Project: Looked after children and offending 2010-12

Funder: Big Lottery Research Programme

Date: March 2010 – January 2012

Research Team: Professor Gillian Schofield, Dr Laura Biggart, Dr Jane Dodsworth, Dr Victoria Scaife, Dr Emma Ward, Alice Haynes and Birgit Larsson

Outcomes for young people in the care system continue to raise concerns at national and local level in relation to offending. The project's goal was to improve the life chances of looked after children at risk of offending and criminalisation by identifying risk and protective factors – in the lives of young people and in the care and youth justice systems.

The project included a literature review, a national survey of practice and protocols and inter-agency focus groups. Interviews and developmental measures were conducted with 100 young people in total from four case study local authorities

Findings of this study suggest that the care system can be effective in providing good care to children from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, promoting security, resilience and pro-social values. However, prior to care most looked after children have experienced many of the risk factors, such as adverse parenting and abuse, that also lead to offending. Thus a correlation between care and offending is to a large extent a result of shared risk factors. Early entry to care followed by sensitive parenting in a stable placement with good professional support from a range of agencies, including education and health, minimises the risk of offending behaviour. However, late entry into care in adolescence can also reduce the risk of offending if it capitalises on the protective potential of relationships and involvement in constructive activities.

If children in care from backgrounds of abuse have significant emotional and behavioural problems, do not have stable placements with sensitive caregivers and do not have appropriate professional support, they will be at risk of a range of poor outcomes, including being at risk of offending. Two of the most crucial periods are entry into care during adolescence and transitions from care to independence. These are windows of opportunity for positive change, but they also carry risk. When the system works effectively it builds resilience; if not there is a danger of the harm done before entry into care being exacerbated. An additional and significant risk factor for looked after children is inappropriate criminalisation through police and court involvement as a response to challenging behaviour in their placements.

The overlap between these two vulnerable groups -young people in care and young people who offend - raises specific issues for policy and practice that can only be successfully managed when evidence is available that facilitates assessment of need and risk,  and can also contribute to appropriate prevention and intervention.


Schofield, G, Ward, E, Biggart, L, Scaife, V, Dodsworth, J, Haynes, A, Larsson, B, Stone, N (2012). Looked After Children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience. Norwich: University of East Anglia Full report and Executive summary

Schofield, G, Biggart, L, Ward, E, Scaife, V, Dodsworth, J, Haynes, A, Larsson, B, (publication early 2014). Looked After Children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience London: BAAF