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Looking after looked-after children

Heather Thomas considers how the fundamentally different disciplines of family law and criminal law can work together to help achieve better outcomes for vulnerable children

14 September 2017

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As a legal aid lawyer practising in childcare law, it is sadly not at all uncommon for me to come across cases involving adolescents and children who are – at an alarmingly young age – caught up in the criminal justice system. What is common to the children I come across is that they are ‘looked after’ by a local authority, which, legally, means that they are accommodated by a local authority for a continuous period of more than 24 hours or subject to a care or placement order.

The Department for Education receives annual data from local authorities as to how many children over the age of ten who have been in their care continuously over the last 12 months have been convicted of a criminal offence or are subject to a youth caution. Recent data reported by the Howard League for Penal Reform in the 2016 report ‘Criminal Care’ suggests that although the vast majority of children in care do not offend, looked-after children aged 13 to 17 are almost 20 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than children who are not looked after.

Lord Herbert Laming’s 2016 review ‘In Care, Out of Trouble’ examined the reasons for, and how best to tackle, the over-representation of children in care, or children with experience of care, in the criminal justice system.

Rona Epstein’s article ‘The Criminalisation of Looked After Children’ (Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, 2 September 2017) highlights Lord Laming’s recommendation that “there must be more effective joint working between families, local authorities, youth offending services, child and adolescent mental health services, the police, and other criminal justice agencies leading to substantially improved opportunities for preventing the criminalisation of looked after children and diverting them from the criminal justice system wherever possible”.

I represent children and parents daily who are involved with children’s services and it is clear that joint thinking and collaborative working across numerous disciplines is vital. However, the challenge is how the two fundamentally different disciplines of family law and criminal law can work together to help achieve better outcomes for these vulnerable children.

I have found myself frustrated with the lack of joined-up thinking about the services required for these children. Often, I stand before a judge in the family court who is seeking answers from a local authority as to why the social work team has not been liaising sufficiently closely with the youth offending team; why there has been no communication between the Youth Justice Board and a family-finding team within the relevant local authority before a child is to be released from custody; why mental health support has not been put in place for a child when it was recommended by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services six months prior; and so on and so forth.

On 17 October 2017, the Howard League’s lawyers’ network group is holding a meeting on ‘Preventing the Criminalisation of Children in Care’ at Garden Court Chambers. The session aims to explore how family, community care, and crime practitioners can work together to help keep children out of the criminal justice system and to achieve better outcomes for them.

Appropriately supporting these vulnerable children in a holistic and effective way requires considerable thought, planning, and resources, but it can be done and needs to be implemented for all children at risk embroiled in such situations.

Heather Thomas is a solicitor at Creighton & Partners and committee member for Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL)

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Family Children