Leading article: Pain cannot mend broken children

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The Independent Online

The circumstances in which physical restraint is used on children in Secure Training Centres are probably beyond the imaginations of most of us. These children are among the most vulnerable in society; they are often violent and frequently the victims of abuse. If we are honest, the chief concern of most of us is that we avoid contact with them as far as possible. Yet the fact confrontations between these children and the adults in charge of them ended up with physical force and pain being used as a means of control on more than 3,000 occasions in 2005/06 should trouble us profoundly.

The methods described in today's report to restrain disruptive teenagers in Secure Training Centres modern borstals are effective because they inflict pain. There may be a place for physical force of this kind where the child is a danger to himself or to others, but the fact these methods were used so often strongly suggests they are being used routinely.

Indeed, that is precisely the point made to the Government by the Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green. He told the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights that such techniques are "being used as something other than a last resort", and claims they are now being used "to punish children and ensure compliance".

This paper has found that no fewer than 2,000 cases of forcible restraint on young people in custody not just in Secure Training Centres took place from April to June this year, though this figure may well be an underestimate. At their most serious, these incidents could cause death, and 80 cases did end with minor injuries requiring medical treatment, but even less extreme instances can brutalise already troubled adolescents.

By definition, many teenagers in penal institutions pose enormous challenges for those in charge of them but, like adult prisoners, a significant proportion are not simply feral but are suffering from mental illness. A large number are victims of substance abuse. The routine use of force to deal with disturbed young people is a symptom of the failure of control and a lack of proper training in non-violent alternatives.

The Youth Justice Board is now piloting schemes for alternative behaviour management techniques, including therapeutic crisis intervention. And a government review into restraint methods will make recommendations for reform in April next year. But why has it taken so long for these alternatives to be explored, particularly after the death of two young adolescents in custody in 2004? Training in conflict management should be a prerequisite for working with troubled youngsters.

One question that the government review must also address is whether it is appropriate for Secure Training Centres to be privately run. There are three forms of custody for young offenders. One, secure children's homes, is run by local authorities; another, Young Offenders Institutions, is, in effect, a form of prison; the third, Secure Training Centres, is in private hands. It is to these centres that youngsters aged from 12 to 17 are sent. The private management of prisons is controversial for adults; surely it is still more so when young people are involved. Of course, government can remove funding from these institutions and they are visited by inspectors, but sporadic inspections are no substitute for direct Home Office control. State institutions can themselves be brutal but they can be reformed more effectively as they are run directly by the state.

The problems affecting the youngsters in these penal institutions are far-reaching. They are, more often than not, the products of fractured families with chaotic domestic circumstances. Policies that aim to help young people who fall foul of the law need to start far earlier than the point at which they are subjected to degrading physical restraint by their custodians.

Once they are in custody, however, the imperative of any civilised society must be to ensure that they are treated as humanely as possible. Those with mental illness should receive the same diagnosis and treatment as they would outside an institution; the same goes for those who are addicted to drugs.

And, since the state is in loco parentis for these children, its representatives should not be themselves violent and abusive. The most egregious forms of restraint should be banned outright and the infliction of pain as a method of control should be reserved for those times when children risk harming themselves or others. Above all, we should be mindful that one day these young people will return to normal society. On this shamefully neglected issue we must ask ourselves how we can treat these children while they are in custody so that they can one day be valuable members of society.