Better relationships could reduce the criminalisation of looked after young people

A study by the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice (CYCJ) has found better relationships between the police and young people, wider support for residential workers and clearer communication could reduce the criminalisation of young people in care.

‘“Between a rock and a hard place”: Responses to Offending in Residential Childcare’ highlights the multitude of factors and influences on decision making by residential staff when faced with offending behaviour.

The study gathered data about police involvement for challenging and offending behaviour by young people in children’s houses; explored how practitioners make the decision to involve the police in incidents; and documented what formal policies are in place within each local authority to aid decision making.

There have been concerns that the criminal justice system may have been used for behaviour that would not normally lead to police contact if a child was living at home. Recent Howard League research across England and Wales has identified that young people in care are far more likely to be criminalised than their non-looked after peers. As a consequence of this, individuals in young offenders’ institutions and prisons are disproportionately more likely to have been care experienced.

The report makes suggestions for areas where improvements can be made and raises issues of concern, particularly around charges for vandalism within children’s homes. It also acknowledges the complexity, dilemmas and tensions involved in decision making for staff, and that despite efforts made by residential staff to give children in care as ‘normal’ a home life as possible, they are often caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’.

Recommendations include:

  • Police involvement being the last resort by residential child care workers in responding to offending
  • Building relationships, both between police and residential staff and with young people
  • Providing young people with clear and accurate information on the impact of offences dealt with via the Children’s Hearings System as well as the courts
  • Exploring bail support with young people to ensure everything possible is being done to support them in complying with their bail conditions
  • Ensuring residential workers have access to a wide range of formal and informal support and intensive training

Duncan Dunlop, CEO of Who Cares? Scotland, which works with care experienced young people and care leavers, said:

“We take children into care to give them the love and stability they deserve. We should be providing them with the family life they need in order to thrive; family life that should not involve unnecessary criminalisation and engagement with police.

“Who Cares? Scotland welcomes this new research from the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice. As an organisation that provides independent advocacy to care experienced young people, we are all too aware of this issue and the future impact that criminalisation can have on them. We wholeheartedly agree with CYCJ’s recommendation that police involvement should always be the very last resort. Professionals must not focus solely on behaviour and instead, should address the experiences that underpin the young person’s actions. Care experienced young people deserve love, not punishment.”

Claire Lightowler, Director of CYCJ, said:

“This valuable research highlights just how complex the issue of dealing with offending behaviour in a looked after environment is – especially for the residential staff who have to deal with the dilemmas, tensions and potential implications for the young person’s outcomes. Above all, it clearly demonstrates the vital importance of relationships and relationship-based practice.

“We hope that this study will help achieve a better understanding of the issues involved in the criminalisation of looked after young people, and that the recommendations made can contribute to better outcomes.”

Download ‘Responses to Offending in Residential Childcare’ here.

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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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