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Black and mixed heritage boys get poor support from youth offending services
Probation inspectors find “significant deficits” in the quality of work conducted by youth offending services and partner agencies with black and mixed heritage boys.

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Lack of early intervention

A new report into the experiences of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system by Her Majesty’s Inspection of Probation published today (21 October 2021) has found “significant deficits” in the quality of work conducted by youth offending services and partner agencies with black and mixed heritage boys. Inspectors  reviewed a sample of 173 cases from nine youth offending services across England, as well as inspection data gathered over a 12-month period. Inspectors spoke to senior leaders and 99 youth justice workers, and worked with User Voice to hear the views of 38 of the boys. You can see some of the key national statistics on racial disparity in the youth justice system reproduced from the HMI Probation report in the image below.

Main findings

Inspectors found that the large majority of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system had experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and had high levels of need, such as special educational needs (SEN) and mental health difficulties, which had not always been identified or properly addressed until they came into contact with the YOS. This raises questions and concerns about the support they received from mainstream services before their involvement with the youth justice system. 

The views of the boys

User Voice spoke to 38 boys across the nine inspected areas. The majority talked about the challenges they faced growing up in relation to their environment and peer associations and friendship groups, which for many were determined by living in the same locality and shared experience rather than conscious choice. The boys spoke at length about being subject to police stop and search and racial profiling. This was especially significant for those who lived in London.

When discussing their involvement with their individual YOSs, the boys were not always clear about the role of the YOS or what support it could offer them. For some, their sentence plan or out-of-court intervention was something they just had to get through. They often felt they did not need any support from professionals, or at least they could not articulate what advice and guidance might be helpful. For some there was a sense that interventions worked best when the YOS had limited contact with them, but this also led to them viewing their interventions as having a ‘tick box’ feel. When interventions were more intensive and challenging, this was recognised as having greater benefit and promoted better engagement.

Almost all of the boys described positive relationships with their workers, stating that they felt listened to and understood. Only two of the 38 boys said that the ethnicity of their YOS worker was significant to them. Inspectors concluded that the skills, understanding, knowledge and integrity of the worker and the relationships they form with black and mixed heritage boys are the most important factors in supporting and promoting meaningful and effective engagement. You can read the full User Voice consultation here.

The quality of casework

Inspectors found significant deficits in the quality of casework being delivered to black and mixed heritage boys in both statutory and out-of-court disposal work. Inspectors found work was sub-standard in all the key domains they examined: assessment, planning , the direct work delivered and case reviews.  In 40 per cent of out-of-court disposal cases and in half of statutory cases, the child had experienced racial discrimination (where information had been recorded) and in the large majority of cases, the impact of this had not been explored or considered. The poor standard of assessment impacted on the quality of planning and the overall delivery of work. More positively, there was evidence that case managers formed meaningful relationships with the children and their parents or carers. However, these were not always used to get ‘under the surface’ and examine the challenges the boys were facing and how these might be linked to their offending.

Inspectors concluded that if YOSs are to be truly child first and trauma-informed in their practice, understanding the lived experiences of children and analysing their impact on them is critical. HMI Probation recommended that discussion about these assessed issues should form the basis of any intervention with a child, and with black and mixed heritage boys this includes exploring the impact of any discrimination or marginalisation they have experienced.


The report is very critical about the lack of effective responses to the long-standing problem of racial disparity in the youth justice system. Inspectors found awareness and concern about discrimination and poor outcomes for black and mixed heritage boys and a number of recently introduced action plans. However, they did not yet see any difference in the casework being delivered.

Inspectors criticised youth offending services for not having sufficient detailed information about local issues and problems. Services tended to have information about racial disparity for all non-white children but not enough understanding of the situation for separate ethnic groups, whose experiences are different and whose specific over-representation is of concern.

Effective practice

Inspectors did identify four areas of effective practice that enhanced the quality of the work delivered to black and mixed heritage boys:

  1. A clear anti-racist stance taken by leaders raises staff’s confidence to advocate for black and mixed heritage boys in their work.
  2. Well-coordinated work with third-sector and community organisations enhances the quality of service delivery.
  3. Providing effective support to parents and carers of black and mixed heritage boys promotes their engagement.
  4. The effective use of data is reflected in better quality service delivery.

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

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