Written evidence submitted by Jayne Erlam

Evidence submitted to Education Committee regarding Criminalisation in Children’s Homes

Ms Jayne Erlam, Lancaster University


I am an ESRC funded PhD student based at Lancaster University. My thesis looks at the increasing number of Section 136 (S136) detentions by police under the Mental Health Act. The work is mixed methods project using anonymised NHS administrative data on S136 detentions within one county in the North West of England, and hears the perspectives of police officers via interview.

Evidence is submitted owing to the disproportionate representation of children in care within the data.

Key Points:


Under Section 136 (S136) the Mental Health Act (MHA) police can detain a person in a public space who poses as a risk to themselves or to other people and take them to a place of safety to have a mental health assessment.

Analysis of 37-months (December 2017 to end of January 2021) of administrative data show that there were 268 S136 detentions of children, aged 9- to 18-years. The data contain a free-text variable of a brief reason for detention. Coding of this variable reveals that 15.3% (n=41) of children detained under S136 were children looked-after in local authority (LA) care. This is an over-representation considering that less than 1% of children in England are classed as looked-after (GOV.UK, 2021). Owing to the unstructured nature of the free-text variable, this figure is likely to underrepresent the true picture of S136 detentions of looked-after children.

Logistic regression reveals that there is a statistically significant (p=<0.001) rise in S136 detention of children compared to the detention of adults since the start of social restriction policy to control the spread of COVID-19. A chi-squared test was carried out to determine if the rise in S136 detentions of children was different for children looked-after compared to children not in LA care, with the null hypothesis being that there would be no difference. The chi-square test showed p=0.031 on 1 degree of freedom thereby providing evidence to reject the null hypothesis and accept the alternative hypothesis that the rise in S136 detentions of children during social restriction policy was greater for children looked-after by LA.

A simple tabulation demonstrated that of the looked-after children detained in one county over 37-months, 65.85% (n=27) of the detentions occurred in the 10-months after the commencement of social restriction policy triggered by COVID-19.

Interviews with police officers with experience of detentions of children reveal that there are several areas of the county where CCGs have funded no provision for children who experience mental distress outside of normal working hours. In such areas, children detained under S136 must remain under the control of police officers in hospital, often in an accident and emergency department where there are no sleeping facilities, until they can be assessed by day staff. As this is not ideal, police officers try to avoid S136 detentions by returning children to their homes with advice to parents or carers to keep the child safe, restrained if necessary, until medical advice can be sought in the next working day. Police participants told me that, for looked-after children, they are sometimes called back to care homes if the child’s mental distress has caused them to damage property, in which case charges for criminal damage are considered. This is something that police do not see in children who live with their parents.

There is a dearth of research on S136 detentions of children, and these findings for one county in the North West of England suggest that there is a concerning overrepresentation of looked-after children being detained. Looked-after children can have a challenging relationship with police officers and the fact that police intervention is required when children are already experiencing mental distress is concerning. Of additional concern is the resulting possibility that looked-after children might be criminalised because of the lack of emergency provision for children experiencing mental distress, which is contrary to the Government’s framework to reduce the criminalisation of looked-after children (DfE et al., 2018).


DfE, HO, MoJ, 2018. The national protocol on reducing unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers.

GOV.UK, 2021. Children looked after in England including adoptions, Reporting Year 2020.


April 2021