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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

E.6: Potential staff risk factors

53. We acknowledge that the very challenging, and sometimes violent and sexually harmful, behaviour of children in custody requires great skill and experience to manage. This is especially so given that children in custody have some of the most complex needs of any children in the country.[1] However, staffing issues are plainly integral to the institutional response to child sexual abuse. We therefore considered staff recruitment, diversity, training, supervision, retention and whistleblowing.


54. The Inquiry’s REA highlighted concerns that have been raised historically about the skills and experience of those recruited to work in youth custody. In 2016, for example, the Taylor review[2] concluded:

“many staff working in YOIs and STCs do not have the skills and experience to manage the most vulnerable and challenging young people in their care, nor have they had sufficient training to fulfil these difficult roles.”

There were particular concerns about YOIs, where staff are drawn from the Prison Service more generally and therefore may not have a specific motivation to work with children, or experience of doing so. More recently, the 2017 Youth Custody Improvement Board report[3] (which reviewed the state of YOIs and STCs) repeated issues of poor behaviour management of children and stated that staff lacked the skills to meet the needs of some of the children in their care. In responding to the Taylor review, the Government committed to introducing a new Youth Justice Officer role. These officers would be recruited with experience of youth work, social work or teaching, or would be trained on the job.[4]

55. We agree with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) that no single test or screening process can identify an individual who poses a risk. Recruitment procedures should evaluate an individual’s values, motives and behaviour in certain situations.[5]

56. All staff recruited to work with children in public or private institutions are vetted through the Disclosure and Barring Service.[6]

57. Every person working in a care role in a SCH is required by regulations[7] to hold a Level 3 Diploma for Residential Childcare or equivalent.[8][9] By contrast, even though working with children in custody is a highly skilled and demanding job,[10] there is in general no requirement that staff who are recruited to STCs or YOIs have any prior experience of working with challenging children, or any childcare qualifications. A number of witnesses – including Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,[11] Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the POA[12] and Angus Mulready-Jones, a current HMIP inspector[13] – considered a minimum qualification should be a prerequisite for all those working with children in the secure estate. This is expected in other environments involving children.

58. Professor Hardwick, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, noted that the roles are not well paid and are not high status.[14] Alan Wood agreed that the worth placed on the role of custody officers, in light of the stresses and demands on them, is not always reflected in the pay received.[15] While the current background checks and references are required, he also considered the current recruitment process does not always establish why people want to work with children. In any event, he stressed the recruitment process should be compliant with the Bichard Inquiry recommendations, as set out in London Safeguarding Children Board Child Protection Procedures.[16]

59. The Youth Custody Service recognises that working with children requires specialist knowledge and skills, and is actively seeking to recruit people with a background in working with young people, such as those with experience of probation and social work.[17] The Youth Custody Service accepts that it is “vital to continue with the drive to professionalis(e) the workforce in YOIs, STCs and SCHs”.[18] However, Youth Custody Service Interim Executive Director Sara Robinson said there is no proposal to require staff to have a minimum level of qualification or experience. In her view, a statutory requirement that staff working in custody have specific child-related training, as is in place in the SCHs, would create difficulties for recruitment.[19]


60. There is overrepresentation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) children in custody. Dr Janes did not see any positive action being taken over this. She felt correlations between ethnicity, sexual orientation and the likelihood of abuse are areas that should be looked at more carefully. In respect of the divergence between the diversity of staff and the children detained, she said while there is no evidence to suggest this inhibits children speaking to staff, logically it could be a factor.[20]

61. Professor Hardwick pointed out that only 9 percent of staff are from a BAME background,[21] whereas July 2018 figures indicate around 47 percent of children in the youth secure estate are from a BAME background.[22] His view was that the lack of ethnic diversity among staff has an impact on trust, and trust is critical in this sort of institution.[23]

62. Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on child protection, thought it was important to understand the profile of BAME groups in the youth justice system and to obtain more data on why some groups were overrepresented.[24]

63. Sara Robinson referred to the Ministry of Justice diversity strategy,[25] which showed 9 percent of staff were from a BAME background, although the ethnicity of 35 percent of staff was unknown. She explained the current aim is that 14 percent of new recruits will be from a BAME background, and noted that 21 percent of new starter prison officers since January 2017 are from a BAME background.[26]


64. Several issues relating to staff training are noted in the Inquiry’s REA. In the past recommendations have been made that all staff working in custodial settings, especially those in YOIs, should receive specialist training on working with children. The Juvenile Awareness for Staff Programme (JASP) – a seven-day training course covering safeguarding, mental health, substance misuse and behaviour management – was criticised by some commentators as being too brief, basic and lacking in appropriate content. Some 2011 research indicated that staff themselves did not feel they were properly trained, equipped or supported to work effectively with children and young people. The REA also noted:

  • evidence that delivery of the training was ‘patchy’ and in some settings few people had been trained;
  • significant variability in the training provided between establishment types, individual establishments, roles and members of staff; and
  • some of the literature had raised specific issues about a lack of training in dealing with children with sexually harmful behaviour.

Although some concerns had been expressed about the staff training available in SCHs, generally the range of training had been described as wider than that available in YOIs.[27]

65. The Taylor review in 2016 also concluded that many staff working in YOIs and STCs had not had sufficient training to fulfil their difficult roles.[28]

66. Several complainants stressed the need for staff training. Peter Smith told us staff should be trained to spot signs of abuse, like changes in behaviour, and that bad behaviour can be a sign of abuse.[29] Colin Watson said staff should be trained to see changes in children’s behaviour and to be trained to see the world through children’s eyes.[30][31] CI-A34 felt there should be strong training on caring for children’s emotional needs.[32] CI-A30 said staff should be trained to think about things the way a child does.[33][34]

67. The institutional witnesses also identified various training issues:

  • Professor Hardwick’s view was that specialist and ongoing training is required for staff working with children in custody to equip them to identify and deal with abuse appropriately; having sufficient well-trained professional staff is one of the most important factors in reducing risk.[35][36]
  • Steve Gillan said questions remain as to whether the JASP training is adequate. He recommended there should be specific safeguarding training with regular updates and refresher training.[37]
  • Angus Mulready-Jones noted that the new safeguarding training is valuable but is only a day in length.[38]

68. Improvements have been made to training in the youth custody estate. We heard about various Youth Custody Service training initiatives, including the Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) course,[39] externally provided courses available on the Youth Justice Resource Hub,[40] the Working with Young People in Custody training programme, the three-year refresh cycle for the Child Protection and Safeguarding element of the course, and the ‘tiering structure’ to support establishments in identifying the correct level of child protection and safeguarding training for their staff. However, significant proportions of staff do not receive the mandatory child safeguarding training: between 12 percent and 23 percent of staff working in Feltham and Werrington YOIs had not received this training in 2014 and 2015.[41][42] By contrast, in Vinney Green SCH all staff received all mandatory training in both years, and all current staff have received it.[43]

69. Sara Robinson also explained HMPPS’s Youth Justice Foundation degree, which is available to all frontline staff. It is currently voluntary and 243 officers have volunteered so far, but it is intended that – over five years – the first year will become mandatory, with staff being given time off to complete the course, although they will not need to complete it before starting work with children. HMPPS is also developing a specific version of the POELT, focused on young people.[44]

70. Alan Wood considered that professional development and training must be firmly embedded further into the role of custodial care officers as part of professionalising the role. He gave examples of areas that staff should be trained in: child-centred communication; safeguarding in a secure setting; the impact of abuse on child development and communication; whistleblowing policy and practice; communication in conflict settings; professional roles and responsibilities when responding to allegations of abuse; exercising care within secure settings; and moving children into and from custodial settings. Practitioners need to participate in relevant skills and practice-based training in order to remain focussed on ensuring that the needs of children and young people remain central.[45]

71. In our Nottinghamshire hearings, Professor Hackett, Professor of Child Abuse and Neglect in the Department of Sociology at Durham University, said that all staff working in children’s services should be trained in how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse, including the question of confidentiality. He explained standard practice in this respect.[46]


72. The Inquiry’s REA noted several issues with respect to staff supervision, which is recognised as part of good safeguarding practice, as well as a variability in the supervision provided.

73. In an SCH, under the Children’s Home (England) Regulations 2015 and the DfE’s related guide, supervision and performance management of staff helps safeguard children and minimise potential risks.[47][48][49] As an example, at Aycliffe SCH, staff have a nominated supervisor who ensures supervision takes place on a monthly basis for each staff member, with arrangements set out clearly in guidance. In addition, any allegation of sexual abuse is referred to a senior manager, who is responsible for reflecting on and learning from experience as well as addressing practice concerns.[50]

74. By contrast, the National Children’s Bureau concluded in 2008 that, unlike in STCs and SCHs, the prison service “does not have a culture of individual supervision or learning from peers”.[51] In 2016, the Medway Improvement Board found there was insufficient oversight of the work of operational staff in the STC.

75. A number of witnesses (including Dr Janes,[52] Professor Hardwick,[53][54] Steve Gillan[55] and Alan Wood[56]) said that staff and detainees would benefit from proactive and reflective supervision and support. As Angus Mulready-Jones said, supervision is an important tool to promote good-quality childcare practice; it is difficult to see how custodial officers will maintain a child-centred focus without this, or how poor performance by staff is dealt with. Staff need guidance from management and supervision to explain how to do this.[57][58]

76. ‘Mainstream’ custody staff do not receive regular supervision.[59] In the hearings, Ms Robinson confirmed that in YOIs and STCs there is no standard minimum requirement or a model for staff supervision, but indicated that the Youth Custody Service intends to develop a system of staff supervision.[60] Whether this will include the necessary elements of accountability, personal development and support remains unclear.


77. The issue of high staff turnover in the youth secure estate has also been raised previously. For example, one of the concerns identified by the Medway Improvement Board final report included the rapid turnover of staff.[61][62] This is a concern to us because a lack of continuity in staff is of course likely to hamper the ability of children to form meaningful relationships with staff, and so protect them from sexual abuse.

78. Professor Hardwick referred us to HMPPS workforce statistics to the effect that the leaving rate for Band 3–5 Officers (the main operational grades) increased from 2.8 percent in 2009/10 to 11.2 percent in 2017/18. Difficulties caused by high staff turnover contribute to staff being poorly equipped to face the challenges of the environment,[63] as well as impacts on children’s feelings of safety and their ability to form relationships with staff.[64]

79. By contrast, SCHs have a much smaller turnover of staff and therefore good, consistent relationships and adult role models are more likely.[65]

80. Ms Robinson said remedies for recent high staff turnover rates may include higher pay (and pay has been increased recently), a better culture and better support for staff.[66] She explained the youth justice reform programme is looking to make youth custody a place of safety and to create a professional and stable workforce.[67][68]


81. Working Together to Safeguard Children requires organisations to have clear whistleblowing procedures (reflecting the principles in Sir Robert Francis’ Freedom to Speak Up review), which should be suitably referenced in staff training and codes of conduct, and to have a culture that enables issues about safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children to be addressed.[69]

82. Both the YOI and STC Rules state “an officer shall inform the governor promptly of any abuse or impropriety which comes to his knowledge”.[70][71] There are also Prison Service Instructions (PSIs)[72] in place to cover whistleblowing in YOIs and STCs. A staff member with a concern can complete an intelligence report or a corruption prevention intelligence report, either of which would be actioned by the security team within the institution. Staff can also refer immediate concerns directly to the local safeguarding manager or duty governor.[73][74][75] All sites operate current and site-specific whistleblowing policies.[76]

83. However, there is evidence that these rules, PSIs and policies have not been working effectively in practice.

84. The Medway Improvement Board final report noted there had been a history of similar concerns being raised in letters from whistleblowers and former members of staff, and that action was needed to ensure that whistleblowers and children inside the STC feel safe to raise concerns and complaints.[77]

85. Angus Mulready-Jones said that, in common with a range of other settings, there is evidence to suggest that staff rarely blow the whistle on poor practice and abuse carried out by colleagues.[78] Carolyne Willow said it is uncommon for staff in prisons to “break rank” and support a child’s version of events.[79] Pam Hibbert said organisations which have an open learning culture and operate on a reasonably ‘flat’ hierarchy are those where disclosure of concerns by staff are more likely.[80] Professor Hardwick was clear that what was important was the development of a culture where staff feel if they have concerns about anything they can talk about them openly, which he linked with the issue of staff supervision.[81]

86. Some complainants gave evidence about the importance of this issue. Peter Smith said staff should be trained not to ‘trust’ other staff, but should question and monitor each other.[82] CI-A30 said policies need to be introduced that protect the identities of whistleblowing staff.[83] Alan Wood felt whistleblowing should be an element of safeguarding training; merely having a whistleblowing procedure was not enough. He explained that because it was difficult for staff to go above the management structure, whistleblowing needs to be embedded into the culture.[84]

87. On behalf of the Youth Custody Service, Sara Robinson explained that the whistleblowing procedures had been reviewed after the Medway issues arose. She indicated referrals were being made and the systems were there; the issue was whether or not they were being used. She said the Youth Custody Service uses different intelligence methodologies to assist with this, and that HMPPS is introducing an ‘annual thematic review’ across the sector, whereby each provider will submit a thematic review of their locally managed whistleblowing matters (and other issues) to the Youth Custody Service. Central teams, including an audit team which sits outside the Youth Custody Service, will review this information so that lessons can be learned.[85]


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