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Criminal Care? · 19 Sep 2018

The impact of care-experience across the life-course

Preventing the criminalisation of children in the care system is absolutely crucial as highlighted by the Howard League’s campaign, and numerous posts on this blog. The fact that a mere 2% of children enter the care system principally because of their own behaviour (whilst around 60% enter care specifically because of abuse or neglect), raises serious questions about the later over-representation of those with care-experience in youth and adult prison populations.

The Laming review estimated that up to 50% of children in custody had previously been in care, and the disproportionate number of those with care experience is reproduced year after year in the adult prison statistics. According to one study by the Ministry of Justice, those with care experience were more likely to be first arrested at an early age, and more likely to be reconvicted on release from prison.

Addressing the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care must be a key focus of attention because these issues are not new and have long been known about. (Although, official narratives have distorted the problem by focusing on the perceived failings of individuals in care, rather than system-failings). However, it is equally important that we do not forget about those who have already been criminalised.

In short, we also need to focus on the impact of care-experience on criminal justice system contact across the life-course, in order to ensure that older care-leavers are not abandoned. Such a life-course perspective is lacking in academic research, and the restrictive legal definitions of what constitutes a ‘care-leaver’ also discourage policy and practice from casting its gaze beyond early adulthood. Indeed, the dreadful terminology of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which encourages a focus on whether those previously deemed to be vulnerable are now ‘eligible’, ‘relevant’ or ‘formerly relevant’ to policy and practice is hardly a means of encouraging practitioners to keep the human being in mind.

So what about those with care experience who are already entrenched in the criminal justice system, who may have previously experienced some of the unnecessary criminalisation that various posts on this blog (for example, see here) have highlighted? It is important not to forget about these individuals too. For those in prison, the Farmer Review could offer an important opportunity to think about how to connect the focus on supporting prisoners’ family relationships with the specific resettlement needs of those who have been in care, who may not have wider networks of support. For this to be achieved, however, current challenges in identifying prior care status amongst those in prison need to be overcome.

We need to learn from those who struggle to survive

My research with Patrick Williams highlighted the neglected needs of care leavers in the criminal justice system, particularly with respect to young adult males being supervised in the community on an Intensive Alternative to Custody Order. Our interviews with professionals revealed a lack of knowledge about care issues amongst some practitioners, a reluctance to identify ‘care-status’ for fear of opening a ‘can of worms’, and that those with care-experience were perceived overall as a particularly risky client group. That those with care-experience may have elevated criminal justice risk scores/profiles is unsurprising however given the evidence that exists on unnecessary criminalisation in some settings. Indeed, we need to seriously consider the possibility that an apparently early age of criminal onset (which can feed into a risk profile) may be as much to do with system failures in some cases, such as the inappropriate involvement of the police, as it is to do with individual offending. Practitioners’ perceptions of what constitutes ‘risk’ and ‘risky behaviour’ may also differ for males and females.

My recent pilot interviews with professionals working with care-experienced females revealed that gender and care status may interact to lead to very specific types of structural disadvantage. This is in spite of the work done by many committed and dedicated practitioners to improve individual lives, and notwithstanding the good practice that does exist in some areas. More specific work on the gendered pathways that individuals may take between care and criminal justice systems is seriously needed. Giving a voice to those with first-hand experience of being in care must underpin these efforts. We need to place far more focus on our ability to learn from those that struggle to survive, but also succeed and thrive in spite of, and/or because of their care experience. Listening to such voices from across the life-course could give a unique and much-needed intergenerational perspective on the impact of care-experience over time.

Linking such work in with a focus on wider systemic problems is vital. For example, we know that the consequences of having a criminal record are long lasting – particularly given that England and Wales has one of the most punitive childhood criminal records systems when compared to 15 other jurisdictions, as shown in a report by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice. Undoubtedly our system needs reform. But in the meantime, all those working with children in the care system must be made aware that the consequences of calling the police for minor incidents that occur in a care setting may follow individuals well into adult life. A focus on the impact of care-experience across the life course could help to illuminate this problem far more clearly, and invigorate ongoing efforts to prevent vulnerable children from being unnecessarily criminalised in the first place.

Dr Claire Fitzpatrick is a lecturer at Lancaster University Law School


  • Ed Nixon says:

    Hi Claire
    Very useful contribution to the debate Claire. As social worker and more particularly residential child care worker I must point out that whilst there are still some examples of residential staff involving the police the overwhelming evidence is that this is increasingly rare. This is unequivocally a good thing but I think regular ‘targeting’ / naming of residential settings as ‘culprits’ in campaign against decriminalisation is likely to perpetuate myths not represent the reality that individuals and such organisations are actually part of the plans DfE are creating to eliminate/minimise criminalisation.

    • John Murray says:

      Wow Ed, it is fabulous news that a culture that has criminalised children for over a century has changed so quickly. Can you point to the overwhelming evidence that criminalisation is increasingly rare.

      Australia has a major problem with the criminalisation of children in care and we’d love to be able to show government how change is so easily obtained.

    • Claire Fitzpatrick says:

      Thank you for your comments Ed. What overwhelming evidence are you referring to here? I would argue that there has been an unprecedented focus on the problem of over-criminalisation in care in recent years, and that this has led to the development of some very good practice in some areas and in some care settings. However, this good practice is not consistent across the country, and my recent pilot study highlighted that some very poor practice continues to exist – with some disturbing implications for vulnerable young people.

      My post is not intended to perpetuate any myths about residential care workers. I firmly believe that the carers of the care system should be adequately supported, supervised and rewarded for the very important work that they do. The relatively low status of much care work continues to be a systemic problem and is, in my view, an ongoing barrier to improving outcomes for children.

    • John Murray says:

      What are the myths Ed?

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