COVID-19 Children and Families Collective Leadership Group - short-life group on under-18s in custody: report

The Covid-19 Children and Families Collective Leadership Group (CLG) set up a short-life group to deliver improvements in the experience and reduce the number of under-18s in custody. This is the sub-group's report and recommendations.

Annex 2 – Scottish Prison Service - Key Issues from data and evidence about young people in custody presented to the Short-Life Group in January 2022

This paper summarises issues which are relevant to the implementation of alternatives to custody, as well as to the work that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) currently undertakes with children who are in Polmont. The issues are drawn from experience and from analyses which have been undertaken as part of SPS's contribution to the planning of alternatives to custody so that under 18s will no longer be sent to YOIs, an intention to which SPS is fully committed. In the meantime, SPS work with children in its care is guided by the SPS Vision for Young People in Custody[14] which was refreshed in 2021.

Key issues from data and evidence about children in custody

Numbers of children aged 16 and 17 experiencing custody are reducing but still substantial

In the last ten years there has been a remarkable reduction (nearly 90%)[15] in the number of children aged 16 and 17 who are in YOIs on any one day. As we know, however, children are still falling through the net. There are currently 14 children in custody but the scale of children's experience of custody in Scotland is best seen from the total number of children who experience custody in a year, each needing to be known as an individual with his or her specific needs for planning and support. There is considerable flux as children arrive in custody and either return to the community or reach their 18th birthday while in custody. The total number of children who experienced custody in 2020-21 was 92[16] and we expect the number to be similar in 2021-22.

Most children in custody are closer to age 18 than 16

The age profile of children on arrival into YOIs tends to be weighted towards the upper end of the 16/17 age range[17] although there are some exceptions. At any time, most are typically within a few months of their 18th birthday. The age profile has implications for the planning of alternatives to custody, since a predominantly older group is likely to have an influence on the culture and atmosphere within a setting, and there may be safety considerations where younger children are also present. There are also implications for the planning and timing of transitions, to ensure that any placement is long enough to become established and productive and that there is continuity of learning and support across the transition to the next stage of custody.

The vast majority of children in custody are on remand

Currently only three of the children in SPS custody have been sentenced. Over the past year the number of children on remand has consistently far outweighed the number who have been sentenced. Because of the uncertainty of their situation it can be harder to assess, plan and provide for the needs of children on remand: for example, it may be more difficult to motivate a young person to engage in activities and develop comprehensive support plans and/or throughcare plans for their return to the community. The uncertainty can add to a sense of hopelessness expressed by many of these young people in their conversations with staff. There is a great need for the fruits of the work that is now being undertaken to reduce the number of children on remand.

The reduction in the numbers of children in custody has been associated with an increase in the complexity and extent of their needs

It is well established that children in custody have commonly experienced bereavement, trauma and multiple adverse childhood experiences.[18] In recent snapshots[19] based on SPS records, half of the children lived in the 20% most deprived communities in Scotland and around half were care experienced. The children have needs associated with mental health, drugs and alcohol, and additional needs including speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). These children have often been the most marginalised and excluded, with disrupted school attendance and major and often unrecognised gaps in, for example, their literacy, communication, comprehension, numeracy and life skills.

A review of case histories of a group of children[20] recently resident in HMYOI Polmont confirmed these patterns of complex need and identified common themes in the lives of these children, including:

  • early distress or neglect and/or parental alcohol misuse
  • previous contact with Children's Hearings system/Social Work for care and protection and/or with the justice system for multiple offences prior to the offence for which the young person had been sentenced to detention
  • periods of residence in secure care, residential care or homeless provision
  • increasing severity and frequency of offences and harm over time. This included cases of extreme violence and/or prolonged dangerous behaviour in custody
  • mental health concerns, both diagnosed and not previously identified

The pattern of complex need has significant implications for the range and kinds of specialist support that needs to be available for these children (such as for their mental health, SLCN, learning disability, support for trauma and bereavement) together with tailored educational provision, all to improve their likelihood of a positive future. This includes, in some cases, individual support to engage with learning of any kind and to engage with peers.

The most important contribution to these young person's sense of safety and wellbeing can often be that somebody cares about them. The quality of the relationships between the children and members of staff is therefore particularly important, especially given that some of these children do not have contact with anyone in the community.[21]

The reduction in numbers of children in custody is associated with an increase in severity of risk, including risks to other young people and to public safety

The offences for which children serve sentences or are on remand in YOI are predominantly very serious violent and/or sexual offences, including the most grave of offences, and/or multiple offences and multiple breaches of orders.[22] Given the acute issues of safety that individuals within the group are likely to present not only within the community but while they are detained, these risks have implications across a range of aspects of provision and practice, including:

  • ensuring that staff have the skills, knowledge and confidence to work safely with these young people to understand, meet and address their needs
  • having in place arrangements to ensure safety and protection for all residents, including approaches to de-escalation and interventions where there is risk of harm (SPS is placing an emphasis on restraint reduction and non-aversive strategies for managing children and young people who may display distressed behaviours. Central to this work is the identification and implementation of non-pain inducing restraint techniques, in line with UNCRC and The Promise.)
  • having access to specialist support and escalation routes for particularly vulnerable young people with acute or additional needs, to ensure that they are placed without delay in the most appropriate setting for their needs

The return to the community presents particular challenges for children and young people leaving custody

The Whole System Approach (WSA) provides multi-agency support for children leaving custody but there are particular challenges, for example, in ensuring safe and supported housing for all who need it. Young people leaving custody, who may be learning to live independently for the first time, will often need extended support within the community.[23] Experience shows that continuity of support is vital and may well need to continue across age boundaries. This has implications for all partners who have responsibility to provide the support, services and opportunities that these young people need to integrate successfully, and safely, into their communities.



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