Unintended consequences: Restraint and criminalisation of looked after children

08 October 2019

Topic: Residential care
Author: Debbie Nolan

Debbie Nolan is Practice Development Advisor with the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ). Debbie's work focuses on youth justice and secure care.

I attended this year's SIRCC Conference with an extra bit of excitement and nerves in my belly. I last facilitated a workshop at the conference in 2016 on CYCJ's research into responses to offending in residential childcare that was later detailed in our Between a rock and a hard place report, and now I was back to talk about the Next Steps Project for a conference workshop. This project grew from the original research and aimed to support the implementation of the findings to effect practice change.

Having co-led this project and having spent the last three years talking to many hundreds of people about the criminalisation of looked after children, I knew the workshop discussion would as always be complex, challenging, and emotive. As anticipated, some really great discussion emerged, and the position or role of restraint in respect of responding to offending was raised as it often has been.

This tied in almost seamlessly with Laura Steckley's plenary keynote at the Conference. As Laura spoke and also in the discussion that followed, the crossover and connections between the two areas of practice and the potential for real debate, discussion and potentially change (and challenges) became ever clearer.

Avoiding unnecessary police contact

The aims of Laura's presentation were clearly articulated as being to (further) energise efforts, turning them into a collective endeavour to reduce and where possible eliminate physical restraint in residential child care establishments; and where physical restraints do occur, to increase the likelihood that they are (and are experienced as) an act of care rather than brutality.

These are complementary to the aims that guided our work in respect of the criminalisation of looked after children. We want to reduce and eliminate unnecessary police contact; and where police contact does take place ensure this is the last resort by promoting the factors that can support thoughtful and considered police contact, while ensuring children are fully supported through this process and any subsequent system contact.

This need for a both/and as opposed to either/or approach at this stage struck a chord too. Laura also spoke about the 'other things' that could help achieve these aims, or as she described it, could help restraint to 'die away', which again chimed with our work in helping staff to make good quality decisions that support the avoidance of unnecessary police contact. Such 'other things' include the importance of care and containment for our carers; the organisational culture; relationships; recognising the impact of trauma (at all levels and for everyone involved); the need to bring together the voices of young people and staff; shared understanding and ensuring a joined-up approach.

Moreover, the tensions and dilemmas cited in both areas of practice were common, for example both restraint and police contact are often spoken about as being the last resort. Indeed in our work restraint was often described as the 'second-last resort' in responding to offending, the last being police contact. But what does 'last resort' really mean and how do we ensure a level of consistency in assessing when this has been reached when all situations demand an individualised response and will often involve different people, both young people and staff?

Potential unintended consequences of change

There is always a 'but' isn't there? I should start this by saying I fully agree with the aforementioned aims in respect of the criminalisation of looked after children and restraint and believe these are what we should be working towards. But (there it is!) when working within a complex system, as the care system arguably is, everything is connected to everything else so change in one part of the system will have a knock-on effect. As a result, it is even more important that when proposing introducing a new practice, continuing an established practice, or seeking to remove an approach entirely, that we think through the potential unintended consequences of any such change as their impact may be felt elsewhere.

Often our aims are driven from the right place, they are based on a full understanding of the evidence and are what we believe at that time to be the correct response. And often they are. But at other times changes can be attempted or practice can become established without us critically reflecting on all of the implications, both good and not so good, intended and unintended. This can be further complicated by the fact these implications can be felt differently by different people.

Should police 'drop in' to children's houses?

To illustrate, I will use an example that has kept coming up (and been one of the most contentious) in our criminalisation work: informal police visits to children's houses. Various sources of evidence highlight that for many care experienced young people, their first experiences of the police may have been under negative circumstances and that this first impression has the potential to taint (and then can either be reinforced or improved by) further contact. Such experiences can be characterised by feelings of mistrust, unease, anxiety, and that the police are not 'on their side'.

To address these concerns, and in an attempt to 'build relationships' between young people and the police, informal police visits (such as dropping into the children's house for a cup of tea or a game of pool) have been introduced. While for some young people and services, the perceptions of such visits are positive, there is an emerging understanding of potential unintended consequences of such visits. For example, these may actually draw young people into further contact with the justice system and formal criminalisation and can result on the normalisation of police interactions that would not occur in non-care settings, leading the Howard League to conclude "The best scenario for a child living in a children's home is not to have any contact with the police at all".

Staying alert

So we need to be open to the potential that by either introducing a new practice, continuing established practice, or by seeking to remove an approach entirely - be this restraint or police contact - the anticipated impacts may not be only positive or neutral, there will always be a risk of potentially detrimental unintended consequences.

In the case of restraint, a potential outcome is that if restraint is removed altogether, without real exploration of the range of purposes this can be perceived to serve and without 'other things' being put in place that can make such practice be deemed 'less necessary', more children could be criminalised.

This is not to say we shouldn't be trying to change or improve practice, indeed quite the contrary, we all, as practitioners working to improve outcomes for children, should continually be striving to improve. But in planning and implementing improvements we need to think through the wide range of potential consequences, be alert and reflect on these as practice changes. Crucially we really need to hear from children, young people and practitioners, and listen to what they say to ensure we bring with us all of those who we are either asking to change their practice or who will be affected by this change.

It feels like there is currently a real appetite to make positive change in respect of restraint and it's important not to lose this impetus but we need to stay mindful in our approach. That's why I look forward to being part of the continued discussion and debate.

Update | September 2021

The following video was recorded as part of SIRCC 2021 Online.

Read other blog posts in this series


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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Graphic text - Physical restraint in residential care. Read other blogs
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