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Protecting children from being labelled criminals

Posted: Thursday 14th July 2016
Blog: 07-July-2016

Last week I spent an evening at the Corn Exchange in Devizes with senior police officers and “stakeholders” (to use the jargon).

The guests were drawn from a wide range of public agencies and included teachers, social workers, probation workers, youth workers, councillors, magistrates and prosecutors.

It was one of a series of events which are the brainchild of Chief Constable Mike Veale. He believes strongly that close co-operation between Wiltshire Police and these various agencies is the only way that the needs of vulnerable people can be properly addressed.

It was a worthwhile event and I applaud Mr Veale for organising it, and the various guests for giving up an evening to ponder these issues. In this blog I would like to focus on one of the issues raised: vulnerable children.

One of Mr Veale’s senior officers, Det Supt Craig Holden, spoke about the worrying problem of young people who go missing (anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character, or the context suggests they may be at risk) or who are reported absent (not at a place where they are expected or required to be and with no apparent risk). 

Det Supt Holden then set out some sobering statistics about children missing in the Wiltshire Police area (which covers Wiltshire and Swindon).

He said that, in 2015, 423 children were recording as missing. There had been a total of 897 incidents reported, and so some of these children had gone missing a number of times. In fact the top 20 most regularly missing children had – between them – gone missing 550 times. 

Children who go missing regularly can appear on the surface to be “street wise”. Some may commit offences and end up in court.

But beneath that “street wise” exterior you will often find a young person who is vulnerable, insecure and sometimes traumatised.

Wiltshire Police figures suggest there are currently 142 young people who are victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) or at risk of being exploited.

As Commissioner I set the strategy for policing and community safety in Wiltshire and Swindon. One of the four priorities I have set out in my Police and Crime Plan is to protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Force has a talented and dedicated team of officers and staff who work closely with council partners to keep children safe from abuse.

The discussion in the Corn Exchange made me reflect on what can be done to try to protect children in care from becoming criminalised for minor offences. The concern is that, once they have a criminal record, their life chances will be blighted and they will run the risk of entering a downward spiral of criminality.

I was very interested to read a recent report by Lord Laming for the Prison Reform Trust which looked at the over-representation of children in care in the criminal justice system.

He found that half of the children in custody in England and Wales have, at some time, been in care.

His report, In Care, Out of Trouble describes how looked-after children are often prosecuted for challenging behaviour that would normally be dealt with by parents in a family home.

A recently retired magistrate told his inquiry she “often raised concerns about the way trivial incidents in children’s homes resulted in police call-outs and prosecutions in circumstances where ordinary parents would never resort to criminalising their own children”.

The report says low-level criminal behaviour should not be recorded as a crime but should instead lead to a referral to a welfare agency.

Lord Laming’s review highlights the need for children’s social services, youth offending teams, police and other criminal justice agencies to work closely together and to avoid court proceedings unless absolutely necessary. 

Restorative justice could well have a part to play in keeping such children out of court.

As some readers may be aware, I have recently commissioned a new service called Restorative Together under which carefully-chosen volunteers are trained to bring victims of crime and offenders together, enabling everyone affected to repair the harm and find a positive way forward.  

The scheme’s co-ordinator said she was recently invited into a school in the Wiltshire Police area to work with two nine-year-old pupils who had fallen out. With the help of one of her newly-trained facilitators a satisfactory outcome was reached.

I would like to think that this non-judgmental but nevertheless rigorous and challenging process could be put to good use in children’s homes when the circumstances do not, in all honesty, warrant calling out the police. 

As a society we need to think about what we can do, as parents, grandparents, carers or public officials, to set our children on the right path as decent, law-abiding citizens.

Last month, the outgoing president of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor John Ashton, suggested that parents should receive lessons in how to bring up their children.

Mr Ashton was concerned about a minority of children leaving school in trouble emotionally or mentally and suffering from things like eating disorders, obesity, anxiety and stress.

Lessons in parenting skills could also help to improve discipline and communication.

Children, in my view, need to be able to go out and play in the way that my generation did. That is how we learned to explore the great outdoors and assess risks.

I believe that parents should encourage their children to join organisations such as Scouts, Guides and Brownies.

The Volunteer Police Cadet scheme is also a splendid way for boys and girls, aged 14 to 17, to contribute to society and achieve. There are cadet groups in Swindon, Chippenham and Trowbridge, and recruiting will open in September for a new group in Salisbury. 

We all have a responsibility to bring up the next generation as decent, law-abiding citizens. Striving to keep vulnerable children from becoming criminalised for minor misdemeanours should be a priority.

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