Commissioner recommends smaller secure units for children

Children in custody should be kept in small units with sufficient trained staff to meet their mental health and emotional needs, a report by the children’s commissioner has recommended.

Under the current system children can be held in a range of settings, including young offender institutions and secure training centres, which can accommodate several hundred young people.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner found a lack of consistency and wide variation in the type, level and quality of measures put in place to support the emotional wellbeing and good mental health of children involved with the justice system, particularly those in custody.

The report makes a total of 19 recommendations, the main one being that children in custody should be placed in units of no more than 150.
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Other recommendations involve ensuring child-to-staff ratios are small enough to allow meaningful relationships with key workers.

It also calls for all children to have a health screening assessment on entering custody and resettlement plans that ensure children are well supported when they leave custody.

Maggie Atkinson, children’s commissioner for England, said there has been progress with the youth justice system but troubled offenders, who may have been abused, abandoned and/or suffer from learning difficulties, need more support.

“They require effective assessment and treatment of their physical and mental health needs, educational support and well-planned resettlement programmes to enable them to turn their lives around.

“We now want to work constructively with government to develop an action plan to progress the realisation of children’s rights for those deprived of their liberty.”

Lord Keith Bradley, who published a review of how mental health problems are dealt with in the criminal justice system, said: “It is in the interests of society to ensure that the best possible treatment and support are put in place to rehabilitate these children and young people to reduce their risk of offending and re-offending.

“The young people’s stories illustrated in the report are a testament to the need for much improvement in some areas of mental health services, staff training and early intervention.”

Deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz, who led on the report, said: “Our overarching observation is that where we have found good progress, good practice and real hope for realising children’s rights, it has always been down to impressive and courageous leadership.

“These are individuals with a real understanding that the loss of liberty alone is the punishment for crimes committed, who have a deep understanding of these young peoples’ social, emotional and mental health needs.

“We are also pleased that, where we raised significant concerns with the Youth Justice Board during the course of this investigation, they were taken seriously and the necessary improvements were implemented.”

Dr Chris Hanvey, chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This is a comprehensive and timely report into some very vulnerable young people who are among the most troubled and disaffected in our country. Alongside psychological difficulties, they are also likely to suffer worse physical health outcomes.”

He added: “The effective assessment and treatment of [these young people’s] physical and health needs is essential to help them reintegrate into society, and we echo the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in calling for a multi-agency response that includes health screening, effective training of professionals and robust healthcare commissioning.”

Jenny Talbot, programme manager for learning disabilities and difficulties at the Prison Reform Trust, added: “This report is an important reminder to government that, despite a welcome reduction in child imprisonment, far too many vulnerable children and young people still end up in large, bleak institutions instead of getting the mental health and social care that they need.”