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Safe inside? Child sexual abuse in the youth secure estate

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (‘the Inquiry’) aims to consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions in England and Wales have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, and to make meaningful recommendations for change. This research explores perceptions and experiences of safeguarding in the youth secure estate in England and Wales, specifically in relation to child sexual abuse. It complements the Inquiry’s investigation into the extent of any institutional failures to protect children from sexual abuse while in custodial institutions. The research provides contemporary insight from staff and children across different establishments in the youth secure estate. The study sought to find out the extent to which children feel safe from sexual abuse in the youth secure estate, and the role of staff, systems and processes within this.

The youth secure estate in England and Wales currently comprises three different types of establishment: Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs). These three types of establishment vary by size, the age and gender of children they accommodate, staff to child ratios, and their management and governance structures. The establishments also differ in terms of the legal basis for detaining children: YOIs and STCs hold children detained on criminal justice grounds only, however SCHs are able to hold children for criminal justice reasons as well as children held on welfare grounds for their own protection.

Children in secure establishments generally come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Prior experience of abuse, sexual or other, and local authority care is common amongst the population (Mendez Sayer et al., 2018). The youth secure estate in England and Wales has seen a continual decline in numbers from an average of 2,932 children and young people for the year ending March 2008 to 900 for the year ending March 2019 (HMPPS, 2018a). This has altered the characteristics of the population, resulting in secure settings holding children serving longer sentences who display more challenging behaviours, have multiple and more complex needs, and pose a greater risk to both themselves and others.

The youth secure estate has been assessed by recent independent inspections as being unsafe to hold children. Concerns have been raised around the levels of violence, restraint and children’s perceptions of safety. The 2016/17 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMIP) survey highlighted that 39 per cent of children reported feeling unsafe at some point in their current YOI and 22 per cent of children felt unsafe at some point since arriving at their STC (HMIP, 2017b). In 2016/17, there were around 2,700 reported assaults in the youth secure estate and 4,500 recorded incidents of restraint (Youth Justice

Board, 2018). This shows the high levels of violence and restraint present across the estate given the relatively small population. Prevalence statistics in relation to child sexual abuse also indicate there were around 200 alleged incidents in the youth secure estate in 2016 and 2017 (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, 2018). These figures are again worryingly high for a population size which has consistently decreased since 2008.