An MSc student reflects on the presentation to Oxford Criminology by Andrew Neilson and Claire Sands of the Howard League for Penal Reform

It is an open secret that the prison population in England and Wales is disproportionately made up of individuals who have been in care at some point in their lives. About 50% of the children in custody have had contact with the care system, in comparison to 1% within the general population¹. Those in residential care have the highest risk of ending up in custody. As part of the Academic Communication Skills series, Claire Sands and Andrew Neilson from the Howard League for Penal Reform shed light on the criminalization of children in care, especially those in children's homes.

What is the Howard League for Penal Reform and What Does It Do?

The presentation began with an introduction to the Howard League for Penal Reform (‘the Howard League’), the oldest penal reform organization in the world. The Howard League, a charity registered in the United Kingdom, was founded in 1866 under the name of the ‘Howard Association’, in honour of John Howard, who was an early prison reformer, and subsequently took on its current form after merging with the Penal Reform League in 1921². The self-proclaimed aims of the Howard League are to reduce crime in society, create safer communities and lower the number of individuals incarcerated in prisons. The way they intend to achieve these goals is through campaigning, developing and influencing decision-making policies, carrying out research, press work and offering education. Furthermore, the charity offers legal support to people who are in contact with the criminal justice system. Historically, the Howard League has played a central role in the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom. Since then, it has been involved with numerous other campaigns, including the campaign to reduce child arrests. Child arrests in England and Wales were particularly high in 2010, at 245,763 arrests. This fell to 79,012 in 2017³, after the Howard League began its campaign to establish the link between child arrests, the criminalization of children, and state care, developing the residential care programme².

The Residential Care of Children

In 2017/18, a total of 104,100 children were in care in England and Wales, 73% of them in foster care, but around 8% of children in state care were in children’s homes, approximately 6000 children in total². There are currently 2,209 children’s homes; 73% (1610) controlled by private companies, 19% (423) run by local authorities and 7% (165) in the voluntary sector². About three quarters of children in children’s homes are between 14-17 years of age, with boys more likely to end up in care than girls². Of the total number of children in care, 63% have been placed there due to abuse and neglect, with just 12% having been formally criminalized², though many will also have experienced neglect or abuse, taking place at some point before coming into contact with the police.

The Criminalization of Children in Care

Children in children’s homes are disproportionately criminalized in comparison to children in other forms of care, and children who have not been in care. About 14% of children in homes are formally criminalized, compared to 4% of children in other types of placement, and 1% of the general population². This type of criminalization happens as a consequence of low level ‘offences’ or behaviours that would not ordinarily be seen as criminal or even ‘anti-social’—breaking crockery, blowing smoke in the face of carers, or throwing pillows at them, actions that the police would not normally be concerned about. There are a high number of calls from a small number of homes. Thus, some homes, which are more likely to be run by private organizations⁵, have been known to call the police over 200 times a year, while others have not involved them at all. In 2018 the police were called 23,000⁶ times in total by residential carers.

The criminalization of children results from a complex interplay of various factors. First, there are high levels of disadvantage and vulnerability among children in care. Many have been neglected and abused, experienced unstable parenting, mental health issues, and learning disabilities. Subsequently, these vulnerabilities are exacerbated by systematic failings in the care system—including the repeat placement of children into new homes, staff who have inadequate professional experience and inadequate training and resources, not to mention poor police responses. These factors affect children’s emotional well-being and behaviour—causing them to be more disruptive than children who are not in care. They also make it easier for criminal adults, including ‘county lines’ offenders, and others involved in sex and drug trafficking, to exploit them. Effects of the criminalization of children in care are devastating. Children who come in contact with the criminal justice system are much more likely to have a career in crime. Keeping children out of the criminal justice system at a young age, especially when they are involved in nothing more than low level ‘offences’, is thus the best approach to preventing criminalization and even crime in the future.⁷

The Problem with Private Children’s Homes

As mentioned above, the largest share of children's homes—73%—are run by private companies: ‘There is a fundamental question about how we, as a society, feel about companies – some of which are large and based overseas – making profits from the care of the most vulnerable children in our society.’¹¹ Private companies seem to do a worse job at providing for children, in comparison to the local or the voluntary sector—at least when it comes to the criminalization of children—raising the question of whether the free market works for children in need of support and care. Furthermore, private companies do not seem to work well in terms of efficiency. A lack of placements for children has led to competition for places between local authorities. Thus, a market in residential care, lacking in both transparency and legal regulation, has emerged, whereby, in extreme cases, local authorities have been willing to pay £21,000 for the placement of a single child over the Christmas period 2018¹¹.

What Should be Done Differently?

The Howard League has published multiple briefings which suggest improvements for children in residential care. Along with better policing practice in terms of exercising more discretion to avoid over-criminalization, there needs to be reliable data collection to identify problems, multi-agency cooperation⁹, and improved practices in children’s homes¹⁰. Care homes need adequately to meet the emotional needs of children—showing them love, giving them a decent ‘home’, making them feel welcome and respected, listening to them, and providing a sense of stability in their lives. Structural improvements in children’s homes would include reducing placements, improving training and resources for staff, and improvement in decision-making about where to put each child in terms of their needs. As Neilson and Sands made clear, when dealing with children in care the prevailing question should be: ‘Would this be good enough for one’s own child?’ If the answer is no, there is something wrong.


¹ Prison Reform Trust (2016) In Care, Out of Trouble: (The Laming Review), London, Prison Reform Trust

² Information from the presentation