Criminalising teens in care must stop

A review of the crossover between young people in care and youth people in the justice system in the UK was published this week. Shockingly, it found that children in care are six times more likely than other young people to be cautioned or convicted of a crime.

Lord Laming, who chaired the research, said police were sometimes involved in situations that would normally be dealt with by parents.

He said the police had been called when a child “stole” food from the kitchen of his care home or when a teenager trashed his room.

“Most families deal with this sort of challenging behaviour within the family,” he said. “Once the police are called, it becomes theft or criminal damage and it goes on the child’s record.

This is happening in Ireland, too. A story in the Irish Examiner in recent months revealed that “the country’s most troubled teenagers are being criminalised while in the care of the State — arrested in the secure therapeutic centres aiming to stabilise and rehabilitate them.”

Children’s defence solicitor Gareth Noble said the violence young people are exhibiting could be directly linked to the circumstances under which they are being kept.

And he said that charging young people in these settings appears to be a policy decision to crack down on challenging behaviour.

“These children, who cannot be safely maintained because of emotional disturbances, require urgent therapeutic interventions. The idea that they are brought in and out of court arising out of incidents during that process of therapy and stabilisation is against their best interests and welfare,” he said. “The criminal justice system should not be used as a substitute for care.”

That is the nub of the debate: “The criminal justice system should not be used as a substitute for care.”

Tusla says it recognises that there has been an upsurge in violent behaviour in residential care settings. We need to look at why, rather than simply calling the guards and further damaging the most damaged by parachuting them into the justice system.

We could learn lessons from the UK review, which makes a raft of suggestions, and should be read by all law and policy makers here. As the report notes, “When the state takes over the parenting of someone else’s child, it has both a legal and moral responsibility to be a good parent.”



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