Child deaths in custody
Any childâ€™s death is a sad event, but a child dying in the custody of the state is scandalous. The state has ultimate power, and ultimate responsibility, when it takes a person into custody. A child should never die in these circumstances. So it is incredible that sixteen children have died in custody since the founding of the Youth Justice Board. Today the YJB published a report into these deaths. I am taken aback by how shamefully superficial and self-justifying it is.
The report only considers matters raised by other bodies, each of which have very limited remits so the YJB has ignored whole areas of its responsibility.
The YJB is the only authority that could have looked more widely at why these children died, not just at how. It has a great deal of responsibility for the youth offending teams who manage children when they first come into contact with the criminal justice system and who prepare reports for the courts to guide sentencing.
This is critically important as most of the boys were remanded to custody, not sentenced, and almost all the sentenced boys were serving short sentences.
The YJB should have looked at the lead up to custody and what could have been done to prevent the boys entering such a dangerous environment. Prisons and privately run secure training centres are violent places, bullying and restraint is rampant.
Why did the report not ask the youth offending teams to account for why they did not work more closely with childrenâ€™s services and social services to support the families and turn the childrenâ€™s lives round? Also published today is an investigation by the BBC and Community Care magazine about the lack of services for children with serious mental health problems, which most of the boys who died in penal custody were known to have suffered from. The question should have been asked why these boys were not diverted to mental health care by youth offending teams.
Why did the report not look at the advice and recommendations given to the youth courts?
No one has ever examined the decisions of the courts who sent these children to places that clearly were dangerous. The YJB is arguably the only body that could have questioned the decision by the courts to incarcerate highly vulnerable children in prisons and STCs that are well known to be violent and dangerous. One of the boys who died was sent to custody because he breached conditions placed on him in the community â€“ how on earth can a court justify such a decision and who is going to question the magistrates if not the YJB? Inquests canâ€™t do it, local authorities canâ€™t do it, the Magistrates Association wonâ€™t, and the Ministry of Justice wonâ€™t even consider it.
This was a terribly wasted opportunity and real learning would have saved more lives. As it is, the report is so flimsy that mere tinkering appears to be all that is on offer. Meanwhile, children will continue to be sent to the guillotine.