CYCJ secure care census finds increase in childhood trauma

The level of exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) experienced by children in Scotland’s secure care estate has increased, according to the second secure care census undertaken by the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ).

The census, conducted in 2019, found that 74% of children surveyed had been exposed to four or more ACEs prior to entering secure care. This was higher than the 64% recorded in the 2018 census.

‘ACEs, Distance and Sources of Resilience’ shares findings from the census, which measured the prevalence of a range of life experiences encountered by children resident within secure care on one particular day in 2019.  This report complements the ‘ACEs, Places and Status: Results from the 2018 Scottish Secure Care Census’ and should be read alongside it.

Even greater levels of exposure were found amongst those children who lived in relative poverty, with 86% of children having been exposed to four or more ACEs. The report calls for a greater systematic response to the pandemic of poverty which has affected many of the children in this study, and across Scotland.

However, the census also captured the strengths children enjoyed that could be a source of resilience and support. Relationships (especially within the family) were key to this.

Key findings of the 2019 census include:

  • Being placed by a local authority from outside Scotland was a statistically significant factor in a child’s exposure to ACEs. The average ACE exposure amongst children from a Scottish local authority was 4.92, whilst children from English and Welsh local authorities had been exposed to an average of 6.38..
  • Most Scottish children were placed less than 50 miles from their family. For children from England and Wales, 69% were placed more than 300 miles away from families.
  • Sixty three percent of children had been placed in secure care by a Scottish local authority, and 37% from England and Wales
  • The majority of children from Scottish local authorities were boys, (63%) but most from outwith Scotland were girls (56%)
  • There was an increase in the number of 16 and 17 year old children in secure care

Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, said:

“This second secure care census paints a concerning picture of our continued failure to properly support families and address issues such as poverty and education inequality. Placing child in secure care is one of the most significant interferences with a child’s rights that the state can make. The decision to take a child away from family and community and deprive them of their liberty must only be done when it is in the child’s best interest, as a last resort and for the shortest period possible. The issues raised in this study aren’t new, but the timing of this study is an important reminder of how much more there is to do.

“I warmly welcome the inclusion of data on distance that children are placed away from home. The significant distances that many children in secure settings are away from family and community has a huge impact on the respect for family life.

“Poverty is the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland and its impacts are clearly highlighted in this study. Since the census covered in the report the Covid pandemic has significantly exacerbated the impact of poverty. Poverty affects the health and mental health of children and their families. The failure to properly support families with effective social security and an adequate standard of living undermines the ability of families to keep children safe and to ensure that they get an education which develops them to their full potential. The young people in this study highlight the strengths and importance of family based support which were important to them. A rights-based approach requires that we focus on addressing the underlying issues such as poverty that undermine the ability of families to build on these strengths. We must listen to the experience of young people and place it at the heart of decision making.”

Fiona Dyer, Director (Interim) of CYCJ, said:

“This research is further evidence about the poverty, adversity and challenge that children in secure care in Scotland face, much of which requires broad structural and system change. It also explores the strengths and protective factors in the lives of children in secure care; with family relationships, education and relationships with staff emerging as key strengths. It is important that we better understand these strengths and that practitioners look to build on these so that time in secure care strengthens rather than disrupts what works well in children’s lives.”

Author Ross Gibson said:

“The increase in multiple adversities and heightened rates of ACEs amongst the secure care population is concerning.  Not only does this call on prevention and recovery services to be prioritised, it is a stark reminder of the challenges that await the child and their family when attempting to achieve a smooth transition into the community following secure care. These findings are also a reminder that provision of comprehensive and robust levels of care within the secure environment must be followed by equally robust yet responsive provision once the child is ready to move on.

“However, it was encouraging to note that the census captured factors in the child’s life believed to be strengths – the foundations upon which interventions and transition plans can be built in order to enhance the sources of resilience and lead to positive outcomes for the child.

“The census clearly highlights the distance that separate a large number of children from their family.  For those children who had been placed by a local authority in England or Wales, almost seven in 10 were over 300 miles from home, whilst for almost one-quarter they were over 500 miles from their family.

“It was also interesting to note an increase in the number of 16 and 17 year olds in secure care. Given The Promise’s commitment to remove all children from custodial settings there may be even greater number of 16 and 17 year old children placed in secure care in the years to come, which would be a very welcome trend to see.”

More information

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. The long-term relationship between ACEs, health-harming behaviours, poor health outcomes and, ultimately, early mortality was first documented in a study by Dr Vincent Felitti in 1998. This found that the greater number of ACEs an individual encounters prior to their 18th birthday, the greater the likelihood is of them subsequently experiencing poor outcomes (although such an outcome is far from guaranteed). A total of ten ACEs types have been identified.

Secure care is one of the most restrictive forms of care in Scotland. Although only a minority of children are currently in secure care (an average of 81 during 2017-18), young and vulnerable lives are significantly affected by being placed within a locked setting where liberty is deprived and freedoms heavily restricted. However, the current pool of research that links secure care and ACEs in the UK is small.

The census collected data about each young person resident within the secure care estate on one particular day in 2019.  Completed by staff who knew the child well, the census consisted of questions relating to the lives of children in their care, drawing on existing information held by the unit and charting a variety of demographics.

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Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
Lord Hope Building, Level 6
141 St. James Road Glasgow G4 0LT

(0141) 444 8622

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