Medway: Madness, Mismanagement and Malice

 

A very long overdue Blog, long overdue but after watching this weeks Panorama and having a huge interest in youth justice and youth custody I felt compelled to put something out there.

Firstly I feel an apology to the young people placed at Medway is needed. Not because I have ever felt so inadequate that I have needed to bully or physically abuse a child but because I believe we owe them one.

No apology will ever take away the horrendous memories some of those young people will have of their time at Medway but it is a start…

The Panorama show (11-1-2016) which exposed the abhorrent and down right disgusting abuse of young people in the care of Medway Secure Training Centre, an establishment operated by the security company G4S was brave and the investigator deserves much credit for entering the Lions den. However, I did, as a professional working in a custodial setting for young people have a couple of issues. Do not be worried that I am going to even attempt to condone anything witnessed but more of some house keeping type issues.

Firstly, and I understand that in only 30 minutes it would have been a waste of precious time but little was mentioned about the different types of establishment. As I have blogged before, there are three types, Young Offenders Institute, Secure Training Centre and Secure Children’s Home. In theory the least vulnerable go to YOI’s and the most vulnerable go to SCH’s. Long has been the debate on what STC’s actually do or offer, especially given that research suggests that smaller establishments such as SCH’s offer much more support and have much lower reoffending rates than STC’s and YOI’s. There is a huge difference between the settings and although I may be a little bias given that I have now been teaching in a SCH for six years I would argue that we are much more suited to delivering offending related work, much more therapeutic and much more likely to have a positive impact upon a young person.

Secondly, there are some things which were not fully explained in the show and again I am by no means sticking up for any of the terrible staff or justifying any of the behaviours displayed by the adults in the show but something need to be explained. Emptying bedrooms has been happening for a long time in custodial settings. It happens very rarely, or should do but it happens based upon risk, it is not intended to cause distress or raise anxiety levels further but purely to keep the young person safe.

I also suspect that although the agenda of all youth custody establishments should be the same one does wonder if privately operated establishments have more of an agenda of saving/making money.

So the issues…

The issues are there for all to see. Clearly they have issues of staff bullying young people (I suspect that staff are also bullied), there are issues of staff physically abusing the young people, issues of staff using incorrect restraint holds; one has to wonder if the people exposed in the show actually had any idea what they were doing. The fact that in the first restraint we heard the question of whether or not to put the young person in to a ‘figure of four’ in the middle of a classroom. This makes me wonder what on earth was happening. ‘Figure of four’ should never be used, and in the past was only used in extreme cases when staff felt it was the only way to keep a young person safe and to get the staff out of a young persons bedroom safely.

Another issue which may not have been so obvious to those with little or no experience of custodial settings was the amount of staff involved in incidents. Some may think this seems a little odd, surely more staff means the situation is under control and safety is no compromised? Actually this isn’t always the case, sometimes too many staff can make the situation more frenzied, raise the anxiety levels of everyone involved and can actually cause issues when manoeuvring around the unit/s. So, if you add this to the illegal restraint holds, the bullying, the physical abuse, the abuse of power, the inadequate staff with over inflated egos, the complete mismanagement and the sheer chaos and it all becomes a recipe for disaster.

However, aside from all of the above one huge issue in my professional opinion is the misreporting of incidents, and in some cases clear lack of reports. The blasé approach to reporting was quite frightening and is equally as dangerous as those illegal restraint holds and the physical abuse inflicted on young people. Not dangerous in a way that it will leave physical scars on the victim or long term psychological effects but in a way that could restrict and impede any offending work that needs to be completed, it could put staff at further placements both in and out of custody in risky situations. If the young person has a history of lashing out at staff when they are frustrated or have heightened anxiety but the staff at Medway have failed to report the incidents then a situation may occur at another establishment or setting which could have been either avoided or managed in a more sophisticated and potentially more effective way. Equally, this can have repercussions on the next start part the journey whether to another custodial establishment or residential dwelling. The picture and information of the child is false, incomplete and information which is used for future planning and risk assessments does not provide the necessary information.

One final note on the issues, I am sure, as many of the viewers would have found, there are clearly huge issues at Medway STC and in reality I suspect a whole case study/serious case review could be completed. There are huge amounts of research in to why some restraints are illegal, inappropriate and dangerous, along with research both for and against the use of physical intervention but that is not the point of this blog. The point is to highlight some of the key issues and possibly raise even more questions about the terrible situation through the eyes of someone with professional experience of custodial settings.

Fabrication, falsification and fraud.

So falsifying records, is it illegal? I suspect so and if management were aware of it then surely they should face some disciplinary action? Is it dangerous? Definitely. Is it valid? The people in the documentary seemed to think so, of course they are totally wrong but they believed there actions were justified. But why?

Why you may ask? Is it part of their contract with the Youth Justice Board that any incident involving two or more young people is seen as a loss of control? Has this been confirmed anywhere? It certainly isn’t the case the establishment I work in and the YJB seem to be keeping relatively quiet about the whole thing, let alone that. So assuming that it isn’t a YJB contractual agreement then it must be a G4S imposed fine. Is that G4S’s way of putting their STC’s in competition with each other? Is it a way of ‘making’ money by way of blaming the staff/young people at a particular establishment? Who knows? However, it does suggest that by imposing these fines in an establishment with vulnerable, anxious and sometimes volatile young people the staff, including senior management may be reluctant to report incidents. Not just because of the financial sanction but it could be seen as failure within the establishment and company.

Something completely random…is it even a thing? Do the fines happen, exist or are they even handed out? Could it be that senior management inform staff lower down the food chain that it happens so that incidents are not reported so that monthly figures produced for the Youth Justice Board are low, suggesting that that establishment, in this case Medway, are capable of supporting the young people in their care. That they are kept safe, positively influenced, make progress and engage with programmes provided.

One thing is for sure, if we were to receive a referral for a young person from Medway or a young person arrived at our establishment who had spent time at Medway I would be vey wary of any paperwork sent through from that establishment.

Again, debate on the issues of falsifying information and reports will no doubt rumble on and many people reading this will have their own opinion on the issue but I am sure everyone would be in agreement that it is dangerous, it is wholly wrong and it is an issue that doesn’t just affect and involve staff at the very lowest level but more likely staff at every level of the establishment.

Final thoughts…

I’ve tried to keep this relatively short, not because I’m lazy or there isn’t much to write about the subject because thats clearly not true. It is an issue that is going to rumble on for a long time. Recently G4S were informed that they would no longer be in control of Rainsbrook STC because of an appalling Ofsted and similar allegations being made. I hope, and suspect the same fate may be suffered by Medway. Will that change anything? I’m not so sure. It seems that for some staff the attitudes displayed in the documentary are strong, the culture of the establishment is certainly questionable, leadership and management appears not to be up to scratch and even beyond Medway there seems to be issues. G4S have had issues in the prisons they operate and we all remember the shambles regarding the Olympics and the debate on whether private, for profit companies should be allowed public money to develop their ideas and businesses remains contentious.

Lets face it, Paul Cook, Managing Director of G4S’s children’s services prefaced his interviews last weekend with comments relating to some of the horrendous crimes committed by some of the young people, as if that was some way to soften the blow, to justify the behaviour of some of the inadequate and incompetent staff.

Yes, he isn’t completely wrong, there are young people in many of the different custodial establishments for young people in the country who have committed serious and very violent crimes but why did he need to even mention it? Do those children still not deserve the right to be educated, looked after properly and have their needs met? The punishment is being sent to a place like Medway, not receive even more punishment when they get there. The aim is to rehabilitate, the staff have a role as carer, as positive role model and as supporter. Not as a violent bully, not to belittle the young people and simply not to care. Equally, they are there to protect and keep the young people in the establishment safe.

To finish off, I am actually quite embarrassed for the staff seen in the documentary. Their behaviour was quite frankly absurd. Punching windows? Bragging about hurting a child? Rolling sleeves up to show off some terrible tattoos (some tattoos are excellent I might add)? Physically hurting children? Have a word…it’s 2016, not Victorian Britain. These types of people need to be kept well away from any establishment…

I hope police action is taken, I hope they face criminal charges and I hope that G4S lose their contract…my big fear is that if this happens at one privately operated establishment does it happen at any others?

Everyone will have an opinion, some will differ, some will be similar but I’m sure everyone will agree that the abuse those children suffered is completely unacceptable and something needs to change; culture, belief, behaviour, attitudes, control, approach and so on…

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Perceptions, misconceptions and opinions…

After the response to my first blog I have debated what topic to feature next. I have had requests regarding staff wellbeing, pupil wellbeing as well as questions about curriculum and professional development.

There is however one thing that I would like to address first, perceptions. We all have perceptions about places we may have or have not visited. The school we’ve heard so much about. Is it really so good? The CPD course that will revolutionise the way we teach and so on.

A Secure Children’s Home is no different. There are hundreds of perceptions and preconceived ideas about my place of work. Some perceptions are correct, the pupils can be violent, the behaviour is challenging but there also some that need addressing and correcting.

Sadly in our society we have a hyper critical and sometimes poorly informed media. We have newspapers constantly churning out drivel about race, religion, the NHS and of course education. Over time though there has been one area that the media have particularly chastised, passed comment on and been particularly ill-informed; the justice system. This has expanded to the juvenile justice system.

A misconception about the juvenile secure estate is that it is a soft touch, a holiday camp affair. All Playstation’s and football. Days out to the seaside and so on. The reality…it’s not! I would be lying if I said there was no Playstation’s or football or days out but if one takes the Playstation for example, it equates to 7 hours a week. That’s right; 7 hours out of 168 hours a week.

Now ask yourself the question, how many hours do your own children or the pupils in your classes spend on a Playstation in a week? I bet it’s more than 7 hours (I bet they also play games like Call of Duty, GTA V and the likes. Ours don’t, the most exciting game ours can get their hands on is FIFA).

What is never discussed in the aforementioned media outlets is the amount of times the staff have to support a child in crisis. The child who has been told only a week before leaving that the placement they so desperately wanted to return to have decided they don’t want them back.

The child who has had to face a parent who has abused them in all manner of ways too horrific to even think about blame them for everything. Seeing the child you have worked with for a long period of time, built solid and positive relationships with have to break down those secure attachments in order for them to leave with as little heartache as possible.

All these things are sadly a regular occurrence. It would be wrong for me to sit here and say it’s hard, stressful and the like because I choose to work there but once in a while may be the people casting judgement, including the public should step back and actually seek out the truth. Ask me what I do, don’t just guess because the Daily Mail told you it is a nice life for the kids inside.

Of course it is. Their life on the out is often a life many successful, intelligent adults would last less than 5 minutes in but of course, they’re criminals, they’re hoodies, they’re violent and they want locking up and ‘sorting’ out. Tough love and all that nonsense.

When I often point out the facts about reality for these young people I am often met with comments such as ‘bring back Borstals’ and ‘it never used to be like this’…all comments based on opinion and poorly written articles in the news, in papers and by people online. Just an aside, if it wasn’t like this in the ‘old days’ why are custody levels in the juvenile secure estate at some of the lowest levels ever?

Another phrase I hear is ‘they just don’t like being told no’. Does anybody?

I agree that ‘no’ is often a word that causes conflict and leads to incidents but as a professional I have to acknowledge that the reasons for the behaviours displayed go beyond me simply saying ‘no’. A number of the young people who come through our doors have Speech, Language and Communication difficulties thus causing them an issue when trying to negotiate with staff. These issues don’t disappear when they are on the out and therefore one must appreciate that they will find themselves in fights with peers, police and so on. It isn’t right and it is certainly not an excuse but if we still had the ‘Borstal’ approach that some so desperately cling to, the tough love, hard time approach many desire then re-offend rates would be far greater.

I need the time to build these relationships, to learn to understand what the individual I am working with needs. The staff team need the time to provide the care these young people crave. To meet the needs that Maslow discussed all those years ago…

Since working at the Secure Unit I have been criticised for ‘sticking up’ for the child that commits a crime. I have often tried to put across the point of view of the perpetrator, not to justify their crime but to simply make people aware, especially in the case of young people. I try and offer an insight in to the possible reasons why the child may have behaved the way they did.

In conclusion I am fully aware that the negative connotations of the juvenile secure estate will remain, I know that some people, even with research and professional responses will still have an opinion that isn’t always true but I hope in this blog I have at least addressed some of those perceptions. I hope people will begin to see a Secure Children’s Home for what it really is…

Over the fence…

A while back I entered in to a conversation on Twitter about Ofsted inspections. I merely commented that in Secure Children’s Homes regardless of grading we are inspected twice a year (I should point out that I have been a teacher and SENCO in a Secure Children’s Home for five years). This led to some probing and very valid questions from many different people but one person in particular showed a lot of interest, @cherrylkd . A successful and experienced teacher, however she was honest enough to admit that she knew nothing about Secure Children’s Homes, to which my response was that many people know nothing of them.

After many discussions via email and Twitter I did a short q&a with Cherryl and she posted the outcomes on her own fantastic blog; http://www.cherrylkd.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/secure-childrens-homes-a-guest-interview-with-richardalbery84

Over the festive period I was badgered by several people, Cherryl included to write my own blog. The world of Secure Units is an unknown and due to their scarce nature few people have encountered them or have even heard of them let alone met and worked with people who work or teach in them.

So I gave in to peer pressure and created this blog, the first entry of which is titled ‘Over the fence’.

 

They’re big, they’re green, you can’t see over the top and you can’t see over them but it is there. A small, odd-shaped building, similar to a school. Although how many schools have 25 CCTV cameras outside and a play ground that can’t be seen by anyone from outside? Behind or over the fence lies a Secure Children’s Home. It is what it is, a children’s home that is secure. It is not a prison, nor is it a Young Offenders Institution although it does house young offenders.

These young offenders are, however, a unique group. Officially defined as the most vulnerable or challenging. I would be lying if I said they weren’t but one thing they are is exciting. Exciting to teach, not because they are criminals or it is an edge of your seat education but because they are all really cool kids. Yes they have done wrong but being sent to the unit is the punishment, having their freedom taken away is the consequence. From the minute they walk through the door the idea of ‘punishing’ stops and the process of rehabilitation begins.We aren’t there to judge, we’re there to understand, to support and to rehabilitate (hopefully).

Many of the young people have had chaotic lives, a sketchy school history and a long list of fixed term and permanent exclusions. Our role is to change their attitudes to learning, equip them with skills for life and hopefully have them leave us in a much more positive frame of mind regarding learning and a willingness to succeed and make a positive contribution.

People don’t know what we do, they have often never heard of Secure Children’s Homes and sadly some don’t want to know. I’ve heard the unit called a ‘Library’, a ‘Special school’ and even a small hospital. I have been told by people who work within education and those that don’t that we only deal with local youngsters. That young people who commit serious crimes don’t come to ‘places like that’ and that all we do is hold the young people and just let them out when their sentences finish.

All of the above are of course false statements. Some people don’t want to know. People don’t want to think that children break the law, break in to houses, commit street robbery, set fires and even kill people but in truth some do. The question I often ask is ‘what went wrong?’ May be if this question was asked more often instead of people hiding from the truth less young people would find themselves in custody.

One thing that is worth knowing about being ‘over the fence’ is that every single teacher and care officer wants to be working  with these young people. Working there to try to make a difference, to work alongside the young people. Not to punish them or judge them but help them.

I have created this blog to break down the misunderstandings around Secure Children’s Homes and to let the world know what great work we do. What great work the kids do and the progress that is made. I will bring stories of success, stories of difficulties faced and hopefully make people aware of the policies, procedures and working practices of staff in a Secure Children’s Home.

One final note, I hope to show people what a Secure Children’s Home is. They aren’t what the media claim they are, they aren’t holiday camps. They are full of ups and downs and as I sit here typing this first blog entry covered in orange paint I ask the question, how many holiday camps do you know that you go home from covered in paint?

Would I change my job? Certainly not…