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Balancing the child first approach with risk management in youth justice
Anne-Marie Day highlights the confusion surrounding whether youth justice practitioners should prioritise the management of risk or adopt a child first approach.

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Confusing and contradictory narratives

A new paper by Dr Anne-Marie Day (@Anne_MarieDay) published in the Youth Justice Journal makes for interesting reading. ‘It’s a Hard Balance to Find’: The Perspectives of Youth Justice Practitioners in England on the Place of ‘Risk’ in an Emerging ‘Child-First’ World” highlights the challenges for youth justice practitioners in how to work with children when there are so many confusing and contradictory narratives coming from central government. It particularly focuses on the confusion between whether practitioners should prioritise the management of risk or adopt a child first approach. This is further compounded by the YJB’s focus on child first, and the probation inspectorate’s emphasis on risk.

The research

The article is based on findings from an evaluation of the YJB’s Constructive Resettlement Pathfinder Project with data are drawn from 14 interviews with youth justice practitioners and operational managers,  conducted as part of that evaluation. It argues that the policy shift away from risk narratives is meeting with a number of challenges on the ground. Previous research has argued that despite attempts by the YJB to move towards desistance-based and child-first approaches, the risk culture continues to dominate front-line practice and Dr Day provides further insight into the potential barriers to this cultural shift on the ground. The issue closely mirrors closely the professional debate in adult probation circles about balancing public protection and promoting desistance.

Dr Day sets out the confusing and conflicting messages received by youth justice managers and practitioners from the Youth Justice Board, probation inspectors and others and highlights the lack of clarity and consensus around such key concepts as desistance. She summarises recent research which has found that despite the YJB’s espousal of the Child First welfare-dominated approach, risk culture has continued to dominate practice.

Dr Day highlights a number of recurrent themes from the interviews with staff including evidence of resistance and a culture of fear; contradiction and emerging bifurcated practice (two different approaches); and confusion about the meaning of key terms and how to negotiate a ‘balance’ between competing approaches.

© Andy Aitchison

Practitioner views

Dr Day’s research deserves a more detailed analysis that I am able to give it here in the space afforded by a short blog post. For this reason, the rest of the post mainly focuses on sharing quotes from interviewees to give a better “flavour” of the difficulties front line staff have in navigating the confusions of current youth justice practice. As you can see, one of the key tensions is between the pressure to complete lengthy and detailed assessment forms and other recording practices and spending more time with the young people; again an echo of the current debate taking place within adult probation, which seems to have intensified since the move to a centralised probation service last June.

“And I said, exactly this thing, we should be future-focused and that’s how we can manage the risk. And the person responding it, it was like their mic drop moment, if you don’t want to manage risk, you should not be in youth justice. And it totally floored me, because it’s like we’d had this half hour discussion and basically they’d just chucked out everything by just saying that it’s all about risk. (YOT Senior Practitioner).”

“But just off the back of the inspection, we’ve gone back down, we’ve totally changed our management risk processes. They’re much more labour intensive for case workers now and that’s only off the back of the inspection. So, for me, I see we’ve gone down the wrong route because we’ve taken workers away from being with young people. Because the process now it’s much more time-consuming. That time has to come from somewhere. And the time comes from the time they could spend with the young people. (YOT Senior Practitioner).”

“Until we have the discussion with the inspectorate and the inspection process fits more in with our values and principles as it is now, I think we’re always going to struggle with this. Because, ultimately, nobody wants to ‘need improvement’. We want to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. So, whilst you’ve got that pull, it were almost like those dodgy salesmen back in the day, where our commission comes from getting good and outstanding. So, you can spend very little time with a young person but do all the processes and look absolutely fantastic. But with no better outcomes for young people. (YOT Senior Practitioner).”

Another interesting complexity was staff confusion about how to work in Child First and desistance-based approaches with children. While staff wanted more practical guidance, training and a toolkit of resources that they could use with children, this form of evidence-based practice, such as intervention guidance and toolkits tended to be seen as quite prescriptive and were considered to be part of the risk paradigm.


Dr Day says that one of the strongest themes from the research was that the ‘balance’ between risk assessment, management and offence focused work and desistance or child-first approaches was difficult to negotiate. She says that some staff could see the continuing role and importance of having some form of risk assessment and management as part of a youth justice practitioner’s role; but the extent to which that directly impacted on the language used with children, and the work completed with them varied hugely. 

Dr Day argues that this difficulty appears to have been exacerbated by a growing awareness among front-line staff that inspectors appears to prioritise risk assessment, risk management and the completion of offence focused work over child-first approaches in their inspections. She says that until this central tension between the YJB and HMIP about where the focus on youth justice work should lie is resolved, the ‘difficult balance’ and lack of clarity for front-line staff and managers will persist.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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