Depriving children of their liberty – protecting children but at what cost?
By Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General of Eurochild
A story in the Observer has recently highlighted the massive rise in the number of children, particularly vulnerable girls, who are being placed detained within the prison system supposedly ‘for their own safety’.
The demand for secure accommodation has risen dramatically as councils step up their intervention to prevent sexual exploitation, gang violence and trafficking. It follows in the wake of child-grooming scandals in Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale, Derby, Telford and other councils that have revealed the shocking extent to which UK public authorities ignored the issue for decades, often penalizing the victims rather than the perpetrators.
Whatever temporary protection they may provide, it is questionable if such settings can provide an environment that helps children deal psychologically and emotionally with their trauma. In our experience, ‘institutions’ whether open or closed, are rarely places where children grow and develop to their full potential[i]. Characterised by routine, de-personalisation and punitive interventions, they are not environments where children build trusting relations with their peers or adults. On the contrary, they very often produce further harm for their already vulnerable residents.
Our Alternatives to Custody project[ii] focuses on another group of vulnerable young people - young offenders. Research shows that offenders have very often themselves been victims of abuse or sexual violence when they were younger. There is often a fine line between victim and perpetrator. Several studies confirm that youngsters involved in serious offending are among the most victimized and vulnerable group of people in our society[iii]. Chances for rehabilitation are slim if these young people are not offered the necessary support to come to terms with their own experience. More often than not they need positive role models and good social and psychological support to build their self-esteem and help change behaviours.
The project focuses specifically at promoting best practice in intensive and remand fostering for young offenders as an alternative to custody. It will document the huge potential benefits of providing skilled, child-focused alternative family care from foster carers for young people in conflict with the law. It also looks at the wider policy framework and how these young people can avoid the formal criminal justice systems altogether through effective diversion and decriminalisation interventions.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international treaty which is 25 years old this year and has been ratified by the UK along with the rest of the EU, states that “deprivation of liberty should be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time” (article 37 (b)). Children who are deprived of their liberty, are very often exposed to an increased risk of abuse, violence, and social discrimination, not to mention denial of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Eurochild is part of a civil society campaign led by Defence for Children International that is calling for a Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. Such a study will shed light on the situation of children deprived of their liberty worldwide and help to ensure that the necessary preventative and alternative measures are put in place.
This Study will aim to map out – through monitoring and evaluation analysis – how existing international laws and standards are being implemented on the ground and assess the concrete possibilities for States to improve their policies and responses. Through the collection of sound evidence and reliable data, the Study will provide a consolidation of good practices and the formulation of recommendations in order to support the work of States, UN agencies and other stakeholders to more effectively implement international standards and ensure that children deprived of their liberty have their human rights respected.