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Criminal Care? · 16 May 2018

Understanding the relationship between care and offending is complex

Many people have been moved by the thoughtful reflections eloquently made by Ella Dhillon and inspired by her wise – and importantly, achievable – recommendations for preventing the criminalisation of children in care.

Ella herself demonstrates that being care-experienced is not always an obstacle to success and how care can provide a positive and protective environment – for some.

Sadly, her comments reinforce research that shows this is not the case for many who find themselves taken into care, particularly those who are placed in residential care.

An extensive body of international research, statistics and personal life-stories clearly show that, for many children, the experience of care may be correlated with negative outcomes in both the short- and long-term, including homelessness, low academic achievement, poor physical and mental health, and involvement in the criminal justice system.

Indeed, some estimates suggest that almost half of the children and young people involved in the youth justice system in England and Wales have experience of the care system[1].

Why can care be a positive environment for some children and young people, whilst for others it is potentially criminogenic?

However, understanding the relationship between care and youth offending is complex and multi-faceted.

On one hand, many of the risk factors for involvement in offending behaviour are the same as those that lead to children and young people being taken into the care system, such as the experience of abuse, neglect, violence, family instability and inconsistent parenting, disadvantage and deprivation.

On the other, adverse experiences while in care and post-care can also contribute to involvement in offending through the relationships formed with staff and peers; the location of and policies within care homes; placement instability and disruption; stigmatisation, labelling and differential treatment by care staff, the police, legal professionals and the judiciary, and so forth.

Research is beginning to unpick the interplay between these different elements, with the aim of enabling us to understand why care can be a positive environment for some children and young people, whilst for others it is potentially criminogenic.

Here come the girls…

Gender appears to be an influential factor in this interaction, with higher proportions of care-experienced girls being sentenced to custody than boys[2]. Again, the reasons for this over-representation are complicated and multi-layered.

There is some evidence[3] to suggest that care-experienced girls may have been subject to more difficulties prior to placement (for example, being more likely to have been physical and emotionally abused, to have self-harmed or attempted suicide, and/or to have a greater number of background adversities) which may be related to an increased likelihood of being involved in offending behaviour.

However, research[4] also suggests that girls may experience differential treatment within the care and justice systems, for example with some professionals (including foster carers, residential care staff and youth justice practitioners) believing that girls are more ‘difficult’ to work with than boys.

Such reluctance to work with girls may contribute to an increased risk of placement breakdown and experiencing a higher number of care placements – which can itself contribute to involvement in offending behaviour.

Rather than recognising their potential vulnerabilities, policy and practice responses may stigmatise girls, labelling them as ‘offenders’ and drawing them into the youth justice system

There are particular concerns about how we respond to and support girls who go missing from care and who may be at risk of sexual exploitation; rather than recognising their potential vulnerabilities, policy and practice responses may stigmatise these girls, labelling them as ‘offenders’ and drawing them into the youth justice system.

Furthermore, girls are a minority group within the youth justice system, constituting only 20 per cent of first-time entrants to the youth justice system, and just 5 per cent of the secure population.

This means that the number of care-experienced girls who are also involved in the youth justice system is smaller than the number of boys – which can lead to further discrimination and marginalisation.

Policies within both the care and youth justice systems need to recognise the impact of gender stereotypes yet ensure that practice is responsive to the particular needs of girls as individuals, girls as individual and inspiring as Ella.

Dr Jo C Staines
University of Bristol

[1] Berman G and Dar A (2013) Prison Population Statistics, SN/SG/4334, London: House of Commons Library

[2] For instance, just under 2/3 of girls in custody are, or have been, in care compared with a third of boys (Kennedy E (2013). Children and Young People in Custody 2012-13: An analysis of 15-18 year olds’ perceptions of their experiences in Young Offender Institutions, London: HMIP/YJB)

[3] Farmer E, Moyers S and Lipscombe J (2004) Fostering Adolescents, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

[4] Bateman T and Hazel N (2014) Resettlement of Girls and Young Women: Research Report, London: Beyond Youth Custody; Lipscombe J (2006) Care or control? Foster care for young people on remand. London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering


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