From Care to Custody

Why have so many women in prison been through the care system?

A hugely disproportionate number of women in prison have grown up in children's homes, in care and/or under the responsibility of the local authority at some point. 31% of women prisoners have spent time in care as children, and 24% of men [1]. This is whilst in total in England, there are less than 1% of children in care. Those who have been in care are far more likely to be reconvicted within 1 year after being released from custody than those who are not [2]. Looking at these statistics, we must ask ourselves, what is the relationship between care and custody? What does this mean if care is meant to be a respite for children who have already had a difficult start? 2/3rds of children are in care because they have experienced abuse and neglect; less than 2% are there because of their own socially unacceptable behaviour [3]. These children are extremely vulnerable, and should be met with the most specialised response and forms of care available.

Consistent disruption is commonplace in care with many children reporting the constant changing of schools and living arrangements. Frequent change of placement is reported as a serious contribution to the likelihood of offending [4]. Another big problem is that if children are in care, their prospects are automatically assumed to be lower. This is because there exist huge assumptions from the people around them about their living situations. There are reports of adults, including police, suggesting that if a child has gone through care, they are never going to know a better way of life [5]. Children in care are therefore often stigmatised, demonised and stereotyped as being ‘bad’ by the people around them and their prospects are neglected. Additionally, if adults are persistently believing and repeating these stereotypes, many children are likely to internalise and live up to them. Therefore it is vital that adults who come into contact with children in care are aware of the existence of these stigmas surrounding these children’s situations and are well trained in how to deal with this sensitively.  So, it is up to the adults around children in care to be better trained and knowledgeable about the experiences of children in care, and how best to support them.

Yet often, this does not seem to be the case. In their article entitled Care – A Stepping Stone To Custody? the Prison Reform Trust note how those who have been in care are more likely to be reported to the police by their carers or carer institutions, compared to children living with their own families. Poor relationships between social workers, carers and the children in their care can mean it is more likely children are reported to the police for minor actions than they would be if they were in a family setting [6]. This means that for the same anti-social act, someone in care is more likely to be reported than someone living with their family. Also, care can really isolate children from their friends and family and this means for some that there are more attempts at running away and consequently more reporting to the police. Cumulatively, this form of heavy monitoring of children in care drastically increases their likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system.

Here we can see that the initial experience of a usually difficult and disruptive start in life, a lack of positive relationships with carers, as well as a big stigma around children in care, can all contribute to care leavers ending up in the criminal justice system. As Gentleman writes for the Guardian, "The state's inability to provide adequate care for some of the country's neediest children is one of Britain's most acute social injustices"[7]. It is vitally important that we shine more light on these issues, that we prioritise the needs of girls in care who are extremely vulnerable so we can work for their best interests and help support them. We mustrevise the current system so we better meet their complex needs and give them a better chance to avoid the criminal justice system later in life.
1 Prison Reform Trust (2015, 5) Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? Available At:'s%20imprisonment%20BL.pdf

2 Ministry of Justice (2012, ii) Prisoners' childhood and family backgrounds, London: MoJ

3  Prison Reform Trust (2016, 1). Keeping children in care out of trouble: An independent Review. [Online] Available at:

4 Prison Reform Trust (2015, 43) Care – A Stepping Stone to custody [Online] Available at:

5  Prison Reform Trust (2015, 51) Care – A Stepping Stone to custody [Online] Available at:

6 Prison Reform Trust (2015, 50) Care – A Stepping Stone to custody [Online] Available at:

7 Gentleman (2009, 1) Children in care: how Britain is failing its most vulnerable Available at: