Still Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On April 26, CYCJ hosted a roundtable discussion on looked after children and offending. The event brought together representatives from Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum (Staf), Social Work Scotland, Community Justice Scotland, COSLA, Police Scotland, the Care Inspectorate, University of Strathclyde, CELCIS, SCRA and Who Cares? Scotland, to explore three key questions:

  1. What is working well in Scotland?
  2. What could be improved?
  3. How can this be achieved?

The roundtable also marked the launch of the ‘Responding to Offending in Residential Childcare-Next steps’ project-Progress report. In partnership with Staf, the project focused on developing an understanding of, and influencing, local practice in four children’s houses from across three geographical areas over the past year, and will now focus on the start of the national phase.

To open the discussion, I provided an overview of the findings of CYCJ’s work in this area so far. Highlighting the complexities of responding to offending behaviour by looked after children, some of the factors that had been identified that could support the aims of avoiding the unnecessary criminalisation of looked after children and ensuring police contact was the option of last resort. This was followed by Andrew Neilson and Claire Sands providng an overview of the Howard League’s programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care in England and Wales (you can read Claire’s blog on the roundtable and find out more about the programme here).

During the discussion that followed a number of key themes were evident, as detailed below.

The importance of addressing the overrepresentation of care leavers in the criminal justice system and greater likelihood of the behaviours of looked after children being reported to the police; therefore, attracting a criminalising state response. In achieving this, the necessity is clear for supporting individual and collective understanding of the raft of negative outcomes associated with punitive responses, contact with the justice system and the accrual of childhood criminal record. Likewise, it is necessary to devote attention to the context of behaviour; enable open reflection on incidents, responses and what could be done differently; and support the understanding and adoption of trauma, developmentally informed and needs lead approaches. This is what we must hold onto in the most challenging circumstances. An understandable level of frustration and disappointment was expressed, that these conversations still need to take place. It was acknowledged that while there is a need for challenge, clarifying expectations and accountability, this must to be coupled with support, hearing from the workforce and taking the whole system on this journey. Fundamentally, it is likely to be advantageous to reinforce and recognise the issues surrounding responses to offending as rights, justice and corporate parenting issues-with the question would this be good enough for my own child? It is undisputable that these issues require attention, action and to be pro-actively addressed by all corporate parents.

Data remains a significant issue, with the current lack of individual agency and collective data rendering it impossible to quantify such things as the extent to which looked after children are in contact with the police compared with their non-looked after peers; how this may vary (for example by gender or placement type); and where good and concerning practice may be taking place. To provide a complete picture, data capture needs to include information on offences committed prior to children entering care and while in care, as well as on the type and outcome of police contact. The current lack of data means we have a blank canvas and an opportunity to get this right but again this requires collective rather than individual effort.

We need to continue to hear the voices of young people about their experiences of system responses-both good and bad. Ultimately, these are the young people whose outcomes are significantly affected by our responses, in the short and longer-term, and for whom the costs are highest. However, we need to go beyond just hearing and really learn and effect change based on young people’s lived experience.

If we really want to effect change, we need to recognise that these issues are inherently linked with and reflective of wider challenges in the care system. These include the difficulties in reaching a shared agreement on the purpose of the care system; recognising the necessity for all forms of provision on the continuum of care; that residential childcare is a positive and the right choice for many children; the instability and impermanence that is inbuilt in the system; ensuring we have an appropriately supported, skilled, and experienced workforce; and how do we structure and resource the care system overall.

Just a few issues to tackle then! However, there is real dedication to work collaboratively to address these issues to ensure that no child in care is unnecessarily criminalised, that the needs of looked after children are prioritised and inequalities are addressed. Over the next year, this project will do all it can to support this aim. We will continue to seek to support practice at a local level and explore how the implementation of these findings can be supported at a national level, with an action plan currently being developed.

If you would like further information or to remain updated on the progress of this work, please contact

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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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