How tragic, a young boy who was known to self harm was left to hang himself.
He hung himself with the laces from his best trainers which his mom brought to him in confinement.
It beggars belief that someone so young is locked away without full assessment as to his inner problems.
We need a public enquiry now, to save further young people doing what Adam did. Suffering in silence
Wake up! Listen to their cries! Real player story trigger warning
The tragic death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood has turned the spotlight on the Youth Justice Board. Alison Benjamin meets its chief executive, Ellie Roy
Wednesday August 18, 2004
It was not an auspicious start. Just six weeks into Ellie Roy's new job as chief executive of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), a 14-year-old boy became the youngest person to commit suicide in a British jail. The death of Adam Rickwood, who was last week found hanging in his cell at Hassockfield secure training centre, Co Durham, has prompted calls from prison reformers for a public inquiry into the youth justice system that Roy now presides over.
In particular, they want the use of secure training centres (STCs) - a new breed of privately-run child prisons, funded by the YJB, where children as young as 12 are locked up - to be investigated. Roy is unconvinced. She says demands for a review must be weighed against the needs of local neighbourhoods where young people can wreak havoc. "It's a real dilemma because we have not found anything to solve the problems faced by these kids from very troubled backgrounds, nor the problems they pose," she says.
"When it gets to the point of locking them up we are either talking about a kid who has committed a very serious offence, or a kid who has persistently offended no matter what you try."
Roy has spoken to Adam's mother and hopes to meet his family next week. "All you can say is what a desperate tragedy it is for them," she says. The board has launched a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Adam's death. There are currently 2,637 people under the age of 18 in secure detention in England and Wales - double the number a decade ago. Since 1998, 15 children have killed themselves in custody.
Perhaps surprisingly, Roy agrees with her detractors who criticise the youth justice system for locking up too many youngsters and point to most other EU countries where fewer children are channelled through the penal system. "I agree with the campaigners who say we lock up too many kids, in the sense that we ought to be doing a lot more at a much earlier stage to make sure we don't end up having to remove kids from their families and communities because of the difficulties they are presenting," she says. "The board's view is that we should do more, and we are keen to do more, to ensure that where possible those kids are supervised in the community."
She stresses the excellent work that multi-agency youth offending teams - whose work is overseen by the YJB - have been doing across England and Wales in the past four years to support and advise young offenders. "We do everything possible to get them into constructive activities and to deal with the problems they are facing in their own lives."
The board's hands are tied when it comes to the courts serving increasing numbers of custodial sentences on children. It does, however, have a choice about which type of detention to send them to: young offenders institutions (YOIs), where the majority are detained; local authority secure units, which have around 260 boys and girls; or the three STCs where 180 are currently locked up.
Some 76% of the YJB's budget is spent purchasing custodial places from the prison service, local authorities and private contractors including Premier Custodial Group, which runs Hassockfield, and Group 4, which operates the two other STCs in Medway, Kent, and Rainsbrook, near Rugby.
Roy, who is married to the head of the prison service, Phil Wheatley, denies any conflict of interest over purchasing decisions and says it is "neither here nor there" whether the private or public sector is running the service. What is critical, she believes, is to ensure the custodial experience is a constructive one. Where a child is particularly vulnerable because of their age or mental health she says the board would try to make sure that they were detained in a local authority unit or a STC.
Local authority secure units, which often have no more than 20 beds, are staffed by people trained in child welfare - including experienced social workers - with a high ratio of staff to young people, allowing for intensive support. In comparison, STCs have up to 72 beds and recruit staff from a variety of backgrounds, who undergo a nine-week training course which Roy says gives them enough skills to recognise mental health issues.
Roy talks at some length about the tremendous problems faced by most children in custody including "great difficulties at school, being excluded from school, being failed by family, mental health issues and substance abuse: many have been in the care system", and she rattles off statistics about their low educational attainment - "more than a quarter have literacy and numeracy levels equivalent to those of an average seven-year-old".
She adds: "It's probably beyond the imagination of the average person in the street to understand just what they've been through and where they've come from."
If there were better mental health teams working with these kids at an early stage, they would probably not end up in the criminal justice system, she accepts. "Mental health needs are a big, big, big issue and one we haven't really got to grips with at all."
Given the kids' high levels of need, you could be mistaken for thinking that the YJB must be purchasing more custodial places from local authorities. But quite the opposite. Between April 2003 and June 2004, there were a fifth fewer children in local authority secure units. The board has contracts with 15 local authorities. It stopped contracting with two local authority-run units last year that have subsequently closed and a further two which are planning to close.
A place at a local authority secure unit does not come cheap: around £150,000 a year, compared to £100,000 at a STC and just £50,000 at a YOI. Does cost determine purchasing decisions? "There is a cost factor," admits Roy. "We can't afford to lock everyone up in a local authority secure unit and there are not enough local authority places. We shouldn't be spending money on intensive things if we can provide a decent regime for less."
No doubt this is one reason why the board is pressing ahead with the opening of the fourth and largest STC - Oakhill, in Milton Keynes - later this month. A fifth is scheduled to open soon in Wales.
As their name suggests, STCs focus on education and training. Roy claims a number of children are making good progress - though no figures are yet available - and she cites positive inspectorate reports to emphasise that they are doing a good job. She is keen to stress, however, that the YJB's primary purpose is to prevent offending. "What we know is that if a child hasn't offended by the age of 14 then they are much less likely to."
The YJB is in discussions with the Department for Education and Skills about how to identify kids and parents who need help at an early stage and providing intensive support for families. It is also in talks with the Home Office about the impact that initiatives from Number 10 - which have widened the pool of young people who could now be drawn into the criminal justice system for staying out late or spraying graffiti - might have on its work.
"We need to be very careful in demonising and criminalising young people," says Roy. "We do that at our peril." She admits she hung around on street corners with her friends when she was growing up in Co Tyrone. "Lots of us did. I wasn't an angel but I didn't get into grievous trouble and I had a mother who would have punished me if I'd done anything anti-social."