5 key steps for professionals supporting care experienced children at the police station

1. Be a champion

If your own child was arrested and held at the police station, you would be there every step of the way, making sure they were okay and fighting for them to receive the best possible support and advice. Many care-experienced children do not have parental support at this critical moment. It is up to their carers and other support workers to step in and be the champion they need.


2. Find an Appropriate Adult the child trusts

All children are entitled to an Appropriate Adult at the police station. In the case of a care experienced child the Appropriate Adult can be a family member, a person representing the local authority responsible for them, a social worker or, failing that, any responsible adult over the age of 18, such as a teacher or a YOT professional, who is not a police officer or employed by the police (Police And Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) Code C, para. 1.7). The role of the Appropriate Adult is wide-ranging and critical to the support the child receives.

An Appropriate Adult should ideally be an adult who is known and trusted by the child. Where an Appropriate Adult has a prior relationship of trust with the child, they are in the best position to provide emotional support, advocate on behalf of the child to ensure their rights and needs are met and know relevant background information to assist the legal representative.

Where an adult known to and trusted by the child cannot be appointed an Appropriate Adult will have to be appointed from the local Appropriate Adult service. In these cases, they will be unknown to the child, have no personal relationship with them and no knowledge of their background or needs. In this far from ideal situation, emphasise to the Custody Officer the importance of calling the Appropriate Adult down to see the child as early as possible to give them the best opportunity to establish rapport with the child before the interview and to support their understanding of their rights and entitlements. If the Appropriate Adult will be delayed in getting to the station, suggest that the child be offered an initial phone call with them.

This video, from the National Appropriate Adult Network, explains the role of the Appropriate Adult.

More information about Appropriate Adults and the rights of children in custody can be accessed here

The National Appropriate Adult Network also provides training and additional benefits through membership.


3. Ensure the child is represented by a specially trained youth justice lawyer

It is essential that children are represented by specially trained youth justice lawyers.

Care experienced children who come into contact with the criminal justice system are likely to have a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities. A specialist set of skills and knowledge is needed in order to engage with this group of children and to achieve the best possible outcomes for them.

Youth justice law is very different to adult criminal law. It is a discrete legal system, with a different practical framework, sentences, sentencing guidelines, out of court disposals, and criteria for remand. The principles of sentencing for children are distinct and all court proceedings should comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which the UK ratified in 1991, and other UN guidelines concerning children in trouble with the law. Lawyers learn very little, if any, youth justice law at undergraduate level or through professional qualifications and are never taught how to interact with vulnerable children. Often none of the relevant professionals – the prosecution, judiciary, legal advisers and the defence – are specialists in youth justice, leaving a whole process bereft of expertise where life changing decisions are made concerning children. Inevitably mistakes happen with devasting consequences. A key skill for a lawyer representing children will be to get them diverted out of the criminal justice system wherever possible. This is very difficult to achieve without youth justice expertise gained through training.

For more information and for help accessing youth justice specialist lawyers, you can call the Youth Justice Legal Centre. All their contact details are available here.

In order to be that champion for the child in your care, it can help to understand the lawyer’s role better. A good source of information is this step-by-step guide for lawyers representing looked-after at the police station, jointly produced by the Howard League for Legal Reform and the Youth Justice Legal Centre, which is a great resource both for lawyers and anyone else working with children who are being held in police custody. Both organisations have also produced a range of guides and toolkits for lawyers working with children and young adults on a wide range of issues.

The Howard LeagueYouth Justice Legal Centre


4. Make sure the child understands what is happening to them

The legal process is complex and often difficult to navigate even for professionals. Children report that they often don’t understand what is happening to them. This is frightening and it can affect their behaviour and outcomes. Their legal representative and Appropriate Adult have a duty to ensure everything is explained to them in a way that they can understand.

These videos from the Youth Justice Legal Centre, aimed at children and young people, provide an accessible overview of what to expect at the police station and in court.

Police stationIn court


 5. Understand how the child may be feeling

Being held in police custody, particularly in a police cell, can be extremely disturbing and damaging for any child, even though many will try to pretend otherwise. Children’s emotional and physical responses to trauma and fear can exacerbate their distress and their criminal justice outcomes, for example if they resist arrest or injure a police officer. Children may be subjected to distressing procedures such as strip searching, restraint or the taking of intimate samples. The experience of being arrested and held in police custody can be particularly acute for care experienced children who may have histories of trauma. Recent research has shown that children in care tend to have harsher and longer experiences in police custody [Link to Miranda’s work]. This shouldn’t be the case and there’s a lot you can do to help prevent this.