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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report

E.10: Enabling children to disclose sexual abuse

108. It is clearly important that children being sexually abused have available to them a range of routes to disclose what is happening to them. Regular contact with family and friends is a safeguarding measure. Given how difficult it is to disclose abuse, a child must trust the person they tell. In Pam Hibbert’s experience as former Chair of the National Association of Youth Justice, children would rarely disclose abuse to someone within an establishment but would rather disclose it to a relative, a friend or sometimes a social worker if they had a good relationship with them.[1] Other witnesses went further and said that initial disclosures are most often made to a parent or friend.[2] Similarly, surveys in STCs show if children had a problem they were most likely to turn to family.[3][4] We have therefore considered the various ways in which children can disclose sexual abuse in custody.

Family, friends and peers

109. Several complainants told us about the need for children to access their family, friends and peers. Peter Smith stressed the difficulties caused by children being detained at a distance from their families.[5] CI‐A17 said it might be easier to trust people who are closer in age to the children so they can understand the children’s needs.[6]

110. To this end, the rules for YOIs[7] and STCs,[8] and PSI 08/2012,[9] make provision for children to have contact with the outside world. The SCH framework is more generous.[10] In all STCs, children have telephones in their rooms, and they can have as many incoming phone calls outside of the school day as they want. This has also been established in Cookham Wood YOI and the Keppel Unit in Wetherby YOI, and the intention is to ensure children have free access to telephone calls from their family in all YOIs.[11]

111. However, as Dr Janes, Legal Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, explained, the length of time a child can spend on the phone is often limited to 10 minutes before it cuts off automatically. There are limits on a child’s phone credit, and calling mobiles phones is extremely expensive. For the children in YOIs without in‐cell phones, their calls are not likely to be private. The children also know their calls will be monitored and recorded.[12][13]

112. In YOIs and STCs, family visits do not take place in private and so children’s conversations may be overheard by detainees or staff.[14]

113. Witnesses also told us of problems associated with children being placed further away from their families and communities, which had resulted from the closure of some YOIs and SCHs.[15] For example, Professor Nick Hardwick, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Angus Mulready‐Jones, HMIP inspector, and Martin Lomas, Deputy Inspector of Prisons all agreed that children should be held closer to home, to facilitate positive, protective external relationships with family, friends and community‐based professionals.[16][17][18][19] We were troubled to be told that there is no SCH in the Greater London area.[20]

114. However, we recognise there may also be other ways to facilitate this kind of support. For example, at Aycliffe Secure Centre, a bookable room has been set up for Skype and video conferencing facilities are available.[21] At Rainsbrook STC, MTC Novo has provided tablets with secure messaging functions so children have improved contact with the outside world, can request a visit from Barnardo’s or make confidential complaints; they also have peer mentors to assist young people.[22] Children in STCs can send and receive as many letters as they wish.[23] We also understand the intention is to ensure children have free access to telephone calls from their family in all YOIs.[24]

The complaints process

115. The Inquiry’s REA set out a range of well‐recognised issues with the complaints process for children in custody, including children’s lack of satisfaction with it, concerns over its credibility, accessibility and formality, and fears of ‘grassing’ and reprisals.[25]

116. It is clear that these issues persist. During Professor Hardwick’s tenure as Chief Inspector of Prisons, survey results about complaints indicated that only 26 percent of children in YOIs felt their complaint had been dealt with fairly.[26] Pam Hibbert agreed that children had very little faith in the complaints system: it tends to be used for minor matters such as requesting an extra pillow, rather than to report that someone had abused them.[27] Dr Janes also identified issues with the complaints process, such as computers being situated on communal landings, confidentiality, and literacy barriers. If the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) becomes involved, delays mean that children are often released by the time the PPO has made a decision.[28] Some children had also expressed a view that there might be retaliation against someone who made a complaint.[29]

117. Consideration is being given to improvements, such as to making provision
across the secure estate for children to use tablets on which they can make complaints.[30] We agree with Alan Wood that the complaints process should be age and developmentally appropriate.[31]

Personal officers, external professionals and advocates

118. Several complainants stressed the need for children in custody to have access to independent professionals. Peter Smith said children should have access to ‘outside’, independent people.[32][33] CI‐A17 agreed independent lines of communication should exist between children and trained youth and social workers.[34] Colin Watson said telephones should be available to children to call Childline or someone completely independent, and that social workers should visit children at least once per week and speak to them on the phone on other occasions.[35] CI‐A30 thought children should be able to report problems anonymously to someone outside the institution.[36][37] Peter Robson said there should be independent people available at all times who the young person can talk to in private.[38]

119. Legislation and statutory guidance states children who are on remand, but not those who have been sentenced, are treated as being ‘looked after’.[39] For children in custody who are ‘looked after’, the home local authority must visit roughly once every six weeks, and also if requested by the child or others.[40] Social workers have been based in YOIs since a review in 2003.[41][42] However, for the majority of children given a custodial sentence, an English home local authority will not visit them regularly.

120. Dr Janes considered there is overall a shortage of permanent external adults, such as advocates or social workers, in these institutions. A number of children on remand, who are treated as being ‘looked after’, did not receive regular visits from their social workers. Her experience was that there are normally only one or two general social workers based in each establishment, which may hold well over 100 young people, and they are not required to meet regularly with each child. She also observed that, at times, independent professionals may not have a private space to talk to children about sensitive issues.[43][44][45]

121. Several witnesses, including Professor Hardwick,[46] Carolyne Willow, a children’s rights campaigner and founder of Article 39,[47][48] and our expert Alan Wood,[49][50] considered that access to advocacy workers and other independent people was important. Mark Johnson, founder of User Voice, referred to a User Voice report which found that young people would use independent advocacy services if they were available; comments from young people included that it would be good to have someone independent to visit once a week.[51]

122. However, there are also problems with advocacy. For example, Medway Improvement Board found the Barnardo’s advocacy service was not fit for purpose[52] and raised concerns about the effectiveness of the role of the Youth Justice Board Monitors in STCs.[53] The child may also be responsible for approaching the advocate who then relays and represents what the child has told them but, as Pam Hibbert noted, a child might say for example “I want another pillow” when they really want to talk about something else.[54]

123. We note that in Wales an advocate is proactive. He or she approaches the child and makes direct contact, rather than passively waiting for a child who may be struggling to articulate a concern or raise a complaint. Developing a relationship with a trusted adult in this way is important for them to be able to speak out and have support and assistance.[55] Albert Heaney, Director of Social Services and Integration, Welsh Government, also told us that in Wales the home local authority is required to visit all children in detention; for many children, a visit must take place once within the first 10 days and after that if the child, parent, staff or Youth Offending Team worker requests it.[56][57]

124. However, it is important to note that advocates are only one possible option for detained children. In a survey in STCs, children were asked “If you had a problem, who would you turn to?”:

  201516* 201617†
Advocate 11% 9%
Another young person here 19% 19%
Key worker 35% 25%
Case worker 43% 34%
Staff on the unit 51% 41%
Family 54% 43%


† INQ001200

125. This may reflect the irregular contact with current advocacy services. It may also reflect, as Sara Robinson, Interim Executive Director, Youth Custody Service, pointed out, that a child might turn to other staff within the establishment, including education and healthcare staff, social workers, Youth Offending Team workers and probation offender managers. A child is able to see an Independent Monitoring Board member at any time in confidence, and can access chaplaincy services, legal helplines from children’s rights groups such as the Howard League, and confidential helplines run by Childline and the Samaritans. They can also access the PPO if they lodge a complaint and this has been dealt with internally.

126. Whatever the range of people available, the critical question is whether the child trusts one of them enough to disclose. As Professor Hackett commented, it is the availability of an accessible and trusted adult that is vital and these relationships take time to develop. Children are not likely to spontaneously disclose abuse, but are more likely to talk about their experiences when invited to do so and this means they should be given frequent opportunities, in private, to discuss any concerns.[58]

127. The Youth Custody Service therefore needs to build young people’s confidence in the available staff, to show there will be support mechanisms when they disclose, and to demonstrate that their concerns are being taken forward, addressed and investigated.[59][60][61][62]

128. At Medway STC, the Custody Support Plan (CuSP) officer has replaced the personal officer and will spend one hour per week with their allocated child. The intention is to foster positive relationships, motivate the young person, identify unmet needs and set goals.[63] Sara Robinson said it is hoped that, by the end of this financial year, every child across the estate will have a CuSP officer.[64] This appears to be a positive step.

129. Peter Savage, Head of Operational Contract Management, Youth Custody Service, stressed that there needs to be a range of different organisations and individuals available who are independent of HMPPS.[65]

Legal advice

130. Dr Janes considered the best way to protect any child from the risk of abuse is to empower them to understand and enforce their rights. She noted that a number of recommendations have been made to that end by a range of experts. For example, the Bach Commission (2017)[66] recommended that “all matters involving children should be brought back into the scope of funded legal aid”.[67] We note the concerns expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the reductions in legal aid will increase the vulnerability of children
in custody.[68]

131. More generally, we note that legal visits are held in sight but out of hearing of a member of staff[69] which may inhibit a child’s willingness to disclose abuse.

General steps to build trust

132. As discussed above, it is important that staff and children are able to form positive relationships; this is crucial to gain the child’s trust and confidence and to enable a child to disclose sexual abuse.

133. We recognise that building relationships in the context of a custodial institution may be extremely challenging. Staff need guidance, experience, qualifications, training and supervision to explain how to do this.[70] As the DfE 2015 Guide[71] for SCHs states, children should be loved, valued and nurtured, and “staff should strive to build positive relationships with children in the home and develop a culture of openness and trust that encourages them to be able to tell someone if they have concerns or worries about their safety”.[72] However, the regulations, policy and contracts governing YOIs and STCs contain very much less about building positive relationships, trust and confidence. For example, in YOIs, PSI 08/2012 briefly mentions positive relationships[73] and the STC contract states “young people will develop positive relationships with adults...”.[74] We recognise that several elements of the Youth Custody Service reform programme aim to address this.

134. In our Nottinghamshire hearing, Professor Hackett explained that he considered that the availability of an accessible and trusted adult is vital. The essential point is that these relationships take time to develop, and consistency is important. He said that children are not likely to spontaneously disclose abuse, but are more likely to talk about their experiences when invited to do so. This means children should be given frequent opportunities (in private) to discuss any concerns.[75]


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