In their joint guest blog, Andi Brierley and Luke Burgess reflect on the ‘CARE’ group in Leeds, drawing on their own experience of the care and justice systems.
Andi: My role at Leeds YJS is to work with children in care that come into contact with youth justice and support them to desist from offending, to deliver training and awareness, collect data and facilitate Voice and Influence groups.
In 2013, Leeds YJS and the Care Leavers Association decided that it would be great if the city had a group of mentor care leavers. They would also deliver training and support other children in care that were struggling to deal with the transition and therefore coming into contact with the YJS. They named themselves the Challenge And Raise Expectations (CARE) group.
The CARE group went on to deliver training to the Leeds Therapeutic Social Work Service, the Fostering Support Group, Senior Leadership Team and the Independent Reviewing Officers. New referrals to the CARE group became mentees, the older members became mentors and the relationships simply built from there. I have been blessed to witness first-hand the positive impact that young people can make to each other’s lives when they are given the platform and encouragement to do so.
The passion of Luke and some of the other care leavers have to improve the care and Criminal Justice Systems whilst helping young people from their own communities and background has been overwhelming. The group have delivered training around the criminalisation of looked after children through a lived experience lens to foster carers, residential staff, Independent Reviewing Officers and Social Workers in Leeds, developing a better understanding of the needs of adolescents. There has been so much evidence of young people encouraging and promoting positive change and leading by example. Supported in the right way, the group have made connections with each other and supported each other in various ways. I have been privileged to co-facilitate the group and
watching them taking responsibility for the group itself has been truly reinvigorating.
Children placed in Leeds from other local authorities have really enjoyed being a part of the group too, spending time with like-minded peers that have had similar experiences and are being productive with their time. One young man from another area contacted Leeds CARE group after a number of moves before returning home because he wanted to return to our child friendly city and to be involved again with the group. Another young lady came to Leeds after being deemed too vulnerable to stay in her own area but attended weekly and delivered training. She even bought Luke’s new baby a babygro, which was lovely to see as the group believe relationships are the heartbeat of change. The young people want to be involved in the group because it’s about them and they own it. I believe this type of approach may have made a difference to me as a child struggling with authority, as I would have built trusting relationships with people that I had a connection with.
From my experience, many young people who have had experience of services such as care and youth justice would relish the opportunity to seek employment by such services. However, they are often marginalised or excluded from such opportunities due to background checks, gaps in education and employment, and also employability skills. Yet as I have witnessed over the past few years, young people with lived experience can be effective in helping others make positive change. People with lived experience may well bring talents and expertise that the systems need to meet the service users’ needs. Maybe they could go some way to help reduce children going into care in the first place and also reduce the re-offending rates as they both continue to increase.
The care and criminal justice systems may be effective over all – Lord Laming and in his ‘In Care Out Of Trouble’ report claimed that only 6% of CLA come into contact with the youth justice system. This is great, yet there seems to be a stubborn minority that the systems don’t work well for, as at least 27% of the adult prison population in England have had care experience. This would indicate an alternative approach is required for this particular group of young people. Maybe we could seek the expertise of those with lived experience (like those on the CARE group) to help us work in a different way with these young people. We gravitate towards people we feel comfortable with as human beings.
If we recognise the strength of lived experience within services such as the care and criminal justice systems, we can train young people like those on the CARE group to counter the negative shared experience children have with many of those in their environment with positive examples. Dr Dan Siegal states the ‘interaction of relationships develop the integration and structure of the brain’. If this is so, let’s capitalise on the trust and relationships that those with lived experience develop. It seems to me this is likely to be a win win for everyone as we would also be developing the skills of the disadvantaged and creating a restorative circle of aspiration and hope within disadvantaged communities. It is just a case of unlocking the talent when we find it and it does exist. I am of course an example myself after being a professional for 12 years and writing a book “Your Honour Can I Tell You My Story?” about my personal experience of care and criminal justice. I am not unique as I have met many young people like Luke who could follow in my footsteps.
Luke: I admire the motivation I see in young people attending the CARE group. Often labelled as hard to engage, those attending the CARE group do so with a renewed optimism that is admirable. As we strive to create a “non-judgmental” environment for new members, barriers are quickly broken down.
Through strong, positive relationships we see the aspiration behind the young person. A young man working with the CARE group was recently released from custody on Monday, and immediately contacted us to try and arrange rekindling his involvement. By Thursday he had voluntarily travelled to a training session focusing on the unnecessary criminalisation of CLA, run with our partners in Child Friendly Leeds. As someone who has experienced custody myself, this non-judgemental approach is exactly what is required when reintegrating back into the community.
It’s frustrating to see young people not getting the support they need. Practical help such as independent living skills, tenancy management and financial support are scarce, and a team of Care Leavers purposely created to aid this need would be fantastic. It is vital that young people involved in the criminal justice system can see former offenders achieving in society, to show that change is possible and they too can live fulfilling lives. When I left custody, there were no such examples, and I struggled removing myself from negative people influencing me, but in also removing myself from temptations of the past, particularly certain areas of Leeds. It is a frustrating, lonely period for most and more needs to be done to support and encourage young people leaving custody. I believe, given the foundation to support each other, mentors with lived experience is exactly what is required to improve outcomes for children with experience of both care and criminal justice.
Thanks for your time.
About our bloggers
Andi now works as a Child Looked After specialist within Leeds Youth Justice Service (YJS), whilst Luke is a Care Leaver and volunteer at YJS.