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Police force announces trauma-informed approach for detained children

Northamptonshire Police is one of the first police forces in the country to introduce a new approach to dealing with children brought into custody.


Police force announces trauma-informed approach for detained children

Known as Trauma-Informed Custody, the new detainee process aims to better support children who have been arrested, help improve understanding of the effects of childhood trauma, recognise vulnerability and reduce repeat offending.

Northamptonshire Police detains up to 1,000 individuals every month, including up to 70 children.

A significant number of children brought into custody have experienced highly stressful and potentially traumatic events or situations during their childhood or adolescence – these are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Experiencing trauma or prolonged stress in childhood can affect the behaviour, disposition, and development of children, and lead to risk-taking, offending behaviours and self-harm.

As part of the programme, custody and detention officers receive special training to become trauma-informed. Being more trauma-informed prevents replicating traumatic experiences and avoids custody staff adding to the chronic stress their youngest detainees are already likely carrying.

“Being arrested for the first time as an adult can be frightening, so for a child that can be a traumatic experience in itself,” said Chief Inspector Julie Mead.

“We know a high proportion of children in our custody suites are likely to have experienced some kind of trauma or adverse event in their childhood. So, the approach we are now taking with every child, is that they are more likely than not to have a history of trauma.

Mead said that being brought into custody is not meant to be a punitive process for detainees, and that everyone is treated with dignity and respect, no matter their age, adding: “This is not about being soft on children.”

“However, in terms of children, we are now recognising that trauma can have lasting adverse effects on a child’s functioning and on their mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being.

“We need to be thinking ‘what happened to you?’ ‘What has brought you to this point?’ We need to look at things using a more trauma-focused lens.

“What we don’t want to do is exacerbate trauma further or re-trigger it while children are in custody – as this won’t help the detainee or indeed the victim.”

The project – named Trauma-Informed Custody for Trauma Affected Children or TIC TAC – started as a 12-week pilot, but the programme is proving so effective there are now plans to adopt it as routine practice by the Force’s custody teams. The results are said to be that young detainees are less stressed, officers have more amenable investigations, there are fewer self-harm attempts, and detainees have access to support after they leave.

Northamptonshire Police says that due to the fact the children they see are often in crisis, they will look to decrease their distress, reduce the risk of self-harm, and help them to understand exactly what is happening to them, keeping them in custody for only as long as necessary.

Northamptonshire Police is also using specially created animated videos – the first force in the country to do so – designed by Dr Vicky Kemp and Dr Miranda Bevan from Nottingham University to help to explain detainee rights and encourage them to ask for a solicitor. The videos also help family members who are called upon to act as appropriate adults to understand their role.

Chief Inspector Julie Mead says multi-agency working and information sharing is of high importance.

“We have 24/7 access to social services and always contact them within the first hour of a child’s detention to share information. We have a healthcare team on site should a child need a physical assessment or mental health support.

“Lots of the children we have in the suites have heart-breaking pasts where, if there had been the early intervention support within society that we have now, I have no doubt they wouldn’t be in one of our cells.

“Custody may not provide early intervention but it’s certainly timely intervention, where we provide the opportunity for support from partners in both youth and mental health services that work with children while in custody and beyond.”

To help reduce agitation and incidents of self-harm in child detainees, and of those who may have mental health or neurodiverse needs, the force says it tries to create as calm an environment as possible. It recently received environmental advice from Dr Louise Kirby, a local Neurodiversity Practitioner, and have subsequently made changes to some of its cells. Blackboard paint was put on the cell wall so detainees can chalk and express themselves by drawing. They have also placed shapes up high on the walls, so that detainees can bounce a small rubber ball against them – this proprioception (the sense of self movement) has a soothing effect to calm and regulate the nervous system on those living with neurodiverse conditions.

As part of the programme, the custody team has partnered with CIRV (a gang diversion programme), the Youth Offending Service, and with the Office of the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner's Early Intervention practitioners, who visit the children in custody to offer support.

CI Mead continued: “I want the youngsters that come into custody to leave with more support than they came in with. We have a golden opportunity to make a difference to the lives of these young people, so they have the chance to take a different path. We don’t want these children to become adult offenders.”

Rachael Blundred, Team Leader with the Liaison and Diversion Service, Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust NHS said the Trust is “thoroughly committed” to the project.

“When we can develop a trauma informed approach within a criminal justice system, we are demonstrating the value of working together to ensure fair, effective and safe processes.”

Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, Stephen Mold said intervening early to support children is a ‘key priority’.

“Children generally become involved in crime due to lifestyle influences, trauma or other significant events. By understanding these triggers we have a better chance of diverting these children away from more serious criminal activity.

"The Trauma-Informed Custody programme being trialled offers a child-centred approach to the justice system, giving consistency to how we manage children being brought into custody and a voice, in a safe place, to talk about their circumstances. It enables partners to take a holistic approach to their situation and offer them the support they need whilst in custody and once they have left.

“Regardless of the outcome of each case, our aim is to break the cycle of crime and point these children to services or programmes that will help tackle the issues they face to prevent them from becoming entrenched in crime.”

Photo: Chief Inspector Julie Mead, Northamptonshire Police

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