There are very few girls under the age of 18 held in custody in England. Girls are no longer placed in Young Offender Institutes but instead are sent to Secure Training Centres along with some boys up to age 17. At the time of writing, there were only 31 girls in custody – the equivalent to a full classroom at secondary school. Yet each of them is a child, living a life that has somehow gone wrong.
I wanted to visit some of these girls to find out what had happened to them in their childhood that led them to this point. As Children’s Commissioner, I have powers to gain access to children who are held in custody and I invited Dame Louise Casey, who has done so much work on troubled families, to join me. Today I am publishing our short report, ‘Voices from the Inside’. It tells the stories of some of the young girls we met in that secure unit in Rainsbrook, giving a voice to a group of children who do not usually have an opportunity to tell their stories.
It is striking how similar those stories are. Most of the girls were born into complex and chaotic families, many suffered bereavements at a young age, almost all were under the supervision of social services. Often they grew up outside the family home or were in care. Drink, drugs and underage sex were frequently part of their young lives. Most had dropped out of mainstream schools.
Nearly every one of these vulnerable children had had the kind of childhoods none of us would wish for our own child. Most had not been protected or kept safe from harm during their earliest years. That perhaps explains why many of the girls were so positive about their experiences in Rainsbrook. Compared to the chaos in their normal lives they were relieved to be in a place where their basic needs were met and where there was structure and support.
For some, the unit was the only time in their whole life that they had felt secure and cared for and not scared. It’s a tragic thought.
The girls we met had committed crimes and they were rightly being punished for them. Yet many were children who, had they not had to start life in such difficult circumstances, could have thrived at school and in later life. I hope they can in the future.
‘Voices from the Inside’ gives us an insight into the kind of experiences which have shaped these young lives and which, it became very clear, far too often mirrored those of parents and grandparents. These experiences help to shape my work as Children’s Commissioner. All of us should be worried that there are children who say they welcome being jailed because it is the first time in their lives they have felt safe. Difficult childhoods become difficult adulthoods. Sadly, until we do more as a society to stop these same problems cascading down through the generations, there will always be girls in places like Rainsbrook with remarkably similar life stories to tell.