Scotland

Call for mental health support for young offenders

Polmont YOI
Image caption Teenagers held in secure care units must move to HMP YOI Polmont when they turn 18

Mental health support must be made a priority for young offenders, according to Holyrood's justice committee.

The committee called for assessments to be made within the first days of each youngster's move into secure care or a young offenders institution (YOI).

Consistent, high-quality physical, educational and mental health support should then be provided, the MSPs said.

The Scottish government said it would "carefully consider" the committee's recommendations.

Evidence given to the committee during its inquiry showed that more than 60% of young people who offended had significant speech, language and communication needs, and significant numbers also self-harmed or had attempted suicide.

Despite this, it found there was a "postcode lottery" in the provision of child and adolescent mental health support, particularly in secure care units outside Glasgow.

'Traumatic childhoods'

There was also a call for more flexibility to be introduced into the system to allow teenagers the opportunity to stay in a secure care unit beyond their 18th birthday, if this was found to be in their best interests.

At present, teenagers held in secure care units must move to HMP YOI Polmont when they turn 18 even if they only have a short period left.

Committee convener, Margaret Mitchell MSP, said: "We know that many young offenders and people in secure care have themselves had traumatic childhoods, and have lived through adverse childhood experiences.

"Every effort must be made to ensure that these often vulnerable young people, who are in the care of the state, are in a safe environment, where they are provided with, and take, opportunities to rehabilitate.

"Sadly we are currently not achieving this in all cases, sometimes with the most tragic consequences."

Image copyright Family handout
Image caption Katie Allan died at Polmont YOI in July 2018

A review of mental health services for young people in custody, published earlier this year, made 80 recommendations, including the creation of a bespoke suicide and self-harm strategy.

It followed the deaths of Katie Allan in July 2018 and William Lindsay in October the same year, both at HMI YOI Polmont.

Katie's father Stuart believes his daughter would have benefited from a full mental health assessment as soon as she arrived at the unit.

He told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme: "When Katie died in the care of the Scottish Prison Service, she had lost 80% of her hair. She had endured systematic bullying within Polmont because of that hair loss and, perhaps, she wasn't deemed to be a normal prisoner.

"Although she had seen the mental health nurse who had stated that she had an informal relationship with Katie and had spoken to her about coping with her alopecia, it wasn't quite what you would expect in that environment.

"It there's something that could come out of this review, we would hope that they look to put young offenders in the correct place - whether that is secure care, rather than just sending them into prison like Polmont."

The justice committee has highlighted a number of areas where further improvements might be made.

"In particular, there is a pressing need for better mental health support, and improved contacts with family and friends," Mrs Mitchell said.

"This would help young people to reintegrate, as well as to reduce the social isolation faced by young people on the inside."

The committee also called for the funding model for secure care to be reassessed.

It suggested that either block-funding or national commissioning should replace local authority commissioning so secure care units could focus on helping those in their care, and less time on their own financial sustainability.

'Complex needs'

A Scottish government spokesman said it welcomed the committee's report and would "carefully consider" its recommendations.

"We take the mental wellbeing of people in prison and secure care very seriously and while the numbers of suicides by young people in custody are small, any suicide in custody is a tragedy that has a profound effect on family and friends, as well as prison staff," he said.

"Good quality secure care helps improve outcomes for children and vulnerable young people with highly complex needs to re-engage and move forward positively in their community."

He added that the government would continue to work with Cosla and key partners to consider the future of secure care.

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