Life for children in youth custody filled with ‘palpable tension and paranoia’, new report finds

Life for children in youth custody is filled with “palpable tension and paranoia” brought on by the threat of violence, frequently cancelled family visits and few chances to build positive relationships, a new report has found.

Some said they spent just 30 minutes outside their cells at the weekend, according to a report for the Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza.

Too many of the children, aged 10 to 18, felt the setting was too risky to ask their loved ones to visit and they were also left without any meaningful alternative to important family relationships.

Of the children in custody in December 2022, 98% were boys and 24% were black – compared to 6% in the population of 10 to 18-year-olds in England and Wales.

Those in custody included 93% who had received support for special educational needs, 91% who had been persistently absent from school and 53% had a social worker.

Many of the children in youth custody who had links to gangs said they were living in a state of “constant vigilance” as boredom and frustration from a lack of purposeful things to do sometimes led to fights that often ended up with trips to the hospital.

Dame Rachel (pictured), who said there is “unacceptably inconsistent” support for some families to keep in contact with their child, said: “Children must be treated, first and foremost, as children – not as criminals, regardless of the circumstances that led them to being in custody.”

The report, which looked at the barriers which stop children from having strong relationships with their families or with the professionals who care for them, found positive family influences can boost a young person’s prospects and wellbeing by acting as a form of protection.

The findings come days after similar issues of trust and the performance of public services designed to protect the youngsters were raised in research released by the Children’s Commissioner which highlighted “alarming interactions” between children and the police under stop-and-search powers.

It found that 38% of eight to 17-year-olds strip-searched by police between 2018 and mid 2022 were black, and that they were predominantly black boys.

The new report says those in custody had to deal with last-minute cancellations of family visits, not having enough money to make calls to relatives or also a lack of privacy during visits or calls.

Just 56% of young people in youth custody settings between 2021-22 had at least one in-person visit in the month to November 13 last year while 44% had none at all.

Half of the children in young offender institutes (YOI) did not receive a single visit during this time period.

Virtual visits, which were introduced during the pandemic, was a positive way to keep in touch but enough of them were not on available.

Booking them was difficult and they could became tense and awkward without any privacy and hampered by “glitchy” technology that froze.

The support for families whose child was placed in a centre miles from their home was also described as inconsistent.

Dame Rachel said: “Once again, we see a group of children – mostly boys, many of them black, and overwhelmingly with special educational needs or having missed school – left without the chance to maintain the positive family relationships that sustain them, with minimal opportunities for enriching activities or education. One third of them will go on to reoffend.

“Children must be treated, first and foremost, as children – not as criminals, regardless of the circumstances that led them to being in custody.

“We must match the efforts in recent years to reduce the numbers of children in custody with a dedicated programme of reform.”

In 2021-22 there was an average of just 450 children in youth custody at any one time – a historic low after policies were introduced to reduce these numbers over the last decade.

Dame Rachel added: “In my role I hold a special responsibility for the rights of children living away from home.

“I believe deeply that they should receive the same profound love and protection from a ‘family’ as any other child, whatever form that may take and wherever they live, because it is a stabilising force that can support them to thrive into adulthood.

“While there are some positive examples of families being supported to visit their children in custody, and visits or calls being prioritised, this remains unacceptably inconsistent across the youth estate – despite the relatively small numbers of children living in these settings. “

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