Life is changing for children in custodial institutions. There are now on average 900 children aged under 18 in the youth secure estate in England and Wales, compared to almost 3,000 a decade ago. In the past, these places have faced numerous problems with violence, abuse and lack of safety; in 2017 none of the establishments inspected by HM Inspectorate of Prisons were deemed safe to hold children. A wave of inspections and new measures have attempted to improve safety, but there were still around 3,500 reported assaults and 5,400 recorded incidents of restraint in 2017/18.
Our new research shows that violence, fear and vulnerability are still widespread in the youth secure estate. It also highlights the fact that child sexual abuse has not gone away.
“There’s a boy in here that’s very sexual,” one boy told us. “He makes me feel quite scared when he looks at me, he looks at me sexually and it’s making me feel scared...and he tells me stuff to do to him.”
Our report, Safe Inside? Child sexual abuse in the youth secure estate, sheds new light on what life is like for children held in the youth secure estate.
In total, we interviewed 27 children and 21 staff at four different institutions: one young offender institution, one secure training centre and two secure children’s homes.
The majority of the children we spoke to were boys aged between 16 and 17. Around half of the children interviewed were black, Asian or from another ethnic minority, which reflects the overall population of the youth secure estate.
Many felt the need to constantly be on guard. They worried about physical violence and bullying by other children, and were anxious about who they were sharing a living space with. Some boys talked about ‘layering up’ – wearing multiple layers of clothes for protection against physical violence.
One boy at a young offender institution told us: “I think everywhere I feel on edge so when I’m outside my cell, it’s not a thing about me having nothing to worry about because it’s a jail innit so we always have to be on watch…”
Despite sexualised behaviour being common in some institutions, children did not feel they were at risk of sexual abuse. We found they lacked a proper understanding of child sexual abuse beyond its most extreme physical form. Instead, they often dismissed inappropriate behaviour as “sexual banter”.
“I wouldn’t really know what to look for to be honest,” said one child when asked about sexual exploitation. Another responded: “I don’t even know what that is.”
The children felt better education would help them better understand child sexual abuse and the effects it can have.
But they were not alone. We learned that some staff – particularly those working on the front line – also found it hard to articulate their understanding of child sexual abuse.
Some used derogatory language to describe girls who had experienced child sexual exploitation, such as “promiscuous” and “attention seeking”. Some staff also struggled to explain the processes to follow when reporting a safeguarding concern.
Other key findings include:
• Some practices within the youth secure estate do not seem to serve children’s best interests, for example we noticed an over-reliance on restraint;
• Children are not well equipped to have healthy sexual relationships given the rules in place around physical contact and the limited opportunities for healthy sexual development;
• More work is needed to ensure safeguarding is seen as everyone’s concern.
This report is the first piece of primary research completed by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
Its findings feed into the inquiry’s children in custodial institutions investigation, adding to evidence heard across three weeks of public hearings in July 2018.
Crucially, it has helped the inquiry to better understand issues around child sexual abuse in the youth secure estate.