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Criminal Care? · 30 May 2018

It’s shameful that residential care remains a criminogenic environment for young people

Recent estimates suggest that up to 50 per cent of children in custody have been in care[1], despite only 1 per cent of the general population having been ‘looked-after’[2].

Furthermore, research has revealed that young people who acquire a criminal record after admission to care are significantly more likely to have been living in a residential unit at some point[3].

As a former probation officer who worked for a Youth Offending Team, it was my experience that a number of young people resident in children’s homes who appeared before Youth Court did so for minor offences committed on the unit premises, which in all likelihood, would not have come to the attention of the police had they occurred within a ‘normal’ family home.

Offences of low-level criminal damage predominated as, time and time again, the same young people would be brought before court from local units that relied heavily on the police in order to enforce and maintain discipline.

Inevitably, they acquired lengthy criminal records, with some eventually being sent to prison. It was because of this experience that I decided to undertake research into the factors that contribute to the criminalisation of children and young people in residential children’s homes.

My research revealed a depressing picture of shortcomings at both institutional and systemic levels

My research sought the experiences of children and young people who had come to the attention of the youth justice system whilst living in children’s homes, as well as the perspectives of the care and youth justice professionals who worked with them.

It revealed a depressing picture of shortcomings at both institutional and systemic levels, with a number of homes struggling to cope with the presenting needs of young people[4].

Despite policy and practice guidance which encourages only sparing use of police contact to deal with problematic behaviour, it became apparent that the youth justice system is in fact viewed by many practitioners as a useful and necessary adjunct to the care system.

Police intervention is used all too frequently, consequently criminalising already vulnerable children and young people.

The reasons for this are complex and manifold, but undoubtedly relate in part to the current status of contemporary residential care in the United Kingdom, which is viewed very much as ‘last resort’ provision for the most challenging older children and young people.

Indeed, it is certainly apparent that their pre-care experiences, including those of abuse, neglect and poor parenting, have a part to play in terms of their propensity for problematic behaviour and likelihood of youth justice involvement.

Nevertheless, while many enter care with existing problems, the experience of being in care both exacerbates those problems and creates new ones.

Instead of responding to vulnerable children and young people with the child-centred care they so badly need, systemic failings or instances of ‘system abuse’, are prevalent, often linked to the ‘last resort’ status of residential care and its consequent diminution as a quality resource.

While many children enter care with existing problems, the experience of being in care both exacerbates those problems and creates new ones

Whilst there are some examples of good practice, contemporary units often consist of expensive but generic provision (approximately 70 per cent of which is now located in the for-profit sector), situated in the context of a risk averse, highly bureaucratic system, staffed by low paid workers who lack the confidence, desire and ability to handle difficult situations, resulting in an increased propensity to resort to the youth justice system.

Frequent placement movement in response to either challenging behaviour or financial imperatives often add to the damaging instability already experienced by the young people, with their sense of isolation being further compounded when placed in ‘out of area’ units, thus precipitating further vulnerability, challenging behaviour and police contact.

Despite this, the focus of responses to offending in residential care is primarily upon the actions, culpability and responsibility of individual children and children’s home practitioners, ignoring the wider, systemic factors that may have contributed to their actions.

Whilst popular discourse holds that residential provision should be used as a last resort, some research studies have found that young people prefer it to foster care[5] and many show improvement on general measures of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and education in quality residential provision[6].

That residential care continues to be a criminogenic environment for so many should be a matter of profound shame and concern.

In the wake of the recent independent Review chaired by Lord Laming,[7] which indicated that the over-representation of looked-after children in the youth justice system is a national problem, it is vitally important to build upon such momentum for change to make a real difference to outcomes for young people.

The Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care is both timely and to be commended[8], and I wish it every success.

Dr Julie Shaw
Liverpool John Moores University

[1] Prison Reform Trust (2016) In Care, Out of Trouble: (The Laming Review), London, Prison Reform Trust

[2] Department for Education (2016) Children looked after in England (including adoption) year ending 31st March 2016, SFR 41/2016, London: DFE

[3] Darker I, Ward H and Caulfield L (2008) An analysis of offending by young people looked after by local authorities. Youth Justice 8(2): 134–148; Sinclair I and Gibbs I (1998) Children’s Homes: A Study in Diversity. Chichester: Wiley; Ward H and Skuse T (2001) Performance targets and stability of placements for children being looked after away from home. Children and Society 15: 333–346.

[4] Shaw, J. (2017) Residential Care and Criminalisation: the impact of system abuse, Safer Communities, Vol 16 (3): 112-121; Shaw, J (2016) Policy, practice and perceptions: exploring the criminalisation of children’s home residents in England, Youth Justice, Vol 16 (2): 147-161.

[5] Sinclair I and Gibbs I (1998) Children’s Homes: A Study in Diversity. Chichester: Wiley;  Save the Children (2001) A Sense of Purpose: Care Leavers’ Views and Experiences of Growing Up. Edinburgh: Save the Children.

[6] Berridge, D., Dance, C., Beecham, J. and Field, S. (2008) Educating Difficult Adolescents: Effective Education for Children in Public Care or with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[7] Prison Reform Trust (2016) In Care, Out of Trouble: (The Laming Review), London, Prison Reform Trust

[8] Howard League for Penal Reform (2017) Programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care: Overview Paper.  London: Howard League for Penal Reform.


  • graham towl says:

    An interesting article. Sounds more like criminalisation than ‘criminogenic’ . The term ‘criminogenic’ makes little sense to me but was widely used in the marketing of experimental interventions with prisoners.

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