Skip to main content

The impact of distance from home on children in custody

A thematic review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons

This review, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board, looks at the impact of distance from home on children in custody. The reduction in the number of children held in custody in recent years is well documented, as too is the consequent reduction in the number of secure settings in which children can be detained. Inevitably, this has meant some children have been held further from home than might have been the case some years ago.

Charlie Taylor, in the interim report of his review of youth justice, has aptly described the current youth custody estate as ‘one we have arrived at by accident rather than design’. He has instead proposed secure schools located in the regions which they serve and some of our findings in this report would support the idea of regionally based provision.

For some children, going into custody will be the first time they have been away from the familial home, while for others it will be the latest in a series of placements in foster care and children’s homes. Few though will have been as far from home as some of the children interviewed for this review. One child was 187 miles from home and had not received a family visit in four months following his transfer from a young offender institution (YOI) closer to home. This negative impact on family ties was not uncommon, with children and the staff involved in their care telling us that distance made it harder for family and carers to visit and maintain their relationships. Our analysis of visits data revealed that each 25-mile interval that a child was held from home was associated with one less visit from a family member or friend.

This is of concern. Our report into resettlement provision for adult prisoners (2014) highlighted the central importance of an offender’s family and friends to their successful rehabilitation and led us to conclude that an offender’s family is the most effective resettlement agency. Dame Sally Coates made a similar point in her recently published review of education in prisons. Equally importantly, human rights standards emphasise the importance of children in detention being able to communicate with the outside world and to receive visits. The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty include that ‘detention facilities for juveniles should be decentralised and of such size as to facilitate access and contact between the juveniles and their families.’

We also found that visits from community-based professionals involved in a child’s care reduced the further a child was placed from home. Each 26-mile interval that a child was held from home was associated with one fewer visit from a professional. Clearly this could impact on a child’s successful resettlement after release. Professional visitors provide support to address substance misuse and offending behaviour, and put in place plans for employment, training or education post release, all of which can significantly contribute to preventing reoffending.

Some of our findings were worrying irrespective of the distance a boy or girl was from home. Our survey analysis showed that nearly half of children had, at some point, felt unsafe in the YOI or secure training centre (STC) in which they were currently accommodated. It does not take a great deal of imagination to picture how this might affect a child’s behaviour – given the Panorama exposé of the behaviour of some staff at Medway STC and the rising levels of violence in YOIs and STCs generally – to understand why children might feel unsafe. While we did not find any association between distance from home and the likelihood of being recalled to custody after release, it was disappointing to find that nearly one in every five children released was recalled to custody on the same sentence.

An interesting finding was that boys in YOIs who were detained close to home reported more gang problems when they first arrived at their YOI than those who were far from home. If the model of regionally based secure schools is adopted, decisions on where to safely place some of the children committed by the courts would need careful consideration.

Given some of the distances involved, it was pleasing to find that distance from home did not significantly impact on the experiences of children in many areas of custodial life. Children themselves did not raise many concerns other than the impact on receiving visits from people they cared about and the difficulty those people experienced in getting to their YOI or STC. We did not find evidence of differential treatment of those children who were far from home and the involvement of youth offending teams in sentence planning and remand management reviews with the children they were responsible for was unaffected by distance.

Overall, it was reassuring to find that being placed far from home was not a disadvantage to the child in many facets of their custodial experience. The negative impact on family ties and the implications this has for successful resettlement and desistance cannot, however, be ignored.