Looking out for kids in care

If your child got into a fight with a friend or kicked down a door, would you call the police? I wouldn’t. I’d be angry, of course. And worried. But I wouldn’t be calling 999. For children living in care homes, though, this is too often the outcome of an incident that in a family home would be dealt with informally. As a result, looked after children and young people, an already vulnerable and marginalised group, are dragged into the criminal justice system.

Too many of them then struggle to escape it – it’s scarcely believable that while fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody. Their criminal record will weigh heavily against them for life. Many will find it an insurmountable barrier to employment, housing and education. A quarter of all adult prisoners spent time in care as a child.

There’s no single solution to this grotesque state of affairs. No magic bullet. But we know that the use of restorative practice in care homes to prevent and respond to conflict can make a real difference. Following the implementation of restorative practice in care homes by Hertfordshire County Council, for example, there was a 23% reduction in police call outs. Norfolk’s children’s homes reported a 52% drop in young people being charged with criminal offences following the introduction of a restorative approach.

To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have recognised this. Their manifesto for the 2015 general election pledges to “prevent looked after children and young people being drawn into the criminal justice system unnecessarily by promoting restorative justice”. This is welcome and it’s high time other parties followed suit. It is not good enough that, despite the known benefits, the use of restorative practice in care homes remains inconsistent, uncoordinated and all too rare.

In a criminal justice system awash with depressing statistics, the overrepresentation of people who are or have been in care stands out. It’s a scandal that cannot be allowed to continue. We know that, amongst other positive outcomes, the use of restorative practice in care homes can help keep young people out of the justice system. There’s simply no excuse not to act on this now.