Life is unfair. We all know this, but some things seem to push at the boundaries of unfairness too much. Every child should have the right to grow up in a loving, supportive family: a place nurturing their ambitions and making them feel safe when life’s knocks inevitably come their way. Sadly, for foster children, this is far from the case; record numbers of children are entering the care system and because of endemic placement instability, a loving and constant home environment for them is a mirage. Is it any wonder that they feel frustrated and bereft of hope? Worse, when at school, they are amongst a peer group – most of whom will be going home to precisely the kind of home denied them. This can only be a torment; one compounded now, as it appears the very act of kicking a door is now enough for a looked after child to get a criminal record. Such a situation is patently absurd, so it is a positive (if rather obvious) step forward for a new report ‘In Care, Out of Trouble’, to condemn the criminalisation of foster children for such minor offences. The report, authored by Lord Lamming, cites that such behaviour – minor misdemeanours – is normally dealt with within the family. The result is a kind of ‘apartheid’ where miscreant foster children suddenly find themselves saddled with a criminal record: we all know what a crushing blow that can be to someones future prospects. But by comparison, children fortunate enough to be living in a normal family home will escape with a telling off.
A recently retired magistrate said that she had often raised concerns as to why child perpetrators of trivial incidents appeared in court; such acts, were they committed in an ordinary family environment, would never result in ordinary parents “criminalising their children”. The same magistrate had been reassured by the Crown Prosecution Service and the local authority that all cases were subject to review, and that special protocols in place ensured trivial offences would not result in a court appearance. Despite these blandishments, she, (the magistrate) said children and young people continued to end up being criminalised for petty misdemeanours. This form of criminalisation has been identified by the Lamming’s report as being “a national problem which central and local government, and local criminal justice agencies, can and must do more to address”. The report advises that low level criminal activity should not end up being recorded as a specific crime, but should instead result in the perpetrator being referred on to a welfare agency. Lord Lamming went on to call for “leadership, imagination, direction and determination” in this area of policy thinking. The report is timely – coming only a week after the PM, David Cameron, pledged youngsters leaving the care system would be entitled to “far more effective support”: this will be addressed through the introduction of a care leavers’ covenant. So, not before time, this issue is clearly being taken seriously: the Cabinet is forming a sub-committee whose responsibility it will be to protect children and young people in care from criminalisation. Foster children face many disadvantages and it is in the interests of all in society that they are not unfairly stigmatised. For more information www.safeguardingchildrenea.co.uk/resources/lord–laming-report-summary/
It is, of course, important to remember that on current figures, 94% of children in care never get in trouble with the law. This statistic alone serves as a great tribute to the nations foster carers as so many of them deal every day with children presenting difficult and challenging behaviour. The kind of behaviour that, if only marginally worse, has all too easily resulted in a criminal record.
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