Looked after children and the youth justice system

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Dr Jo Staines, Director of BSc Childhood Studies programmes, reports a on recent seminar held by the School for Policy Studies focusing on the over-representation of looking after children in the youth justice system.

Over 30 academics and practitioners from across the country came together last week to discuss how to reduce the over-representation of looked after children in the youth justice system. Inspired by the Prison Reform Trust’s recent Independent Review, In Care, Out of Trouble, this event drew on current research and examples of innovative practice to consider how policy and practice – and changes in attitude – can reduce the number of looked after children who become involved in offending behaviour and who are drawn into the youth justice system.

Statistics indicate that looked after children are five times more likely to be involved in the youth justice system than non-looked after children – although due to the vagaries of recording practices, this is likely to be an underestimate. A review of international research, which I summarised in the first session, helps to explain how looked after children’s early negative experiences, the potentially adverse influences of the care system, and structural criminalisation all combine to increase the likelihood that looked after children will come into contact with the youth justice system. Anne-Marie Day (University of Salford), Julie Shaw (Liverpool John Moores University), Claire Fitzpatrick (University of Lancaster) and Julie Selwyn (University of Bristol) added depth and detail to these theories, drawing from their current research with looked after children.

The key messages from the presentations and ensuing discussions emphasised children and young people’s need for stability – of placement, of social worker, of educational placement, and of support – and the need for trusting, lasting relationships was overwhelmingly apparent. The challenges faced in achieving this were highlighted, particularly by Tanya Grey and Jennie Mattinson of West Mercia police, who have the unenviable task of working with 19 different care providers and no less than 107 local authorities to develop appropriate, non-criminalising responses to looked after children’s challenging behaviour.

Katy Swaine Williams, from the Prison Reform Trust, gave an overview of the findings of their review and the reforms to policy and practice that were recommended. Chris Stevens (Surrey Youth Support Service), Jamie Gill (1625 Independent People) and Darren Coyne (The Care Leavers’ Association) all passionately introduced the work their organisations have undertaken to provide stability and support to looked after children and to reduce their involvement in the criminal justice system. As shown by these examples, and as highlighted within the Prison Reform Trust’s review, many examples of good practice exist – we know that reducing the number of looked after children who become young offenders can be done, as it is being done – but we need to act as a megaphone to transmit our knowledge about successful approaches and interventions, and to invoke the political will needed to make sure that examples of good practice become standard practice nationwide.

In a post-Brexit environment and with a new Justice Secretary now in post, this event provided the enthusiasm, inspiration and evidence needed to help promote this message.

Thanks goes to Policy Bristol, the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice, and the Faculty Families and Parenting Group for their support.

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