it might well breach family rights under Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

‘Mr Justice Munby pointed out that adequate planning for a child’s future requires adequate assessment. The flawed nature of the assessment provided deficient planning for Justin’s future.

‘The judge found that there was no action plan to meet Justin’s needs for neither training and employment after leaving prison, nor for support in literacy and numeracy.

‘In regards to Justin’s homelessness situation, the judge reflected that the local authority “contented itself with the anodyne observation that the local authority would continue to explore accommodation options in preparation for (his) release”.

‘In short, the planning was hopelessly inadequate and contained little more than vague aspirations: “… it was little more than worthless”.

‘Mr Justice Munby went on to say: “One measure of the pathway plan’s inadequacies is that one would scarcely realise from reading it just how significant J’s needs and problems are. Another telling indicator is its failure to identify any truly specialist support for him.”

‘The judge found that the local authority had failed to plan in relation to Justin’s health and development, education, training and employment, independent living skills and accommodation.

‘There had been no clear identification of Justin’s needs, what was to be done about them, by whom or by when.

‘The failure of this local authority to meet Justin’s accommodation needs should have been addressed urgently, in the context of a proper assessment and pathway plan.’

The Howard League noted: ‘There were 2,951 children in custody on 29 August 2006.

‘214 were in local authority secure children’s homes, 264 were in privately run secure training centres and 2,473 were in prison.

• 40-49 per cent had been in local authority care at some point

• 18 per cent were subject to care orders

• 31 per cent had mental health problems

• 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys reported suffering violence at home

• 33 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys reported previous sexual abuse.

In the last year, the Howard League for Penal Reform has taken action on behalf of clients against 34 local authorities.