11th November 2022

Family Review Part II: why my Office is visiting children in secure settings

The story told by my independent review of family life, “Family and its protective effect”, is a complex one. Family life exerts a powerful influence on children; my Review demonstrated that family is the prism through which they discover the world, and it is foundational for their future.

Yet my Review also found that families are complex and ever-evolving, sometimes fraught and faced with serious challenges. In Part II of the Family Review, I will be looking at family life through the lens of specific high-needs groups.

One cohort I am particularly concerned about are the children growing up in custodial institutions. There are around 560 children in custody in England and Wales, living in a Youth Offender Institution (YOI), a Secure Training Centre (STC) or a Secure Children’s Home (SCH), whose liberty has been deprived for the safety of others in the community.

Most children in youth custody are placed in one of 5 YOIs in England and Wales which house up to 150 sentenced or remanded boys.[1] Purely as a function of the size and geographical spread of these settings – with one setting in each of London, the South East, the North, the West Midlands and Wales – children are often placed at significant distances from home. Maintaining contact with family is therefore a serious challenge, made tougher by the cost, availability and inconsistent support for virtual and physical visits.

I am using my statutory powers to explore how different institutions are supporting children to maintain healthy family relationships across the secure estate. This includes important relationships with foster and kinship carers. Where it is not possible, or not in the child’s best interest to maintain contact with their family, I will explore how secure settings replicate the protective effect of family life and nurture the children in their care.

To gain an in-dept understanding of family life from the eyes of children in secure custody:

  • I am requesting data, under Section 2E of the Children Act 2004, from all YOIs, STCs and SCHs in England and Wales on children’s distance from home, and the frequency of in-person and video visits to children from family and friends.
  • To add depth to this data, my team are speaking to children and staff, under Section 2F of the Children Act 2004, through a series of unannounced weekend visits to the secure estate. Through the course of these visits my team will talk to children individually or in small groups, they will also interview staff members and observe facilities and standards of care.

I will share individual feedback with Governors following each visit, and insights into family contact across the estate will shape the conclusions of the Review.

Part II of the Family Review: Children in Custody will be published in December 2022.

[1] There are a very small number of girls placed at HMYOI Wetherby. On the whole, however, the Youth Custody Service aims to place girls with a custodial sentence in Secure Children’s Homes which are more appropriately equipped to meet their needs.