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A day in the youth court


The Criminal Justice System is not the place for vulnerable kids
Today I took a break from my usual diet of drink driving to covered a stint as youth court duty solicitor for someone who couldn’t make it. I haven’t been a youth court duty for quite a long time but it wasn’t too bad.

I arrived bright and early at 9.30am ready to collect my papers for the day and get to work. But, there were no papers and nobody in need of representation. I found a room, did some work until lunch time then sat back with a couple of episodes of the X Files for an hour and a half (thank you Amazon Prime).

Just as the second episode ended (it was the one with the secretary whose boss was murdered and who is now protecting her from terrorists and his former business partner from beyond the grave) I got a call telling me that there was, at last, somebody for me to see.

Dashing up to the CPS room, I collected the papers and then ran to the cells to see my new client. It’s ages since I’ve been to this court building (and even longer since I’ve been to the cells) so I spent a few minutes searching for them. I followed my nose, tracing the smell of shit along the corridors until I found its source. I think the custody officers had been in there so long their olfactory sense is no longer activated by the stench of human waste that seemed to fill the whole place or maybe they’re just not such delicate little flowers as me.

On my long, circuitous, journey I was able to briefly glance at the charge sheet. My client had assaulted two police officers simultaneously.

Once I found the custody suite, I was led along a cell lined corridor by a gaoler to the door at the far end. I was impressed to note disabled washing facilities available to the left of the cell – didn’t expect the court cells to be quite so Equality Act compliant.

The gaoler disappeared briefly into the cell at the furthest end of the corridor, emerging a moment later politely beckoning the occupant out. Nothing. “Shall I head in to the interview room?” I asked.
“No, let this one go in first.” A warning in his voice. Still nobody appeared from the cell door. Another polite request for my client to attend was met with a soft grunt and the sound of shuffling. A moment later the fearsome assaulting of police appeared.

A small mousey haired girl emerged from the cell. “Hello,” she said in the soft voice of a child. I introduced myself. “I’m Emily,” she would have said had that been her name.

We sat down together in the interview room where, for the first time, I began to read out the allegation against her. Emily is 15 years old, she’s originally from another European country and appears to be in the UK alone, having been taken into care. She lives in a children’s home and it’s clear she doesn’t much like it there. At the end of our interview she asked whether she’d have to go back to the home so quietly that I had to have her repeat the question three times before I could make out the words. Throughout the interview, when she speaks, she is softly spoken, quiet and polite, although she doesn’t have much to say beyond admitting the charges.

The allegation is that she was reported missing from the children’s home. At around 1.45am police answered calls from a member of the public to a female screaming loudly in the street so police attended and found the missing girl. She was drunk and obviously vulnerable. The officers, rightly decided to take her home despite her demands that they leave her alone. Because she would not come quietly and was being aggressive the police put her in handcuffs and returned her to the care home where staff tried to calm her down. It didn’t work and she lashed out at the police officers kicking them both in the shins without causing injury. The officers put her on the ground – in their words “gently placed her on the ground”, in her account “forced me down and bruised my wrists where they twisted the cuffs”. I did not see any bruising but then the incident happened two months ago.

The police referred her to the Youth Offending Team with the offer of a conditional caution. She did not engage and missed her appointment to return to the police station so, this morning, she was arrested, charged and brought to court.

From her point of view, she’s gone out, been stopped by two men who have stopped her, tied her up and then forced her to the floor. That’s not me excusing her actions, it’s me trying to summarise the situation from her point of view and put the assaults into context.

From the police’s point of view, they could not leave a vulnerable girl out on the street alone and drunk in the early hours of the morning. When it became necessary to arrest her they sought to divert her away from court but that was unsuccessful and so their choices were take no further action on the two assaults on police or charge her and take her to court. I cannot see what alternative the police had in this situation.

So, that’s how I came to be representing a vulnerable teenage girl who had been reported missing and ended up accused of two crimes for the first time in her life. At court, she pleaded guilty and was given a referral order – there was nothing else the court could do. The referral order essentially means she has to go back to the Youth Offending Team and work with them (so in her case it’s the same as the conditional caution she’s already failed to abide by).

To me, this highlights the unsuitability of the Criminal Justice System to solve social problems. Having spoken to this girl, she didn’t strike me as a criminal or as somebody who just likes getting into trouble – in fact she’s never been in trouble before in her life! What she is, is extremely vulnerable without her parents or family to care for her and support her. She’s a child looking for support from her peers, which in her case means friends who take her out and get her drunk. Emily likes to drink vodka with coke and does so a few times a week – is anybody else wondering how a girl living in a care home with no income can afford to buy bottles of vodka to get drunk multiple times a week? When I was 15, I could only dream of having the money to buy alcohol. Her explanation is that “friends give it to me”. If we’ve learnt anything from working on and reading about child exploitation cases, it’s that alcohol and drugs are rarely given free and gratis by well meaning “friends” who want nothing in return.

What we have is a Criminal Justice System that struggles to cope with the Emily’s of the world because that ain’t its job. The CJS was never designed to help vulnerable children escape a shitty life. It tries, but ultimately unless it convicts a child of a crime (thus giving them a criminal record) it can take no steps to help them. Of course, there is a further problem that if they do convict them, impose a referral order that the child refuses to comply with then the situation escalates in a way that is unlikely to fix anything.

What Emily and others like her need is an effective intervention system that prevents her getting to this stage in the first place. Better support for vulnerable kids, which includes having support in care homes and getting kids out of care homes and into real homes, whether those are their own or foster care or, better still, a stable loving home where they can form relationships with adults. That also means earlier intervention. I hate the idea of kids being taken away from their parents but the children’s needs must come first and if that means heartbreak for parents who cannot or will not provide the care a child needs then that’s something I can live with.

I know some people who are looking to adopt. From what I gather it’s a Hellish experience. They already have a child but the process for adoption seems insanely complex. Pretty much everyone they have regular contact with has been interviewed and checked out by social services – the social worker has even performed a risk assessment on the family cat… yes the fucking CAT by which I mean a small elderly domestic moggy. They don’t live in a zoo, they don’t have a tiger coming to tea eating all the food in the house and drinking all the water from the tap, it’s a normal everyday cat. I gather it was not a quick risk assessment either –words including “30-page form” have been used to describe it. From what I read online, the social worker will not only want to speak with your pets but will also want to go and meet your ex’s – how cheery will that conversation be I wonder? Clearly social services must make sure they are not placing kids with Josef Fritzl but at the same time I’m sure it’s possible to speed the process up, it’s not like there’s a shortage of kids needing a real home to call their own and provide a stable base for their life.

If it sounds like I’m criticising anybody in this post then you’ve read it wrong or I’ve written it wrong, either way, I’m not. Emily acted badly but there’s a lot of what us lawyer’s call personal mitigation wrapped up with the offence. The police acted in the only way they could both when they found her, when they arrested her and when they were forced to charge her. The court has done its best to help her, but ultimately, that’s the problem. The Criminal Justice System is there to punish criminals. It’s not there to help sort out the lives of lonely, vulnerable children. We need a system that can do that, something new and better. Something that works.

Got any ideas? Pop ‘em on a post card to Elizabeth Truss at the Ministry of Justice.

I don’t honestly fancy Emily’s chances of a Happy Christmas in 2016, but I hope she and you do have one.

Comments

  1. This does not surprise me at all. I am an accredited Appropriate Adult for the area in which I live. I am tired of the number of occasions where I've been called to custody to support a scared young person whose only 'crime' was to fight with a parent/step-parent or cause minor damage to the house in which they were living.

    On one occasion I was called on a Sunday morning to a young person who'd been arrested the previous evening for throwing a mug at a wall, and hitting a door so hard that they'd slightly damaged it. The young person had been banged up all evening in a cell next door to someone who'd been shouting all night that he was going to kill himself and anyone he came into contact with. (I ended up dealing with him as well - but that's another story).

    When the young person came out to talk to me, they were so distressed and terrified it quite broke my heart. The custody staff had been brilliant with the young person and had given them as much support as they possibly could, and the police officer dealing with the case made no secret that they thought that this was a dreadful thing to happen and that the young person shouldn't have been arrested.

    So, why were they arrested? Because of a national policy that states that for every domestic violence call, someone has to be arrested. It's a waste of money, of time, it's distressing for the young person arrested, the police think that it's ridiculous and, from what I can gather, see it as an encroachment on the discretion of the constable.

    It's bonkers.

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  2. The police were not forced to charge her, anymore than the CPS were forced to proceed. It is not inevitable that every civil servant will fall back on 'just doing my job' justification. Some civil servants are capable of taking a step back and working in the greater public interest, even if it means a box remains unticked.

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