The Abused: Scandal of assaults on children in custody

Staff at Young Offender Institutions routinely hit youngsters in the face, bend back their thumbs and limbs to breaking point, and force fists into their ribs. In a report obtained by 'The Independent on Sunday', the Children's Commissioner has condemned this as 'unacceptable'. Brian Brady and Jonathan Owen investigate
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The Independent Online

Thousands of assaults are being carried out each year on children in custody by the people employed to look after them. Hundreds suffer cuts and bruises and some require hospital treatment for dislocated or broken bones.

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner for England, has highlighted the "over-use of restraint and force" in Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres, and is calling for an immediate ban on the practice of painful restraint, which includes hitting children in the face, twisting their thumbs and limbs, and pinning them down in painful stress positions as a form of punishment or to ensure compliance.

In a new report to a government-commissioned inquiry into the issue, he writes: "The use of violence and force to control and punish some of the most vulnerable children in society is unacceptable."

Physical restraint which is supposed to be a last resort was used 3,036 times in Secure Training Centres (STCs) in 2005/06. More than 50 cases were judged so serious that a report was made to the Youth Justice Board (YJB).

Staff at STCs, which house some of the country's most vulnerable children, are trained to subdue children using forms of physical violence such as sharp blows to the septum area of the nose, bending thumbs to near breaking point and forcing a fist against ribs in the back.

These methods, supposedly to be used only as a last resort, are euphemistically described as "painful distractions". In reality they are forms of assault that would be illegal if done anywhere else. The techniques are detailed in a "Physical Control in Care" training manual that details an array of such moves and holds, some of which involve several adults overpowering a single child in positions that could put the child at risk of suffocation. The Government has kept the techniques a secret, refusing to reveal them despite repeated requests from lawyers and journalists.

Young people in STCs, Youth Offender Institutions (YOIs) and Secure Children's Homes (SCHs) were subjected to more than 2,000 cases of restraint between April and June this year, according to figures from the Youth Justice Board. Eighty of these required medical treatment for injuries such as cuts, concussion, bruising or sprains; children in STCs were twice as likely as those in YOIs to suffer injury as a result of restraint.

Answers to recent Parliamentary Questions have revealed a catalogue of hundreds of injuries suffered by young people in 10 YOIs over the past two years. These range from severe nosebleeds, cuts, and bruising, to fractured or broken bones. Young people in YOIs face what is described as "pain compliant" control and restraint designed for adult prisoners.

Natalie Cronin, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, says: "For too long, children as young as 12 have been subjected to dangerous, violent and degrading restraint techniques in Young Offenders Institutions. It should not be legal for anyone to deliberately inflict pain on a child as a method of restraint."

A government-commissioned inquiry into the risks of death or injury associated with physical restraints is under way. In his submission to the inquiry, obtained by the IoS, Sir Al concludes that there needs to be a review of the juvenile justice system and that restraints should be used only as a final option, and even then "only when the child poses an imminent threat of injury to themselves or others". He calls for improved training of staff to safeguard children and says: "The use of techniques to inflict pain is in violation of the child's right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.... We believe the practice in relation to restraint in some YOIs and STCs is in clear breach of the UNCRC." In some circumstances it may also contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, he said.

The controversy comes in the wake of inquests held earlier this year into the tragic deaths of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood and 15-year-old Gareth Myatt, both of whom died in 2004 after several members of staff physically restrained them in separate incidents at Hassockfield and Rainsbrook STCs. They are among 30 children who have died in custody in the UK in the past 17 years.

Gareth died of asphyxia while being restrained by three staff, using the now banned double-seated embrace technique. Adam became the youngest person to die in custody in the UK when he hanged himself soon after he had been restrained by staff using the "nose distraction" technique.

The deaths prompted calls by children's charities for risky restraints and painful distractions to be abolished. But the Government responded to concerns raised during the inquests into the two deaths by broadening the rules on restraint techniques, allowing them to be used as a means of "ensuring good order and discipline" rather than merely to prevent harm, escape or damage to property.

Giving evidence to the parliamentary inquiry earlier this year, Ellie Roy, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, was asked to give an example of enforcing good order and discipline. She recounted an incident when four teenage boys linked arms and refused to go to bed. Arguing that the incident would have escalated if they had not been restrained, she said: "The question is what can they do in that type of situation?"

The Children's Rights Alliance for England, which represents 380 campaign and welfare groups, has reported the crisis of children in custody to the United Nations and has accused the Government of "wilful neglect" over its repeated failure to implement the international treaty protecting under-18s, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Earlier this month a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture took up the issue of child restraint with ministers.

"Some of the restraints could be viewed as assaults. We're doing things to children which they don't even do in Guantanamo Bay," says Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. "Painful distraction is assault and I cannot see why the police aren't involved in investigating it," she says.

In evidence provided to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the YJB admits that children in custody face varying levels of discipline depending on where they happen to be: "There is no single method of restrictive physical intervention (restraint) used across the different types of facilities for children and young people but the YJB has been working to develop common standards and principles."

Ministers recently announced the suspension of two of the most controversial restraint methods used on children in custody the painful "nose distraction" and the "double basket" hold. The decision followed concerns by a new panel of medical experts that met for the first time last month to review the risks of restraint. But a series of alternative holds, including thumb and rib distractions, remain in routine use in child-custody institutions across the country.

Painful distractions are unnecessary and used out of ignorance, says Dr Theodore Mutale, a consultant psychiatrist who spent eight years on the board of the YJB until resigning in March this year. "I don't think you need to use pain to manage a youngster. Especially if they have been abused in the past, using painful distraction will just cause them further distress." He says that not all cases are reported. "Inspectors would witness restraint in the morning but when they looked at the log of restraints in the afternoon there would be no mention of it having happened."

Ms Roy of the Youth Justice Board says: "We all want to see a lower level of restraint but making it happen is quite a challenge." In an attempt to reduce the levels of force the YJB is piloting alternative behaviour management techniques, including therapeutic crisis intervention, and the government review into restraint methods is due to make its recommendations in April next year.

But this will come as little comfort to Pamela Wilton, mother of Gareth Myatt. "No parent expects to lose their child, particularly in the circumstances that Gareth died. I loved Gareth so much and my life will never be the same. Nothing can bring him back to me. My only hope is that the Government will listen to the voices of children in custody so that lessons can be learnt and other children can be kept safe."

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