What is the Matter with Feltham?

The recent report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons into Feltham YOI (http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/inspectorate-reports/hmi-prisons/prison-and-yoi/feltham) describes an institution in chaos while the recently updated Children’s Homes Data Pack (http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/families/childrenincare/childrenshomes/a00192000/childrens-homes-data-pack) describes a care system out of control. While it is always dangerous to seek explanations in the past for events in the present, not least because it gives people an excuse to blame the past rather than doing something about the present, the current situation has certainly been influenced by successive failures in the past.


In the 1960s the Home Office Children’s Branch decided to set up separate secure units for particularly difficult young people but, when Cawson and Martell (1979) and Millham et al. (1978) reported on these, they found that they were simply compensating for the failures of the existing system and Cawson and Martell recommended that more effort be made to improve the existing system.

Their recommendations were ignored as was the analysis by Blumenthal (1985) who catalogued the unrealistic and illogical approach to secure care by the Home Office.

In the 1990s the Conservatives decided on a new approach, using Secure Training Centres, but this also failed to deliver, not least because of failures in the aftercare of young people who had been in the centres (Hagell et al., 2000).

Meanwhile, local authorities had been engaged in reducing the number of children in residential care but, in both Warwickshire (Cliffe and Berridge, 1992) and Staffordshire (The Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry 1990, 1991), this led to a reduced quality of care for those in residential care, not least because of the failures to involve families and friends in the care of their children — the sine qua non of successful foster care (Fanshel and Shinn, 1978) and residential care (Taylor and Alpert, 1973). A quarter of a century later, nothing has been learned about the need to involve families in the care of children in care: ‘Loss of, or infrequent contact with, family/friends’ is still the norm for children in care (Blades et al., 2011, 3; see also the Children’s Homes Data Pack).

It has always been cheaper for local authorities to get rid of their more difficult charges to the criminal justice system than to pay for good care for them because the costs of the criminal justice system are always borne by the taxpayer rather than the rate/community charge payer. So there is no incentive to improve the child care system if the criminal justice system will always pick up the failures.

At the same time the justice system has studiously avoided implementing Lord Woolf’s recommendation following the Strangeways Riot (Woolf and Tumin, 1991) that prisoners should be held no more than 50 miles from home (Prison Reform Trust, 2012) so we should not be surprised that they care little about the distance children and young people are held from home – one of the points in the Chief Inspector’s report into Feltham.

At the same time, the chaos at Feltham is reminiscent of the chaos in some children’s homes where staff have absolutely no idea of what they should be doing and are responding moment to moment to the latest crisis. Yet, staff at Feltham would not be in this position if the care system was not a failing system. Moving children from one failing system into another, particularly one whose staff have no training in or prior experience of dealing with difficult behaviour constructively, is no more likely to succeed now than it did in the 1970s. Only root and branch reform of the care system, as proposed by Cawson and Martell in 1979, is likely to succeed.

In other words, looking for answers in Feltham is less likely to yield rewards than looking for answers in the child care system itself and asking why successive governments and the professionals responsible for advising them have comprehensively failed to put in place caring systems.


Blades, R., D. Hart, J. Lea, and N. Willmott (2011). Care — a stepping stone to custody? The views of children in care on the links between care, offending and custody. London: Prison Reform Trust.

Blumenthal, G. J. (1985). The development of secure units in child care. Aldershot: Gower.

Cawson, P. and M. Martell (1979). Children referred to closed units. DHSS Research Report No 5. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Cliffe, D. and D. Berridge (1992). Closing children’s homes: an end to residential childcare? London: National Children’s Bureau.

Fanshel, D. and E. B. Shinn (1978). Children in foster care: a longitudinal investigation. Guildford: Columbia University Press.

Hagell, A., N. Hazel, and C. Shaw (2000). Evaluation of Medway Secure Training Centre. London: Home Office.

Millham, S., R. Bullock, and K. Hosie (1978). Locking up children: secure provision within the child care system. Farnborough: Saxon House.

Prison Reform Trust (2012). Bromley briefings: Prison Factfile. London: Prison Reform Trust.

Taylor, D. A. and S. W. Alpert (1973). Continuity and support following residential treatment. New York: Child Welfare League of America.

The Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry 1990 (1991). The Pindown experience and the protection of children. Stafford: Staffordshire County Council. The Report of the Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry 1990 [Levy, Allan and Kahan, Barbara J].

Woolf, H. K. and S. Tumin (1991). Prison disturbances, April 1990: report of an inquiry. Cm 1456. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

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