Northamptonshire Police introduce ‘Trauma-Informed Custody’ for detained children
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Northamptonshire Police is one of the first police forces in the country to introduce a new approach to dealing with children brought into custody.
Known as Trauma-Informed Custody, this 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.
The Force detains up to 1,000 individuals every month and of these, up to 70 are 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.
The full name of the new process being used by Northamptonshire Police is Trauma-Informed Custody for Trauma Affected Children or TIC TAC.
Custody and detention officers have received 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.
Chief Inspector Julie Mead said: “Being arrested for the first time as an adult can be frightening, so for a child that can be a traumatic experience in itself.
“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.
“Being brought into custody is not meant to be a punitive process for any detainee. This is not about being soft on children. We treat everyone with dignity and respect – no matter their age or how they present to us.
“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 children we see are often in crisis, so we look to decrease their distress, reduce the risk of self-harm, and help these young detainees to understand exactly what is happening to them. Our aim is to keep them in custody for only as long as necessary.
“We are also using specially created animated videos, designed by Dr Vicky Kemp and Dr Miranda Bevan from Nottingham University. These help to explain detainee rights and encourage them to ask for a solicitor. They also help family members who are called upon to act as appropriate adults to understand their role. We are the first police force to trial these, and they are proving really successful.
“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.
“To help reduce agitation and incidents of self-harm in child detainees, and of those who may have mental health or neurodiverse needs, we try to create as calm an environment as possible.”
The Force recently received environmental advice from Dr Louise Kirby, a Northampton-based Neurodiversity practitioner, and the custody team have subsequently made changes to some of their cells.
They have put blackboard paint 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.
CI Mead explained: “These small measures have made a huge difference in calming detainees, and having calm detainees makes for a much more amenable investigation – which supports a better outcome for the victim.”
Ultimately, the Force wants to prevent crime and stop children becoming perpetual offenders.
“CI Mead said: “We must do all we can to intervene as early as possible, so that opportunities to change offending behaviours are not missed.”
As part of the TIC TAC 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.”
TIC TAC started as a 12-week pilot, but the programme is proving so effective there are plans to adopt it as routine practice by the Force’s custody teams.
Rachael Blundred, Team Leader with the Liaison and Diversion Service from Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust NHS said: “As a partner agency working with Police, NHFT is thoroughly committed to Project TIC TAC.
“We look forward to working collaboratively to assist in creating a trauma informed environment and ethos within Custody Suites across Northamptonshire.
“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 for me. 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 in to 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.”
CI Mead concluded: “We have seen such a difference since we introduced the TIC TAC programme. Custody is calmer, our young detainees are less stressed, we have better, more amenable investigations, we’ve had less self-harm attempts, and detainees have access to support after they leave us. It’s definitely been the right approach to take.
“Many members of the public may look at these measures and think why are we helping ‘criminals’. They should just be put in a cell; they deserve to be there. Police custody is not about punishing people, it’s an investigation process not a judgement. Many people are not guilty of the offences that they are accused of. Many are here when they are in crisis and things have gone wrong.
“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.
“If we can break the offending cycle for just one child and offer them a brighter future then it has to be worth it.”