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Disrupting the routes between care and custody for girls and women
Research finds too many women in prison today were the girls in care of yesterday, and systemic failings in the wider society perpetuate this problem.

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The care to custody highway

Girls and women who have been through the care system should be diverted away from custodial sentences into community alternatives wherever possible, says a new (4 May 2022) Nuffield Foundation report. ‘Disrupting the Routes between Care and Custody for Girls and Women’ is authored by Dr Claire Fitzpatrick and Dr Katie Hunter, from the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University, Dr Julie Shaw, of Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr Jo Staines, of the University of Bristol.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the research explores the neglected experiences of imprisoned women from care, as well as those of care-experienced girls and young women in the community with youth justice system contact. The report highlights the fact that, as a minority within the justice system, girls and women are particularly likely to have their needs overlooked.

This study reveals how girls in care may experience ‘over-scrutiny’ in some care settings, leading to their unnecessary criminalisation, which contrasts directly to the lack of support they may face in relation to experiences of victimisation, leaving care support and imprisonment.

Highlighting evidence of the ‘immense harm’ that can come from imprisonment, the report states:

“Prison must cease to be a default option when the lack of support in care and the community essentially helps to reproduce the well-trodden routes between care and custody”.

It also urges ‘far greater recognition’ of the profound impact of imprisonment across the generations, particularly on care-experienced mothers.

The research team call on local authorities, including Directors of Children’s Services, as well as Chief Constables, to renew their commitment to procedures aimed at preventing unnecessary criminalisation of children in care.

Despite increased recognition of this problem, and ongoing efforts to prevent it, police call-outs for minor incidents in some care homes remains a risk for some children, an issue that the Howard League has successfully campaigned against for many years.

The study found that girls in care who are in conflict with the law may be stigmatised not just because of their care status but also because of negative judgements relating to their gender or ethnicity.

There is also a serious need to recognise the limits of official files which could lead to negative perceptions of individuals. Girls and women felt strongly that they wanted workers to look beyond their official histories, avoid over-reliance on their files, and take time to get to know them and the context of their lives.

The research

Interviews were undertaken with 37 care-experienced women from across three prisons in England and 17 care-experienced girls and young women in the community across England who had also had youth justice involvement.

Many participants described backgrounds of abuse, serious violence and trauma, and had multiple experiences of victimisation throughout their lives. Violence and abuse at home was the most common reason reported for entering the care system.

Over a third of care-experienced participants reported their first justice system contact occurred whilst in care. Of these, 11 were in children’s homes at the time of this contact, and over-criminalisation for minor offences in children’s homes was a common theme.

An escalation in offence seriousness was a feature of many women’s lives. For some, offending behaviour worsened after the ‘cliff edge’ of support after leaving care.

The research also includes interviews with 40 professionals who work with care-experienced women and girls, with expertise stemming from across a range of professional spheres.

These interviews highlighted a commitment to diverting children from the youth justice system, and a recognition that this needed to involve far more than just avoiding prosecution.

Meanwhile, care-experienced girls and women reported that trusted relationships were key for providing and receiving support. Promoting such relationships requires going beyond the basics of providing accommodation, to being trauma responsive, supporting staff and raising aspirations.


Report recommendations include:

  • Placing a statutory duty on local authorities to prevent unnecessary criminalisation of children in care
  • Recognising the limits of official care files and moving beyond them
  • Promoting trusted and consistent relationships and challenging stigma
  • Diverting girls and women from custody wherever possible
  • Confronting the intergenerational harms that imprisonment creates

The main lessons are helpfully summarised on a one page infographic reproduced below.


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

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