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Safeguarding Children in the Secure Estate, 1960-2016

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Jackson, Louise 
Lanskey, Caroline 


Background and aims of the research

The research for this report was commissioned by the Historical Child Abuse Team of HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS), to inform its response to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Their aim was to enhance HMPPS’s institutional memory, and to suggest avenues for improved practice in safeguarding children in custody.

The research set out to review the operation of past safeguarding frameworks within what is now known as ‘the secure estate for young people’.

Research methods The initial research strategy was twofold: to conduct an orienting review of risk factors for institutional abuse using existing research and the reports of child abuse inquiries; and to review which kinds of establishment held children sentenced to custody for criminal offences by the courts, and under what policy and legal frameworks they did so.

These reviews framed our consideration of inspection reports, archival records, and other primary records concerning institutions of interest. The latter were selected according to where known allegations of sexual abuse have been made. All were male-only; to ensure that female custody was included in our analysis, we added the small number known to have held girls to the list.

Systematic catalogue searches were then carried out to identify relevant records in the two principal repositories used for the study (the Radzinowicz Library in Cambridge and The National Archives).

The results of these searches were uneven. Archival records for the earlier period (1960 to the 1990s) were sparse, and some issues and institutions of interest were not well-covered. We therefore adopted a more pragmatic strategy, pursuing ‘leads’ by browsing the archive catalogues, following cross-references in archival records, drawing inferences about institutions for children using available information (for example, by reviewing how complaints were handled in adult prisons where information was lacking for complaints by children) and turning to academic literature where archival sources lacked information relevant to certain issues. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were also made to access relevant closed archival records but no files of interest were opened in time for inclusion in the report.

The review of records covering the later period (1990s onwards) faced a contrasting challenge: the volume of documents published on secure institutions for children is enormous. Due to the three-month time limit for the whole project, it was not possible to comprehensively review the available material on specific institutions, and we therefore focused on published reviews of the children’s secure estate overall, and on overviews of the running of all establishments (such as annual reports and thematic inspection reports). References to specific institutions were then chased up in inspection reports.

Summary of key developments in safeguarding in the secure estate Safeguards against abuse from 1960 to the 1990s Changes in the nature and scope of the secure estate (and the youth justice system more generally) during this period were highly complex. Between 1960 and 1998, there was particular turbulence; since 1998 things have stabilised somewhat. The period as a whole, however, remains one in which there have been frequent revisions of institutional aims, management problems, resourcing pressures and cycles of expansion, reorganisation and decline. This turbulence is part of the context for historical abuse; it has not been uncommon, at different times, for institutions to become detached from their original aims, and instead to ‘drift’, sometimes with the result that the duty of care was diluted or suspended.

In general, from 1960 until at least the 1980s, policies of all kinds were ill-developed, and often poorly implemented. Responses to abuse were reactive and often failed to recognise or counteract the potential harms which custody might inflict on children. It was common for staff to use their power in irregular ways, and penal institutions often featured violent cultures, in which victimisation of some inmates by others was routine, and sometimes carried out with the tacit consent of staff.

Systems aiming to balance children’s interests against those of staff (for example, by enabling them to complain) were often ineffective because they failed to correct the disparities in power that were inherent to institutional life.

In penal institutions, complaints could be dangerous to raise: there were significant formal and informal barriers to raising a complaint, and significant risks of formal or informal reprisal from staff members.

Investigative procedures were also weak, usually relying on investigation within the institution, or (rarely) external investigation by Boards of Visitors. The independence of Boards from prison authorities was not guaranteed.

Arrangements to protect the ‘welfare’ of children were also hampered by resourcing, and by the narrow definition of the issue: Welfare Officers were, for the majority of this period, probation officers mostly responsible for heavy resettlement caseloads, and with limited time for other tasks.

In the care system, checks and balances against abuse were often weak, left the same people and organisations responsible for the administration and oversight of institutions, and led to serious conflicts of interest.

By the 1970s and 1980s, secure custody within the care system was developing along different lines to that in penal institutions. New justifications for custody were being advanced: that it was not a deterrent, or a training opportunity, but a form of treatment. These ideals were not always achieved in practice, but they led to a shift in official thinking whereby secure conditions were reframed as a way of meeting children’s needs, rather than compelling their compliance. One result was to increase awareness of the risks that could be posed by inadequate safeguards.

Catalysts for change, 1990-2000 New discourses and practices regarding child protection emerged in the care system during the 1980s and 90s, most particularly as the result of a series of public inquiries which exposed abuses in residential homes. Increasingly, it was recognised that residential institutions possessed their own risks and were particularly vulnerable to certain characteristic risks of abuse.

The new practices were formalised into a single legislative framework by the Children Act 1989, which transformed the regulation of the care system. However, its applicability to children in YOIs was legally uncertain until a High Court ruling in 2002.

Legal ambiguity did not prevent observers of the prison system making strong criticisms of YOIs (and later, STCs) a major plank in their prison reform agenda. These criticisms were powerful because they drew on the general rights and protections which the 1989 Act had created for children and which, it could be argued, they were denied in custody. These calls for reform applied the 1989 Act to child imprisonment in novel ways, leading to a ‘new orthodoxy’ in safeguarding.

The implementation of a ‘new orthodoxy’, 2000-2016 Since 2000, there have been further developments in the policy framework for the secure estate, but also new indications that policies have not been perfectly implemented. Imbalances of supply and demand for places in the secure estate, and a gradual shift towards a more vulnerable and damaged population, have been among the factors making implementation challenging.

Even so, some safeguards are undoubtedly more effective than previously. For example, greater controls are applied through staff vetting, and several custodial practices such as restraint and strip-searching have been reassessed in light of children’s lived experience of these forms of power.

Yet these new policies have also been circumvented in new ways. Abuses have come to light which possess both new features and others familiar from past inquiries. Most fundamentally, the arrival of new safeguarding policies has led to the recognition of forms of abuse which went unrecognised before. This has had an unforeseen effect: it has expanded the boundaries of what can potentially be considered abusive. The outcome of this shift remains unclear.

Conclusions The safeguarding of children in secure institutions can only be evaluated fully through close attention to organisational culture, as well as the actions and motivations of ‘bad’ individuals. Cultural beliefs affect day-to-day decision-making and are not always congruent with what is laid down formally in policy; indeed, in some circumstances culture is used to justify the circumvention or relaxation of standards which are officially sanctioned. This is particularly likely in residential institutions for children, which feature inherent disparities of power.

Race and learning difficulties added to vulnerability, though it is unclear whether this resulted in an increased likelihood of sexual abuse. The apparent absence of allegations of sexual abuse in establishments for girls is difficult to explain using the evidence we have reviewed, but does not appear to be because girls in custody were less vulnerable.

New safeguarding policies implemented since the 1990s contain their own vulnerabilities and have generated their own forms of illegitimacy. It is difficult for institutions to recognise these. It is a consistent pattern, throughout the history we have reviewed, that abusive practices had often seemed unlikely or unthinkable, but later became visible.

Thus while preventive safeguards are, in themselves, important, it is also important that institutions do everything possible to promote trusting, positive relationships between staff members and the children in their care, and to ensure that both staff and children are able to make meaningful challenges to aspects of custodial practice. The size of institutions appears relevant here, as do structures of accountability which avoid excessive formality.

It is also important that institutions are open to outside scrutiny. This is not merely a question of regular inspection: it is clear from the historical record that those responsible for scrutinising the secure estate could become acculturated, so that their ideas about what is ‘normal’ and acceptable began to reflect those of the culture around them. Contemporary arrangements for inspection and oversight need to retain awareness of this risk.

Abusive cultures develop largely because it is relatively easy for staff, in the context of organisations with steep power differentials, to present certain practices as justifiable means to legitimate ends. Over the long term, the operational context for the secure estate is always likely to be characterised by fluctuations in resourcing, and imbalances between supply and demand. Shifting priorities (of the sort which have been associated with the development of abusive cultures) are likely always to affect provision. In consequence, cultural blind spots will always be possible, and identifying them will always impinge on the interests of those who hold power. This makes protections for whistleblowers a key measure to protect children against abuse.

In short, despite safeguarding policies and frameworks and inspection regimes, the potential for abusive practices to develop must be viewed as evolving, and thus always possible. This points to three final reflections:

• the use of custody for children should be limited as far as possible, because of the inherent tensions in residential institutions where there is a marked disparity of power and an element of coercion in the allocation of residents; • there are distinct benefits to historical research in this area, because it enables a long view to be taken on present-day safeguards and abuses, and reveals continuities in the kinds of risks affecting the implementation of safeguards; • child safeguarding must be understood as an ongoing, iterative process, rather than as the attainment of a defined standard of practice.



child abuse, child sexual abuse, prisons, england and wales, youth justice, youth custody, secure estate for children, 20th-century history, criminology, penology, historical criminology

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University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology

Publisher DOI

HM Prison Service (unknown)
The report was commissioned by HM Prison & Probation Service and funding for the project came from them. Their aim was to improve their institutional memory and prepare their evidence to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse. Further details of the research questions agreed with them can be found in the appendices of the report at page 69.
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