Briefing 249

March 2019

Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 - Investigation Report  (IICSA, February 2019)


The report examines the evidence showing that children held in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and Secure Training Centres (STCs) are still not safe from sexual abuse.  It makes a series of recommendations to help protect all children in custody from abuse in the future.  The recommendations cover children on remand, the practice of ‘mixed’ justice and welfare placements, staff training, workforce regulation, pain compliance and the response to allegations of abuse.

Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 - Investigation Report (IICSA, February 2019)


The public hearings in the Children in Custodial Institutions investigation took place on 9-20 July 2018. Many victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in youth custody shared their experiences to inform the Inquiry. The investigation focuses on recent and current issues (from 1st January 2009), specifically institutional responses to recent sexual abuse of children and the adequacy of institutional and systemic protections of children in those institutions. 

The numbers of children in youth custody has declined considerably since 2008 from over 3000 to the current population of about 900; however, the concern is that despite the drop in numbers of detained children the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse is higher than previously understood. The Inquiry’s analysis reveals 1,070 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2017. 

The Inquiry considered the prevalence of sexual abuse of children in custody and the barriers to disclosure, which may mean that abuse is not reported for years. The culture in YOIs and STCs focusses on containment and control which has not provided an environment that protects children from physical or sexual abuse. In contrast Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) were more conducive to the potential of building trusting relationships with children where they would be more likely to feel safer and disclose sexual abuse.

These characterisations of the secure estate were supported by the evidence concerning how SCHs operate compared to YOIs and STCs. Government policy for children in custody lies with the Ministry of Justice for YOIs and STCs, and for SCHs with the DfE.  These departments have very distinct roles in serving the public interest, the former focussing on the justice system and the latter on the education and social care. SCHs are subject to similar standards of care to those applied by Ofsted to children’s homes.

Staff turnover, inadequate training and few of the recommendations of inspection reports of YOIs and STCs have been achieved suggesting that the service was in crisis towards the end of the period of the investigation.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The recommendations in the report are intended to reduce the risk of sexual abuse faced by all children in custody.


  • All children in custody are very vulnerable, including children who are sentenced for criminal activity, and this tends to reflect unhappy and disruptive childhoods.
  • A ‘closed’ culture in institutions can mean abuse is hidden making it more difficult for victims to escape the abuse.
  • The Inquiry’s analysis reveals 1,070 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2017.  The majority of allegations related to members of staff. It was troubling that the institutions had less reliable data than the Inquiry.

The Role of Culture

  • Barriers to disclosure in custody include: the context of violence, power imbalance between staff and children, children not being believed and children’s distrust of authority.
  • Further risk factors are an environment connected to drug use, gang cultures and violence by children.

Potential Staff Risk Factors

  • YOIs and STCs were deemed in crisis by the end of the Inquiry’s investigation period with a significant decline in safety, due to management instability and staffing losses - this will impact on a child’s confidence to report sexual abuse.
  • No current requirements for minimum qualifications of staff or for staff supervision in YOIs and STCs, comparing unfavourably with SCHs, although the Youth Custody Service is taking action to address this.
  • A culture of respect for whistleblowers has not yet been embedded across institutions. The Youth Custody Service is working on tackling this.
  • Current assessment tools designed to identify children at risk of sexual abuse are not always completed in YOIs and STCs, often compounded by missing health records. It should not be underestimated that not having a full picture of a child’s history at the right time will undermine decision-making about the best interests of the child.
  • Force and strip searches can currently be authorised to impose ‘good order and discipline’ however force should only be used when absolutely necessary. Knowing the history of the child and staff having a greater understanding of the impact of these techniques on children who have been sexually abused is important. These interventions should be fully documented so that custodial institutions can account for their use.
  • Pain compliance, although used as a last resort, contributes to a culture of fear and has the effect of silencing the child at a time when it is important that the child feels safe to speak out about aspects of their lives, including sexual abuse.

Systems and Procedures

  • Room-sharing, CCTV cameras and body-worn cameras present issues in relation to balancing the child’s rights to privacy and potential risk of harm in unmonitored situations.  CCTV is regarded as helpful by some but more understanding is required of the benefits of body-worn cameras.
  • Evidence that children who had engaged in sexually harmful behaviour were placed alongside children who were in Secure Children’s Homes for welfare reasons gave rise to concern.
  • In YOIs and STCs allegations of child sexual abuse were rarely referred to the police or the local authority.  There was a high number of alleged incidents for child sexual abuse within custodial institutions compared to the low number of convictions. Currently there is no requirement for allegations against staff to be investigated and responded to by someone independent of the establishment. This gives rise to concerns about the rigour of the investigation and the expertise of the investigator.  When police do not investigate there is no guidance for staff on how to conduct an investigation e.g. what evidence to seek and how children are interviewed.

Policy Risk Factors

  • SCHs were more focussed on the interests of the child in contrast to YOIs and STCs policies and contracts which contain less about building positive relationships, trust and confidence to enable a child to be able to tell someone if they have any worries or concerns or to disclose abuse.  There are a number of ways children can report sexual abuse however not enough social workers are available to provide an alternative trusted adult to whom children could disclose sexual abuse.  The Youth Custody Service are seeking to address these issues.
  • The differences in regimes lie with the departments of state involved. The DfE has oversight of SCHs and the Ministry of Justice has oversight of STCs and YOIs - the former focussing on education and social care and the latter on the justice system.
  • Cost should not be the main factor in determining where a child is placed, especially as the child custody population has considerably reduced over the years.
  • The recommendations of this investigation should be applied to the proposed ‘Secure Schools’ model  as appropriate, with comprehensive education standards and effective safeguards in place and greater involvement from the local authority for these ‘looked after children’.
  • The number of children remanded in custody was high, they are also therefore exposed to the risks of being in custody.


The Chair and Panel of the Inquiry recommend that the:

  • The Youth Custody Service commission research to find out if the high number of children remanded in custody is due to a lack of appropriate community provision or otherwise unrelated to a genuine need, and that together with appropriate partner agencies puts an action plan in place to address this.
  • The DfE and Youth Custody service to review whether placing children together for justice and welfare reasons in SCHs increases the risk of sexual abuse to children, and an action plan to be published within 6 months.
  • Youth Custody Service to ensure appropriate safeguarding training for staff in the context of the secure estate with regular reviews and updates.
  • The Ministry of Justice introduces arrangements for the professional registration of staff in roles responsible for the care of children in YOIs and STCs.
  • The Ministry of Justice prohibit, by way of regulation, the use of pain compliance techniques.
  • The Ministry of Justice revises and publishes current out of date instructions for ‘maintaining a safe and secure environment’ to give guidance on how to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse, to include all allegations are referred to an independent child protection professional.  All institutions should publish their safeguarding policies to aid scrutiny.
  • The Ministry of Justice and the DfE share policy responsibility for safeguarding children in custody. The investigation concluded the needs of children in custody would be better served by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education sharing policy responsibility for managing and safeguarding children in custodial institutions. This is to ensure that standards applied in relation to children in custody are jointly focussed on securing child welfare as well as discipline.

The home secretary said the government would review the report and respond in due course.


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