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Criminal Care? · 3 Apr 2019

Care and Justice – Irish research

Care and Justice: Young People in Care and Contact with the Criminal Justice System is research commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, which sought to explore some of the reasons that children from care come into contact with the criminal justice system in Ireland and if there is evidence of disproportionality. The research is small scale and exploratory, but the first national study to examine these issues.

The extent to which children from care come into contact with the criminal justice system is difficult to establish because of significant gaps in data. For instance, the national agency responsible for children and young people in care does not routinely collect or publish data of this kind. Similarly, the Irish police service does not compile this information at an aggregate level. We do know, however, that children with care experience are over-represented in the population of children remanded or sentenced to custody. For instance, data published by the Children’s Detention Campus (Ireland has one national child detention facility), shows that in 2018 more than one third of the population detained had previously been in care or had significant contact with social services because of child protection and welfare concerns.

There are some noteworthy differences in the profile of care provision in Ireland compared to England. The first is fact that the vast majority of children in care in Ireland are placed in foster care (92%). This compares with 73% of children in placed in foster care in England. However, similar to the findings from research conducted by the Howard League, our research suggests that the issue of contact with the criminal justice system is more of a concern for children placed in residential care than for those living in foster care.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is the fact that children are generally placed in residential care when they have experienced previous placement breakdowns or when they enter into care at a later age. Children in residential care have therefore often encountered a range of prior adversities. Some of the respondents in our research spoke about the ‘complex needs’ of young people in residential care and what they characterised as the paradox of ‘service retreat’. In other words, the greater a young person’s needs, the more likely it was that they did not receive the services they required. Accessing appropriate mental health services was mentioned as a specific challenge.

The greater a young person’s needs, the more likely it was that they did not receive the services they required

Another issue that emerged in our research is the extent to which responses across care settings differed depending on local practices and the relationships between care providers and the police. Almost two-thirds of residential care placements in Ireland are now provided by the private sector and there are no national policies governing contact between residential care facilities and the police. Individual units operate in accordance with their own policies, often at the discretion of the manager. One of the report recommendations is that there is a need for greater oversight and that such national policies be devised.

The Irish youth justice system also differs markedly from the youth justice system in England and Wales. The age of criminal responsibility is 12 for most offences and the main method of dealing with children who come into contact with the criminal justice system is through police-led diversionary measures. There is no limit in the number of times that a child can be subject to a diversionary disposal, but to be eligible for diversion a child must admit to the offence and engage with the process.

For some young people a failure to engage will lead to propulsion through the system. Young people who have experienced trauma, placement breakdowns and disrupted attachments may find such engagement extremely difficult. These may be precisely the issues facing young people placed in residential care. We have suggested the need to develop more appropriate responses to meet the needs of children with care experience.

The report also deals with other issues, including the need to ensure the adequacy of leaving care provisions. We make a series of recommendations, including the need to focus on the longer-term outcomes for children as they transition from care, so that we can assess the quality of the services provided. Clearly, a focus on children’s experiences is key to this. Having read the important work published by the Howard League in this area, it is notable that despite different systems a number of common themes are evident, including the need for more accurate data, clearer policies and service provision that is more attuned to the needs of young people.

Nicola Carr and Paula Mayock

Care and Justice: Young People in Care and Contact with the Criminal Justice System is written by Nicola Carr and Paula Mayock and commissioned and published by the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

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