A new University of East Anglia report shows that going into care can help young people deal with abuse and stop them getting involved with crime.
The findings from the university’s Centre for Research on the Child and Family
(the Adolescent and Children’s Trust) are the result of a two-year Big Lottery funded research project.
The report entitled ‘Looked after Children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience’ is designed to improve the life chances of children in care at risk of offending and criminalisation.
It is the most extensive study into crime and the care system undertaken in the UK, and will be launched in London on Tuesday, January 17.
Using an in-depth review of the literature, evidence from file searches and interviews with 100 young people, along with data from focus groups and a survey of Local Authorities across England and Wales, the research identifies the risk and resilience factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of offending by children in care.
Running contrary to many preconceptions about the care system, the report demonstrates that going into care can prove effective and extremely beneficial in helping a young person deal with prior abuse and can protect against involvement in crime.
Headline research findings are:
• The care system has proved to be effective in providing good care to children from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, promoting security, resilience and pro-social values.
• 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.
• 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 serious risk factor for looked after children is inappropriate criminalisation through police and court involvement as a response to challenging behaviour or minor offences in their placements. Policy commitments and practice protocols to prevent this are not working well enough.
The report makes over 30 recommendations for government, local authorities and agencies working in the criminal justice system. These include:
• Government placing obligations on local authorities to ensure children in care are not at risk from inappropriate criminalisation.
• All children entering care should have a full developmental screening including mental health, learning difficulties and speech and language.
• The need for high quality foster care and residential care placements for children in care to reduce the risk of offending and to promote resilience.
• Enabling care leavers in residential and foster care to have the option of remaining in supportive placements until the age of 21.
• Improved inter agency working and co-operation across youth offending and looked after children services.
• Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance regarding children in residential care extended to all children in care.
• Youth Court magistrates given powers to refer cases back to the police and CPS if they believe that it is not in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution of a young person who has committed a relatively minor offence.
Prof Gillian Schofield, from the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at UEA, who led the research, said: “This study found that even in adolescence and for very troubled young people there are windows of opportunity for change.
“The most important factors in helping young people in care to turn their lives around are a combination of reliable, supportive close relationships, for example with foster carers, residential workers or social workers, and purposeful, constructive activity, whether in school, college or through sport, that builds their competence and self esteem.
“This combination not only reduces the risk of offending, it promotes resilience that will help young people in care to become happy and successful adults.”
TACT CEO Kevin Williams said: “The overriding message from this research is that the care system works. This report provides a powerful counterbalance to assumptions that entry into care leads to a life of crime. Children come into care through no fault of their own from backgrounds of abuse, neglect and chaos. This work shows that taking the right steps does transform lives.”
Catherine McKinnell MP, Shadow Children and Young Families Minister, said: “This report shines a light on the issue of the over-representation of looked-after children within the criminal justice system.
“Too often care is portrayed as part of the problem, but TACT has rightly highlighted the need for stable placements that will enable a vulnerable child to come to terms with their experiences and thrive in spite of them. It is vital that we focus on improving outcomes for children in care, and early intervention and stability in childhood are clearly key to breaking the destructive cycles of neglect and abuse which lead to a higher risk of offending.”
The report will be launched at a conference at Woburn House Conference Centre in London on January 17. Ministry of Justice Minister Crispin Blunt MP and Shadow Education Spokesperson Catherine McKinnell MP will speak at the launch.