Criminal Care? · 26 Apr 2019
Addressing the welfare needs of children living in residential care in the youth court
Jean, a long-standing magistrate in the youth court, talks about her experiences and of the importance of magistrates focusing on the welfare needs of children living in residential care.
As a magistrate in the youth court we have the advantage of being able to engage with the young defendants. We cannot and should not be social workers. Our responsibility is to see that justice is done whilst trying to ensure that everything is done to rehabilitate the young person to prevent re-offending. Our second aim is to consider the welfare of the child. Sometimes it is difficult to forget that we are not social workers and will not be involved in the welfare of that young person. We can, however, ask all the relevant questions in court to ensure that those people responsible, be it parents, children services, care homes and youth offending team (YOT), already have or going forward will have the right welfare of that defendant at the centre of their minds.
Sometimes those questions are difficult to ask, sometimes they are very sensitive but we should be trained to ask them appropriately and in a manner that the young person, parents etc will understand and hopefully appreciate. Part of knowing what question to ask comes from keeping abreast of current issues affecting young people, issues such as county lines and the grooming and involvement of vulnerable young people.
Part is also having a real understanding of the ordeals that many young people in our care system have gone through together with mental health disabilities and difficulties. It is not always appropriate that these are discussed in court in the presence of the defendant, but the behaviour of the young person will often give us a good indication. In an ideal world we would be given regular training on all these issues but alas our training has greatly diminished.
There should be an expectation that social workers appear in court when young people do
Children and young people “in care” are given a social worker, who assumes parental responsibility. There should be an expectation that they appear in court when the young person does. Any matter that brings a young person to court with the risk of a conviction is serious and surely must merit the support of the person ‘in loco parentis’ in the court. A person who happens to work at the care home but who knows no details about the person in their care is not sufficient particularly when they may be a complainant. Whilst we may have some sympathy with their workload, our responsibility in youth court must be paramount and may not be realised without the information only they may be able to give us.
We should not be afraid to ask about care plans, mental health assessments, education requirements, vulnerability to exploitation and grooming to ensure that all agencies are singing from the same hymn sheet and working to minimise reoffending and securing the welfare of the young person.
These are my personal thoughts as a youth magistrate, but I hope that if we care enough to become a magistrate in the youth court then we care enough to ensure that our responsibility is delivered.