The Children’s Commissioner for England has a statutory duty to promote and protect the rights of all children in England. This duty extends to children within the criminal justice system. The Commissioner also chairs the Children’s Sub-Group of the National Preventative Mechanism, so has a role in independently monitoring custodial conditions for Children in England and Wales to strengthen the protection of children deprived of their liberty. The Commissioner undertakes a rolling programme of visits to Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres where she speaks to children and staff to keep abreast of issues children are experiencing.
Lockdown has brought with it many challenges for us all, not least restrictions on our freedoms. But for children in custody, this time has been particularly hard, as it has curtailed even the very limited freedoms they once had. Some children in custody have been spending all but 40 minutes of the day locked in their cells during lockdown. As lockdown slowly eases for many of us, and we are encouraged to spend as long as we want outside because of the benefits to our well-being, children in custody as still spending the majority of the day in their cells. In these difficult times, children told us they have found comfort in the feeling that we – those in custody and the community alike- are all in it together. The easing of restrictions on people in the rest of the country will undoubtedly make the restrictions on children in custody more difficult.
At any given time almost fifteen hundred children in England are ‘locked up’ in secure children’s homes, secure training centre, young offenders institutions, mental health wards and other residential placements, either for their own safety or the safety of others. These are some of the most vulnerable children in the country who, for a variety of reasons, we have not been able to help to live freely in their own homes or communities. The report seeks to identify who these children are and where they living, the costs of keeping them locked up, and to understand more about whether these places are truly meeting their needs.
This report shows how too many children are being admitted to secure hospitals unnecessarily – in some cases are spending months and years of their childhood in institutions when they should be in their community. It warns that the current system of support for those with learning disabilities or autism is letting down some of the most vulnerable children in the country.
Over the past 12 months an issue of concern raised during our visits to Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and Secure Training Centres (STCs) has been the use of segregation, with reports of some children spending up to 23.5 hours in a cell each day, for days and sometimes weeks on end. This practice would appear to contravene Articles 37 and 40 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. In response to this information, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner undertook to collect data from all YOIs and STCs about their use of segregation.