There is only one social worker to every 171 children in prison custody, according to new research published today by the Howard League for Penal Reform. In four prisons, the ratio is one social worker to over 200 children and in three prisons there is no social worker at all.
In 2002, the Howard League for Penal Reform secured a landmark judicial review, which recognised that children in prison had the same access to Children's Services as children in the community. Latest figures show that there are 3,037 children in custody - an increase of 182 children to last year.
On the eve of the government's Youth Crime Action plan being published, the League has launched a campaign making a number of recommendations to improve care for children in the penal system.
It is calling for Government policy for all children to be based in one ministry, the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Currently 76% children reoffend within one year of release. The League believes this could be cut if local authorities were given responsibility for youth justice and introduced local Children's Panels.
The League is recommending that every child leaving custody should be properly supported and no child leaving custody should be housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, or other unsuitable accommodation for the homeless. It argues that it makes no sense that a child in care loses their section 20 of the Children Act 1989 protection when they enter custody.
According to the League the provision of legal aid and services to children in England and Wales can be a postcode lottery, with some courts granting legal aid to children and some courts refusing to. They cite recent examples where they worked with children who were denied legal representation for possession of drugs or driving offences.
It recommends that all children should be entitled to free legal advice and representation for criminal and civil matters and that solicitors providing legal advice for children should be appropriately paid.
Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: "Our legal team has represented hundreds of troubled children in jail. Our case files tell the stories of neglected and abused children, with chaotic family backgrounds and problems ranging from mental health issues to drug or alcohol addictions.
"Yet when children enter prison they are lucky to have any help from staff, with social workers in prison expected to handle massive caseloads.
"By neglecting them while in custody we exacerbate the likelihood of reoffending on release. It is time to rethink and restructure the way we deal with our most vulnerable and challenging young people."