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Children in care in the youth justice system
Dr Anne-Marie Day on the experiences and pathways of children in care in the youth justice system.

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Pathways from care to offending

The latest (published on 24 September 2021) in HMI Probation’s Academic Insight series  looks at the experiences and pathways of children in care in the youth justice system. Authored by Dr Anne-Marie Day from Keele University, the report sets out a range of barriers and enablers to supporting children in care, impacting upon their positive development and life chances.  


Dr Day provides a concise summary of the number of people in contact with the criminal justice system who have experience of care:

  • There were 80,080 children in care in England and Wales on 31 March 2020, a jump of 26 per cent since 2008.
  • Official estimates suggest that between 37-50% children in custody have been in care at some point in their lives.

The paper focuses upon elements of the care and youth justice systems over which policy makers and practitioners have control. Barriers and enablers to supporting children in care are identified, all of which can impact upon their positive development and future life chances.

Barriers to supporting children in care

Dr Day highlights a number of features of the care and youth justice systems that can impact upon a child’s positive development and lead to further criminalisation. These include:

Placement instability – constantly changing placements makes it hard for children to form trusting relationships with care givers and professionals and to make and retain friends.

Residential care is seen as the “last resort” with troubled and vulnerable children housed together with risks around child sexual exploitation and children going missing. There is also a stigma attached to children who are or have been in residential care.

The tension between care and control – research has found that residential staff (reluctantly) prioritise maintaining the overall control of the home over connecting with an individual child. This in turn makes it hard for children to form helpful and trusting relationships with staff who are just seen as doing a job, often characterised by exercising control over what children can and cannot do.

Residential care as a criminalising environment – residential homes can be places where children are vulnerable to bullying or where they become involved in criminal behaviour. Children may spend more time on the streets than they would do in a family home. They may also come in contact with the police and criminal justice system for minor misdemeanours where a parent would be very unlikely to call the police (see the Howard League’s ongoing campaign to prevent the criminalisation of children in care). 

Of course, children who end up in a form of secure institution and who are released back into the care system are particularly at risk, with many children experiencing custody as a traumatic experience.

© Amir Hosseini

Supporting positive development

Despite outlining this pretty bleak picture for care-experienced people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, Dr Day does share some potential solutions and recommendations suggested from the research literature. She lists nine key enablers and provides helpful good practice examples for some of these:

  • “On street” support via detached youth provision
  • Keeping children within local authority boundaries and not placing them out of area where it is hard to maintain links with family.
  • Increased informal contact for children in custody.
  • Securing suitable and appropriate accommodation in good time before release from custody.
  • Monitoring breaches and assessments of children determine whether care-experienced children are disproportionately subject to proceedings for non-compliance.
  • Fully utilising all liaison and diversion opportunities for care-experienced children.
  • Development of a local protocol with the aim of reducing the criminalisation of care-experienced children.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Listen to children in a meaningful way and respond.
  • Dr Day recommends that youth justice teams develop user groups of care-experienced children to consult with and discuss key operational and strategic decisions and improvements to the service.


Dr Day concludes this report by highlighting the importance of constructive activities; positive, consistent and trusting professionals; family and friends; ‘informal’ contact; and the need to meaningfully involve and listen to the children themselves.


Thanks to Eliott Reyna for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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