Locking up vulnerable children: a last resort?

The number of looked after children being locked up remains high

The number of looked after children being locked up remains high

By Niall McCracken

SOME of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable children have been detained in custody on almost 500 occasions during the last two years, despite a recommendation from the Department of Justice that this should “always be a last resort”.

New figures obtained by The Detail show that children from a “looked after” background were admitted to a Juvenile Justice Centre (JJC) or detained in police custody for more than four hours on 478 occasions between April 2011 and March 2013 – and the number of incarcerations has been rising over that period.

The figures are collected as part of the Health and Social Care Board’s (HSCB) “untoward events” reporting policy.

Include Youth works with young people in need or at risk, including teenagers from a care background and young people who have committed or are at risk of committing crime. Reacting to the latest figures its director Koulla Yiasouma says she is frustrated that the number of vulnerable children being locked up here remains “stubbornly high”.

The term “looked after” refers to children who are in the care of a health trust or are provided with accommodation by a trust. They may be living in residential homes, with foster carers, extended family members or in supported accommodation.

The HSCB say that in isolation, the statistics provided “do not offer insight into the overall complexities which may occur in situations where young people are detained by the police or in a juvenile centre”.

Health trusts here are required to inform the HSCB within 72 hours of any “untoward events” involving looked after children, such as being detained by the PSNI for more than four hours or being sent to a JJC.

Include Youth’s Koulla Yiasouma says looked after children should never be placed in custody where this would not have been an outcome for children in the general population:

She said: “In spite of very good intentions from both the Departments of Justice and Health, Social Care and Public Safety little seems to be done to stem the flow of some of our most vulnerable young people being incarcerated for reasons more to do with the availability of appropriate care and accommodation than the risk they pose to the public.

“Include Youth does not underestimate the challenges that are involved with caring for these young people, but the large sums of money expended by the criminal justice system could be better deployed caring from them. We are frustrated by the fact that the figures of looked after children in custody remain stubbornly high.


Figures contained in HSCB untoward event figures

Figures contained in HSCB untoward event figures

A breakdown of the figures shows that during 2011/12, 76 looked after children were detained by the PSNI for more than four hours 112 times, during 2012/13 this number increased to 95 children on 151 occasions.

The law relating to police bail is mainly contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1989 often referred to as PACE. When a young person is arrested and subsequently charged with a criminal offence the police must release him/her on bail unless:

  • His/her name or address cannot be confirmed;
  • Detention is necessary to prevent the young person from committing an offence or from causing physical injury or damage to property;
  • There are grounds for believing that he/she will fail to appear in court, or interfere with the police investigation;
  • Detention is necessary for his/her own protection or that he/she ought to be detained in his/her own interests.

In a statement to The Detail the PSNI said that as all juveniles are entitled to a solicitor, the arrival of a legal representative may also take time.

A PSNI spokesperson said: “Juvenile detainees are continually assessed as to the length of time that they are detained. These assessments are conducted by a senior officer who is independent of the criminal investigation.

“It is their primary role to ensure the rights/welfare of the detainee are satisfied and the investigation is conducted diligently and as expeditiously as possible minimising the length of time the detainee is kept in detention”.

In September 2011 the Department of Justice published its report on the Youth Justice Review (YJR). It contained 31 recommendations for changes to the youth justice system and wider arrangements for children in Northern Ireland. Following a consultation process, the implementation plan detailing how the department planned to take forward this work was published in June this year.

The review report states that any remand into custody of a looked after child should be viewed as a last resort and only when no alternative is available.

It recommended that: “Looked after children should no longer be placed in custody, either through PACE, on remand or sentenced, where this would not have been an outcome for children in the general population.”

Figures provided by the HSCB

Figures provided by the HSCB

A further breakdown obtained by The Detail shows that during the last two years children between 15-17 years of age were obtained in police custody for more than four hours 155 times over the last two years. Children between 12-14 years were also detained on 65 occasions.

In a statement to The Detail the PSNI said: “When the criminal justice process is completed within the custody environment it may transpire that the juvenile requires to be accommodated in a home/foster care/JJC- this may also take some time to arrange and the juvenile must remain in police care during this time."


Where a custody officer decides that an arrested juvenile is to be kept in police detention until the next available court date, they must make arrangements for him/her to be taken to a place of safety, such as any home provided by a welfare authority, a hospital or a JJC.

Figures provided by the HSCB

Figures provided by the HSCB

A further breakdown of the HSCB’s untoward event statistics show that there were 49 looked after children detained in a JJC on 94 occasions in 2011/12, during 2012/13 this figure stood at 72 looked after children on 121 occasions.

Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre (JJC) in Bangor is the only custodial facility for children in Northern Ireland.

As recommended in the Youth Justice Review, since November 2012, no young people under 18 have been detained in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre. Instead they are located at Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre.

Earlier this month the Justice Minister, David Ford, launched a consultation asking for opinions on introducing legislation to underpin this key policy – making it law that no under 18s are sentenced to be detained in Hydebank Wood YOC in the future.

DoJ says it is currently working with DHSSPS to track all admissions to the JJC from children’s homes and ensure that they are “proportionate and fully justified”.

Koulla Yiasouma believes JJCs are not a satisfactory replacement for any looked after child.

She said: “Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre, no matter how well run is not a facility for caring for children who are unable to live with their families- that responsibility lies with social care”.

In its YJR implementation plan the department states that the average daily PACE population in the JJC is only one child, but acknowledges that ultimately the decision whether or not to accept a child under PACE will be an operational matter for the centre director, taking account of the circumstances of the case and the capacity of the centre at the time.

The Criminal Justice Inspectorate’s report on the progress of the implementation of the YJR is currently with the Minister for Justice and awaiting approval for publication.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it could not comment further on the figures obtained by The Detail on the basis that the department is “the recipient of those to be held and does not take the decision to hold”.

© The Detail 2013

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