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Social Justice

Children in care are being handcuffed on their way to school and foster homes

MPs are backing a campaign to make private companies accountable for handcuffing children in care while transporting them.

MPs want to ban vulnerable children as young as 10 from being handcuffed and “treated like animals” while being taken to and from school and foster homes.

Private companies transporting children between care and foster homes, schools and hospitals – often in “caged” vehicles – are legally allowed to handcuff and physically restrain them as a last resort to stop at-risk children harming themselves or others.

But campaigners say the reality is that handcuffs are being used as a “go-to option any time a child shows any sign of resistance” – and unlike other parts of the youth care system, companies are not required to record or report any instances of a child being put in physical restraints.

A letter addressed to Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary, calling for the collection of this information to be made a requirement – with a view to ultimately banning the practice – is now making its way around parliament and has cross-party support. It follows an early day motion to ban the practice tabled by Labour’s Bell Ribeiro-Addy, which has been backed by 25 MPs so far.

“Rather than treating a young person who has already been traumatised and dealing with extremely stressful and life-altering situations with care, kindness and respect, they are treated like animals,” said Emily Aklan, founder of children’s care organisation Serenity Welfare which is behind the Hope Instead of Handcuffs campaign.

These are “innocent children who have not committed nor been suspected of committing a crime,” she added.

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There are currently no requirement for companies to report instances of handcuffing. That means there is no official record to prove how widespread the issue is or monitor how children are being treated when transported, Aklan said.

But she has seen “far too many children with red marks around their wrists with massive distrust towards the system which is supposed to be helping them,” she explained.

“I have seen children as young as 10 show me red marks around their wrists, terrified of getting into a car for fear of more inhuman treatment.

“There is a wider attitude towards children in care that goes all the way to the top – to the government – which so vitally needs shifting,” Aklan told The Big Issue.

“This attitude is one of dangerous complacency, an archaic view that children in care are problems that need to be dealt with, rather than unique human beings who deserve just as much care, kindness and compassion as any other child.”

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Those to back the EDM to discuss the issue in the House of Commons include ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Green co-leader Caroline Lucas. More politicians are set to hear directly from campaigners about the problem at Westminster next week.

Steve McCabe, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers, said: “This is a shocking issue which has slipped under the radar for too long.

“The use of these physical restraints on vulnerable children is as inhumane as it is unnecessary, and the campaign has my wholehearted support.”

Streatham MP Ribeiro-Addy said the rising use of handcuffs against children “reflects a whole series of policy failures”.

“If we’re going to keep children safe, we need transparency about how they’re treated,” she said.

Serenity Welfare provides secure transport for vulnerable children and has “not once” had to resort to physical restraint since launching services five years ago, Aklan said.

The practice of handcuffing kids exposes inequalities already making life tougher for children in care, she added.

“It not only exacerbates inequalities but exacerbates trauma,” she said. “Mental health is a huge issue here – many children suffer from mental illness and have lived through experiences in their young lives many adults cannot imagine.”

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That instances of handcuffing are not recorded means there can be no way of knowing if disproportionate levels of enforcement are used against children from marginalised backgrounds, such as those from Black and minority ethnic families or kids with disabilities. 

Children are more likely to be in care if they are male, Black or of mixed ethnicity, according to NSPCC figures – the same groups who grow up to be disproportionately at risk of dying while being restrained in police custody.

“Does it sometimes take longer to work calmly with a child to de-escalate a highly charged situation? Yes. Is it normal for a young person to feel frightened and distrustful of authority? Of course. Is it worth every extra minute to ensure that we are not caging children like animals? No doubt.”

No Conservative MPs have backed the motion yet.

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