The government is urging councils, the police and courts across England to sign up to an agreement aimed at reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers.

A national protocol published by the Department for Education, Home Office and Ministry of Justice, outlines ways the prosecution of children in care and care leavers can be avoided “wherever possible and appropriate”. The framework, which is designed to help social care and criminal justice agencies keep looked-after children out of the criminal justice system, has been co-developed with leaders in the statutory and voluntary sectors.

FosterTalk is pleased to have been one of the organisations contributing to the development of the protocol, which commits all agencies involved in the care of children and care leavers to understand the trauma they may have faced in their lives. Figures show that looked after children and care experienced young people are hugely over-represented in the criminal justice system, with children who have been in care for over 12 months 5 times more likely to offend than all children.

Being called for in the protocol is for an attitude where professionals and carers ask themselves “would such behaviour lead to an arrest if the child had been living with their birth family?” Signatories to the national protocol should also recognise that children involved in criminal activity may be the victims of exploitation and crime themselves. This includes being used by gangs in so-called county lines drug distribution networks between urban and rural areas.

The protocol aims to ensure that children and young people’s views are taken into account after an incident where police are involved. Their views should then be used help shape local policies in helping to prevent prosecutions. Those signing up to the protocol would also commit to adopting restorative justice approaches where ever possible.

In launching the protocol, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Whilst the vast majority of looked-after children do not get into trouble, for a small number, contact with the criminal justice system can make it that bit harder to achieve positive outcomes.

“Whilst never taking away from the need to take responsibility for actions and their consequences, the right approach in responding to challenging behaviour or during contact with criminal justice agencies can help avoid unnecessarily criminalising looked-after children and care leavers, and promote better outcomes for them and society.”

The full protocol is available on the website.

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