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Criminal Care? · 11 May 2020

New study considers the impact of custody on care-experienced children

New research looking at the factors contributing to the over-representation of children in care in child prisons and their experiences of detention has been published by the University of Bedfordshire’s Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime. The report, Surviving Incarceration, explores the extent to which pathways into, through and out of custody differ for children in care and their non-care experienced peers.

The project was carried out in South and West Yorkshire. It included semi-structured one-to-one interviews with 48 children who were either in custody or had been released within the preceding twelve months; analysis of case files for 45 of the 48 children; and one-to-one interviews with 19 youth justice and social care professionals.

The study looked at the factors leading to the over-representation of children in care in child prisons. It found that all children sentenced to custody shared characteristics that included extremely troubled backgrounds but that there were differences between children in care and those who were not which exacerbated the risk that children in care would become entangled in the youth justice system.

The plight of children in residential care was highlighted, with the study finding that many of the features of being in care accelerated this group of children onto the streets at a faster rate, increasing the risk of their becoming involved in the criminal justice system. The research found that being placed in residential provision a long way from home, often against children’s expressed wishes, was one factor making it more likely that children would make their way onto the streets. Becoming increasingly detached from those responsible for their care, and spending more time in the company of peers on the street, was found to encourage a damaging perception that children could not rely on others.

An analysis of the experiences of children in care and those not in care while they were in detention concluded that children in care were likely to experience deprivation of liberty and resettlement as more disruptive than their non-care experienced peers.

Children in care who are sentenced to custody develop a ‘survivor mentality’

These differences impacted on identities in important ways, the report stated: All children exhibited strategies for survival at each stage of their journey, but a focus on surviving tended to become an integral part of the identity of children in care. The perceived need for these children to be self-reliant because of what they understood to be a lack of adequate support from adults, meant that they were more likely than other children to develop, what the report refers to as a ‘survivor mentality’. This mind-set made it harder for them to focus on future ambitions for positive achievement and to leave their offending behind them.

Rates of breach for non-compliance with post-custody supervision, and the associated risk of being returned to custody, were higher for looked-after children, reducing the prospects of successful resettlement.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including: development of strategies to engage children in residential care with constructive activities including education and training in order to keep them off the streets; approaches to prevent the ‘isolation’ of looked-after children whilst they are in custody; ensuring a suitable address is found for children in care two weeks prior to release; and the introduction of a presumption against breach for all children in care.

The full report and the supporting literature review is available here.

Claire Sands




  • Kevin Gallagher says:

    So – just so that some of the possibly overlooked themes from the literature review aren’t lost…it states:
    1. Children looked after are by definition a group who are much more likely to engage in criminal behaviours as a result of early life trauma – things that the wider population don’t have…so be careful of what your comparing
    2. Two of the leading factors that lead children looked after to be disadvantaged in relation to increasing likelihood of criminalisation (placement stability and access to proper treatment around identity and trauma) both matters that the placing local authorities are responsible for in what placements they commission for specific needs.

    The research quotes “The care environment is, on occasion, either unable to
    compensate for prior adverse experiences or can, in some instances, exacerbate them. In
    reality the two explanatory narratives are intertwined and disarticulating the relative
    contribution of each is inherently difficult”

    And goes on to point out that some local authorities are better at separating out these threads than others.
    This isn’t about whether its public or prvate sector delivering the service – its about “how” effectively the service is delivered…. if local authorities focussed on the evidence base for practice to meet the needs then the situation would change.
    This is complex because there is a market system (and you can have your own views on that) which the local authorities control through their approached to purchasing and commissioning developed over a long period of time…. so that shape of what is available now to LAs is of their own creation – a market only responds to what the customer says they want. If they say for decades we will use it as a last resort and we want it cheaper…that’s going to have an impact

    Quality, theoretically informed provision in the residential care doesn’t add to or create the picture portrayed and already does the things recommended by this report.
    I speak form 25 years experience in this sector on both sides of the pubic/private sides of this equation.

    Residential care is a continuum of different types of placement shape, size and purpose – it cant be lumped together as a single thing as is so often the case in these narratives – neither are all providers the same, and clearly neither are all local authorities.

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