Keeping children in care out of trouble

Dr Jo Staines outlines the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies’ involvement in ‘Keeping children in care out of trouble’, an independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.


Some statistics that cause concern: only 3% of children in the community offend in any one year, yet over twice this number of looked after children do so (7.9%, Department for Education, 2011a). Furthermore, despite less than 1% of the UK’s child population being in care (looked after by local authorities), almost 50% of the children in custody are, or have been in care. And, while girls constitute only 5% of the youth justice secure population, 61% are, or have been, in care compared with 33% of boys (Prison Reform Trust 2014).

Along with professional associations, service user groups, academics and practitioners working across the care and youth justice systems in England and Wales, we have been invited to join the Prison Reform Trust’s recently established review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

We have nine months to explore the intersection of the care and youth justice systems, and how involvement in one correlates with involvement in the other. This will encompass a broad range of care settings, from foster care to local authority residential care and private care settings. To do this we will synthesise and analyse existing research, both national and international; identify current good practice and local protocols; and seek the views of children and young people, their families, foster carers and residential staff about their experiences of both care and justice.

From this evidence base, the review will develop recommendations for national policy and practice and, importantly, an implementation strategy to ensure that the findings of what promises to be a significant review are widely disseminated and embedded within practice.

The State has a legal and moral duty of care to these looked after children, but it is clear that their needs are not always met nor their rights upheld.  This duty of care continues until the young person reaches the age of 21 but many looked after children move into independent or semi-independent care much earlier, and may be at a heightened risk of becoming involved in offending behaviour during this period of transition to adulthood.

Understanding the relationship between care and youth offending is complex: many of the risk factors for involvement in offending behaviour are the same as those that precipitate entry into the care system, such as the experience of abuse, neglect or violence, family instability and poor parenting, disadvantage and deprivation.

However, research also indicates that becoming looked after can both reduce and increase the likelihood of being involved in offending behaviour – the former through providing high-quality, stable placements that promote children and young people’s resilience (Schofield et al, 2012), the latter through looked after children being inappropriately drawn into the youth justice system through processes that may ultimately label and criminalise them for what, in other situations, would be considered ‘normal’ teenage rebellion.  Practitioners are able to cite many examples where looked after children have caused damage to their foster or residential home, or their carers’ property, and have been charged with criminal damage or other offences – action unlikely to be taken by parents against children in their own families (Schofield et al 2014).

Rates of recidivism (repeat offending) for children and young people, particularly post-custody, are high, suggesting that involvement in the justice system itself can exacerbate, or at least fail to address, the difficulties and disadvantage that these children experience.  The need to alternative ways of responding to children who offend is clear and the review will also consider how approaches such as early intervention and restorative justice can be used with looked after children to limit their involvement in offending behaviour.

The key challenges facing the review include maintaining a sharp focus within the intricacies of the two systems, both of which operate within complex and changing legislative frameworks.  Both are bound by the welfare principle embedded within the Children Act 1989 and are guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but other aspects of welfare and justice legislation may, at least at a surface level, appear to be contradictory and to have competing aims.  Tensions exist between promoting the welfare of the child and upholding principles of justice, victims’ rights and public safety, but it is imperative that we find a way to realise this balance both in policy and in practice.


Department for Education (2011a) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Department for Education (2011b) Children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Prison Reform Trust (2014) Bromley Briefings Summer 2014, London: PRT

Schofield G, Biggart L, Ward E, Scaife V, Dodsworth J, Haynes A and Larsson B (2014) Looked after children and offending: Reducing risk and promoting resilience, London: BAAF

Jo Staines is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the BSc Childhood Studies programmes and a member of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.    She is a member of the Prison Reform Trust’s independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system, and author of ‘Youth Justice’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, discusses gendered violence


People around the World are currently engaged in 16 days of activism against gendered violence.  Communities across different nations are challenging the inequality which some men interpret as an excuse to violate and oppress those, predominately women and children, who are more vulnerable than themselves.

This image is being used with permission from J.Fleming

This is a global phenomenon which has landed in the middle of our city of Bristol. I drove past the Premier Inn on my way to work this morning.  The same hotel where last week it was revealed that a young, vulnerable, girl of 13 had been raped and sexually abused by a group of men who had been grooming her for sexual exploitation.  That building used to house Bristol Social Services.

It is possible that I have met this young woman, or someone like her, during the course of our research on the needs of homeless women or in the recent evaluation of a nearby Child Sexual Exploitation project.

She could be Jasmine, not her real name, who we first met when she was 19.

But when I got kicked out the last time, that was the only person who I could go to … but he’s on like a paedophile thing, he’s on the sex offenders for life … and he’s just not right in the head. […] Not … he never done nothing to me … or that I know about … cos he could have done it when I was asleep … but I never felt safe there. It was just horrible. (Jasmine, age 19)

When we spoke to her again, she told us

When I think back to that I do get very paranoid thinking he might have put stuff in my drink and … cos I just would not put it past him.  And … but I try not to think of it, cos I’d never find out now. (Jasmine, age 19)

When Jasmine told us about this she did so with a resignation and matter of fact honesty.  She genuinely does not know, on that occasion, if she was sexually assaulted or not.  The rest of Jasmine’s story has an inevitability about it, for example she told us about both her current and ex- ‘boyfriend’:

One time my ex-boyfriend, he hit me before … this was like proper punches to the head … never got the police involved when I should have.  But this one’s a bit different – although he’s physical, he’s like in your head.  That’s what he’s more like – he tries brainwashing you. (Jasmine, age 19)

And about how she coped with alcohol and drugs:

I know it sounds stupid, but I was just thinking a bit religiously and thinking it’s not natural, this is not what God like wanted you to do – take drugs and drink all the time. There’s got to be more to life than that (Jasmine, age 19).

Speaking with older homeless women, the vast majority of whom had experienced domestic or sexual violence throughout their lives and used alcohol and drugs as a coping strategy, demonstrates how the abuse of vulnerable girls and women continues overtime with immeasurable personal costs.

Blossom was 52 when we spoke to her:

[…] this person I’d known from last year, […] he harassed me going along the road, he wouldn’t leave me alone … he said “I need to talk to you” … and the outcome was I was assaulted […] And you see the thing is I knew him when I had nowhere to live, and I stayed there for a night.  And people don’t realise how vulnerable you are when you have nowhere to go. […] you’re vulnerable to all sorts of people.  And believe me I’ve met people that are not nice, and they take advantage of the situation. (Blossom, age 52)

Or Daisy and Ginger who spoke to us about staying in a mixed homeless hostel:

[…] the mixed [shelter], it ain’t safe in there because being women, sometimes I’d get a lot of attention from men, you know?  […] you don’t like waking up in the night getting touched or things going that shouldn’t be going on, you know what I mean?   (Daisy, age 30)

Yeah it’s mostly men, there’s only four women there.  It can be a bit agitating, cos the men there think they can just grab you when they’re drunk and do what they like, you know, but they can’t really can they? (Ginger, age 49)

The Bristol case yet again highlights the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls but it also challenges us all, as a society to reconsider how we respond to victims and how we all contribute to the reality in which abusive behaviours, across the continuum from wolf whistling to rape, are experienced and understood.

Whilst the media is rightly abhorred by the rape and sexual exploitation of young vulnerable girls, it doesn’t ask about the wider dynamics of gender and power which contribute to such abuse taking place.  When exploited girls talk about perpetrators as their ‘boyfriends’ it is in a context where society teaches young women to judge their self-worth on the basis of women’s objectification in the eyes of men.  Where they are bombarded by objectifying images on a daily basis in our newspapers, on TV, and on the cover of magazines.  Where senior executives from one of our national TV stations think it is ok to represent the harassment and abuse of women as tongue in cheek comedy entertainment.

In Bristol we have a council that sanctions licenses for sexual entertainment venues – whilst simultaneously seeking to educate young people in the city about respectful relationships. What we need to realise is that the violence and abuse experienced by women and children is inextricably linked to gender and inequality.  If we fail to challenge the latter, we fail to address the root causes of abuse and let victims and survivors down.

Dr Emma Williamson

Anyone who wishes to donate to a local Bristol charity which works with vulnerable women in relation to sexual exploitation might wish to donate to:


Changing Horizons: research about people with learning disabilities who have experience of the criminal justice system

This summary was prepared by the authors of the ‘Changing Horizons’ report: Val Williams, Victoria Mason and Paul Swift, together with Charlotte Hicks from Guideposts Trust.


It is estimated that between 20-30% of offenders who enter the criminal justice system have a ‘learning disability’. In 2005, a Benjamin Meaker fellow, Professor Susan Hayes, visited Norah Fry Research Centre, and her research in a large UK prison (Hayes et al., 2007) lent weight to the concerns about people with learning disabilities in prison. Since then, there has been other important research to start to examine the needs of this group of offenders (Loucks, 2007), but very little in-depth work to understand the experiences of the criminal justice system (CJS) from the point of view of people with learning disabilities themselves.

Staff at Norah Fry Research Centre were therefore very pleased to be able to carry out a piece of research for Guideposts Trust in 2013-14, in order to inform their training project for this group of people. The study worked in two ways. Firstly a small group of people who had past experience of offending formed an advisory panel for the project. They helped the research team to focus on particular themes that had been important to them, and told us for instance about the way in which people can get pulled into crime by a wish to identify with a peer group, or with ‘friends’. The main motivation for crime seemed often to be a basic isolation and loneliness in people’s lives. Secondly, the research team carried out interviews with ten individuals across the South-West, all of whom had some experience of police custody, being arrested or cautioned, or going to court. We wanted to hear these people’s stories, on their own terms, and their interviews were re-drafted into narratives, which they then read through and checked.

The first striking finding in this small study was that ‘offenders with learning disabilities’ can and do want to take positive action, to support others, identify solutions for themselves, and help research to improve the system.  Several of the people we met were involved in peer support organisations, taking part as active citizens and making many useful suggestions for training the police force and others involved in the CJS. Although people often mistrusted the police, many had good experiences of individual officers and of other professionals. These were people who became known to them as individuals, and whom they grew to trust.

Problems with close relationships were often at the root of the criminal behaviour in which people engaged, and some of this was associated with the experience of being a victim (e.g. of hate crime or harassment). In some senses, these people’s identity morphed between victimhood and criminality, and one could see that these were two sides of the same coin. Some of the problems they faced in the CJS were related to not being recognised as ‘disabled’; identification at an early stage was clearly important, although for some, this was problematic – since they did not necessarily see themselves as disabled.  However, the provision of accessible information and clear communication would arguably be of benefit to all prisoners. Our previous research (Swift et al., 2013) confirmed the difficulties of access to legal advice for all people with learning disabilities, and complex information was certainly one of the issues that emerged from the negative, confused experiences of several of our participants.

The recommendations we made from the present study focused largely on early identification, and in fact prevention, of criminal activity amongst this group. Those with poor socio-economic circumstances and lacking the social capital of family or close friends were particularly at risk. They should be offered the protection of the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, and the protection afforded by safeguarding procedures, together with more information and training to help them avoid the dangers of offending behaviour. At the other end of the system, however, those who have been in the CJS need sensitive support to rebuild their lives. In particular, this research highlighted the potential of self-advocacy groups to be sources of support to people who have been in trouble with the law.


We are grateful to the Guideposts Trust for supporting this research study, but would particularly like to thank the participants with learning disabilities who took part in the research. We hope that they will have a chance to continue rebuilding their own lives and support the lives of others.



Hayes, S., Shackell, P., Mottram, P., and Lancaster, R. (2007). The prevalence of intellectual disability in a major UK prison. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 35, pp.162-167

Loucks, N. (2007) NO ONE KNOWS. Offenders with learning difficulties and learning disabilities. The prevalence and associated needs of offenders with learning difficulties and learning disabilities. London: The Prison Reform Trust.

Swift, P., Johnson, K., Mason, V., Shiyyab, N., and Porter, S. (2013) What happens when people with learning disabilities need advice about the law? Bristol: Norah Fry Research Centre.