Handcuffing children is beyond archaic, it has to stop
Children in care have hopes and aspirations the same as any other child and deserve our compassion and support. By treating them as criminals in handcuffs, we do the exact opposite.
For much of my life, I have worked with looked after children or on issues affecting them. Initially, as a social worker and social services lecturer and later as a MP. It has always been a great privilege to lend my voice to represent some of this country’s most vulnerable young people.
It means that I have heard firsthand many of the barriers they face, but even after over 40 years of working with young people, I can still be shocked.
It was recently brought to my attention that in the UK, looked after children who are considered “difficult” - they might have ADHD, a history of self-harm or be gang-affiliated - are regularly transported in handcuffs or in caged vehicles similar to a prison van. If a child needs to go to school, hospital or court appointments, or move between residences such as care homes they risk being treated like criminals.
It’s an indictment of the entire care system, that in 2021 we will jump straight to physical restraint as the best way to deal with a frightened child. Too often looked after children are treated as a problem rather than human beings in need of care and support. This has led to little regard for their dignity or humanity.
These young people have already faced an unthinkable amount of trauma in their short lives, treating them like dangerous criminals will only compound that
In reality, most young people on the radar of the care system will have already faced early-childhood trauma. They might have lost a parent, been exposed to substance misuse, experienced domestic violence or lived in poverty. These young people have hopes and aspirations the same as any other child and deserve our compassion and support to help them reach their full potential. By treating them as criminals, in handcuffs, we do the exact opposite. We tell them they are outsiders and push them further towards the fringes of society.
That’s why I was relieved to hear of a new campaign called Hope instead of Handcuffs, which is calling for a ban on this use of handcuffs and greater government oversight on the transportation of looked after children. I’m proud to lend my support to the campaign.
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation, is that there is currently no legal requirement for transport providers to record any use of these physical restraints – as opposed to existing requirement elsewhere in the Youth Justice System. We need mandatory recording of incidents where restraints are used against children, in order to ascertain why or if the situation could have been handled differently.
However, it’s about more than that. We must shift our mindset and approach to children in care. We need to stop thinking about children who face additional challenges as “difficult problems to be managed” and start thinking what we as adults, as caregivers and society can do to support them.
Only when we change our attitudes towards vulnerable children will we see them start to achieve their full potential. These young people have already faced an unthinkable amount of trauma in their short lives, treating them like dangerous criminals will only compound that. Instead, we must give them hope.
Steve McCabe is the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak and chair of the Looked After Children and Care Leavers APPG.