Police are being called to children's homes, the vast majority run by for-profit companies, criminalising youngsters for trivial matters because the staff lack the skills to deal with them, a charity has warned.
Private care homes are also less accountable than ones run by charities or councils and this can allows bad practices to continue and "children to suffer", The Howard League for Penal Reform has warned on Wednesday in a report.
In one case, police were called over a broken cup, the report noted.
Police said they felt they were filling holes in a "social care deficit" that saw children pushed into criminal justice processes rather than receiving care support, the charity said.
Police forces told the charity that "private providers of children’s homes were using the police cells as respite to cover staff shortages and because staff were not trained and competent to deal with children’s behaviour".
"There is a systemic problem across England and Wales that leads staff to resort to the police, often over minor incidents that would never come to officers’ attention if they happened in family homes," The Howard League said.
Its warning echoes a report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary last year, in which it warned children's homes were "using the police as a way to discipline children".
In cases where children were arrested, private care homes often refused to take them back and those arrested overnight were often not taken back the next day.
The Howard League report noted that 11% of children's home staff earn below the Living Wage Rate and pay is worse in the private sector than the charity or public sector which makes recruitment harder.
The report claimed one of the companies that provided children's homes paid its chief executive millions of pounds in one year.
Nearly three quarters - 73% - of the 1,760 children's homes in England are privately run and the largest 20 private providers run 37% of care homes not run by councils.
The Howard League said the patchy, incomplete data available indicated the larger providers were disproportionately responsible for police callouts.
Two larger police forces – West Mercia Police and West Midlands Police – each recorded almost 6,000 incidents at children's homes between April 2012 and March 2015.
According to Department of Education statistics, 4% of children aged 10 to 12 living in homes have criminal records, rising to 19% of those aged 13 to 15, meaning those in that bracket were nearly 20 times more likely to have been criminalised than children not in the care system.
The report states: “Levels of criminalisation of children in children’s homes increase dramatically between the ages of 13 and 15.
“The children who are being criminalised whilst teenagers are the same children who, when younger, were sympathetically viewed as vulnerable, innocent and highly deserving of society's help and protection.
“There appears to be a ‘tipping point’ around the age of 13, at which time these children lose society’s sympathy and, rather than being helped, they are pushed into the criminal justice system.”
Frances Cook, the Howard League's chief executive, said: “These children have been taken into care because they are in dire need and their parents cannot, or will not, look after them.
“They are wonderful young people who have had a really bad start in life. They deserve every chance to flourish.
“Private companies, charities and local authorities that are paid a fortune by the taxpayer should give these children what they need and deserve.”