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The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has revealed its tactics for policing children and young people, which is expected to see police forces across England and Wales treat young offenders as ‘children first’. 

Youth Offending Officers working closely alongside children’s social workers have been advocating this approach for many years now, so what’s changed and what could this mean for looked after children?

It’s the first youth offending strategy from the NPCC since it took over from ACPO last October, and it certainly makes it clear that in all encounters with the police, those under 18 should ‘be treated as children first’. 

Police to identify vulnerability

The promise in itself isn’t particularly new – ACPO’s 2010 strategy used similar phraseology, but what will be of interest to children’s social workers is the NPCC’s call for police to identify the vulnerability of every child and young person (C&YP) they come into contact with. Police staff will be expected to respond in a way that protects them from harm. As the strategy quite rightly points out, ‘it is unusual for a young person to be a serious offender without being a victim of circumstance or offending themselves’. 

The Youth Justice Board (YJB), which oversees the activities of Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), already takes an evidence-based approach to keeping children and young people out of the criminal justice process. Much of this work has seen YOTs working together with social workers on cross-departmental policies, including the Troubled Families Programme. The NPCC clearly acknowledges the vital importance of this approach underpinning how police respond to C&YPs. In fact, its report openly states that ‘highly punitive sanctions have little impact on recidivism’. 

Looked after children

In regards to looked after children, the strategy notes that those in care are two or three times more likely to offend than their peers. We are still talking relatively small percentages. In 2013, 6.2% of children in care aged 10-17 were convicted of an offence, compared to the national average of 1.5% for all children. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be discrepancy at all, although the reality is that 25% of the prison population have spent time in care during their childhood.

Trauma, the strategy suggests, is likely to influence the behaviour of those young people disproportionately represented. It specifically mentions that children in care have pre-formed negative views about the police, and that the boundaries in which they behave are often different to those in a ‘traditional’ family unit. These patterns of behaviour will come as no surprise to social workers, but for police staff that frequently encounter young people, they will not have the knowledge and expertise of those working in social care. Understanding exactly how to deliver ‘the right intervention at the right time’ will certainly involve working much more closely with partner agencies, including YOTs and social services. 

Looking beyond the age of 18

From a young adult point of view, the strategy relates to everyone up to and including the age of 24 years; those transitioning into young adults. 

As the NPCC suggests, ‘policing must be sophisticated enough to look beyond the blanket negative labelling of young people [up to and including the age of 24] to identify the small numbers who are serious and persistent offenders.’ This can only be a positive step forward for those remaining in care until 21 and care leavers. 

Broader support for the new approach

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, was quick to show her support for the new approach. In talking specifically about children in care, she said:

“To improve the policing of children and young people, the police must listen to their views and act upon them. This strategy makes it clear that this will be a priority for the police in the future.”

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