Skip to main content

IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

Executive summary

In England and Wales, there are currently three types of institution where children may be detained within the criminal justice system. These are young offender institutions (YOIs), secure training centres (STCs) and secure children’s homes (SCHs). There are five YOIs, one of which is in Wales, for boys aged 15 to 17; three STCs,all in England, for boys and girls aged from 12 to 17; and eight SCHs which accept children detained for criminal justice reasons, one of which is in Wales, for boys and girls aged 10 to 17.

This investigation concentrated on the period from 2009 to 2017.

The numbers of children detained in these institutions have reduced considerably over time, with a current population of around 900. Several witnesses told us how,in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, they had been placed in custodial institutions for reasons apparently unconnected with any need for either a punitive or a custodial environment. These included truancy, death of parents, running away from home, being beyond parental control and family breakdown. Children as young as nine were detained in these establishments, some of which were previously designated as ‘assessment centres’ and ‘approved schools’.

Over decades it has continued to be the case that children detained in a custodial or secure setting are among the most vulnerable in society, experiencing unhappy and disrupted childhoods. Many have become involved in regular offending, some of it of a violent or sexual nature.

A further matter of concern regarding the current child population in custody is the proportion of children on remand prior to trial, at around one-third. This number of children exposed to the risks associated with custody seems very high and should be investigated by the Youth Custody Service, with a view to reducing that population in the future.

The accounts from adult survivors of child sexual abuse who were detained in custodial institutions in earlier years were among the worst the Inquiry has heard.  One example of this was a witness who as an 11-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by two members of staff at the same time. Another witness detailed at least 35 examples of times when he was raped and sexually assaulted by four members of staff and a former pupil at Stanhope Castle Approved School. On several occasions he was choked unconscious while being abused.

Examples of more recent allegations were that in 2015 a female member of staff at Medway STC had masturbated children there, and that in 2014 members of staff at Rainsbrook STC had permitted two young people to go into a bedroom there together, knowing that one of the young people was going to defecate on the other’s face, and that they observed while this happened.

The combination of challenging behaviour and vulnerability within the current population in custodial settings often presents difficulties in safely managing and caring for these children and young people, some of whom may be violent to staff and other children. Nevertheless, we concluded that children in YOIs and STCs are not safe from harm, either physical or sexual. Recent inspection reports from Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons also raised serious concerns about the safety of children in several units in the custodial estate.

The culture of these institutions, particularly their closed nature and focus on containment and control, has not provided an environment that protects children from either physical or sexual abuse. Many witnesses supported this view, with a former Chief Inspector of Prisons describing children in custody as “very vulnerable children in a very dangerous place”.

Work carried out by the Inquiry has shown that the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse is much higher than was previously understood. Information obtained directly from the relevant custodial institutions and related authorities has found 1,070 reported incidents of alleged sexual abuse in the period 2009–2017, despite the significant drop in numbers of detained children over that time and the relatively low number overall. These allegations were mostly against staff and were often alleged to have taken place during restraint or body searches. Nor do the numbers show any sign of reducing over time, with allegations in the years 2016 and 2017 running at similar levels, at just over 200 in each year.

Complaints of sexual abuse in YOIs and STCs were rarely investigated properly, with very little evidence of involvement of the statutory authorities, signifying a failure to adhere to normal child protection procedures.

The perception and reality of a habitually violent atmosphere in YOIs and STCs has been made worse by the approach of these institutions to restraint, strip searching and pain compliance techniques. The latter includes such methods as bending of a child’s thumbs and wrists, which are permitted by Ministry of Justice guidance. From March 2016 to March 2017, there were 119 recorded incidents of pain compliance being used on children. This form of control is particularly intimidating to children who have been sexually abused. In itself, this use of pain compliance should be seen as a form of child abuse and must cease.

Throughout this investigation, the differences between the regimes in YOIs and STCs and those in SCHs became increasingly clear. The latter are more child centred, with better staff ratios and training requirements. These institutions are subject to similar standards of care to those applied by Ofsted to children’s homes. Importantly, the environment is one in which it is potentially easier to build trusting relationships with children, where they would feel safer and more likely to disclose sexual abuse.  A serious concern is the uneven availability of SCHs which accept children detained for criminal justice reasons, with none in London and the south east of England.

Consideration of these issues led us to examine the context of policy formulation for children in custody at government level. At present, for YOIs and STCs, it lies with the Ministry of Justice, with the Department for Education having ultimate oversight for SCHs. These two departments have distinct but overlapping priorities in relation to the justice system, education and child welfare. We conclude that the needs of children in custody would be better served by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education sharing policy responsibility for managing and safeguarding children in custodial institutions. This is to ensure that standards applied in relation to children in custody are jointly focussed on securing child welfare as well as discipline.

For much of the period under investigation, custodial institutions for children have been very poorly resourced. Staff turnover ran at unacceptable levels in YOIs and STCs, with low morale and inadequate training, including safeguarding training. In 2016, the outsourced contract for operating Medway STC had to be taken back into government control, while the contract for Rainsbrook STC was transferred to another private provider. Few of the recommendations contained in inspection reports of YOIs and STCs have been achieved. There is little doubt that the service was in crisis towards the end of the period under investigation.

In 2017, the Youth Justice Board itself said that the youth secure estate was “on the edge of coping”. In the same year, the Youth Custody Service was set up with a view to making improvements. It has introduced measures to professionalise the workforce in YOIs and STCs, but this falls short of individual workforce regulation, which the Inquiry recommended in its Interim Report for staff working with children in residential care settings. We recommend that arrangements are introduced for the professional registration of staff in roles which involve responsibility for the care of children in YOIs and STCs.

The history of the children’s custodial estate has been marked by structural change and instability, following attempts by various governments to provide an effective model of care and control. These have largely failed. The Youth Custody Service has recently proposed a ‘secure school’ model, which is now in development. While this is welcomed, it must not repeat the weaknesses of current and previous ways of working, and must make child safety a top priority. The secure school should be the final attempt to get it right for every child in custody, to ensure they are free from the risk of sexual abuse and harm. Recent reports indicate that the timetable for tendering for the contract to run the pilot secure school has already slipped. The new system should be brought in with speed and efficiency. If the secure school model does not work, more radical change will be required to ensure the protection of these children, whose safety, welfare and education is the responsibility of the state.

We make a series of recommendations, covering areas such as children on remand, the practice of ‘mixed’ justice and welfare placements, staff training, workforce regulation, pain compliance and the response to allegations of sexual abuse.

Back to top