The latest report from the probation inspectorate in its Academic Insights series summarises findings from recent research in Manchester which explored adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), serious youth violence (SYV), trauma-informed practice, and youth participation. The children in the study typically had multiple ACEs, and the authors, Paul Gray, Hannah Smithson and Deborah Jump, highlight how knowledge and understanding of these ACEs should be used to co-develop with children, personalised approaches to addressing their involvement in serious youth violence which consider both socio-cultural and psycho-social factors. The importance of building trusting relationships between individual children and practitioners is also emphasised.
While crime has fallen rapidly over the last 20 years, serious youth violence remains stubbornly high. Alongside this, research has consistently found that justice-involved children have childhoods characterised by disproportionate adverse childhood experiences. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. They include, for example: experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing domestic violence; bereavement; substance misuse within the family; mental health problems within the family; parental separation; or having a family member in prison. ACEs have been shown to have lasting, negative effects on health, wellbeing, and opportunity. They have also been shown to have an impact on the likelihood of both future violence perpetration and victimisation.
As most regular readers will know, there has been a growing awareness in recent years of the importance of being trauma-informed when dealing with children involved in the justice system – — recognising and acknowledging the impact that ACEs can have on an individual and providing appropriate support to that person. In essence, a trauma-informed approach necessitates a change of perspective from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’
This Academic Insight presents the findings from a research study which set out:
- to gauge the nature and prevalence of ACEs among justice-involved children in Manchester
- to explore children’s own articulations of the causes and drivers of serious youth violence
- to develop a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between SYV and ACEs
- to explore children’s experiences of current youth justice practice, in particular their experiences of trauma-informed practice
- to co-create a resource to be used by youth justice professionals.
The research found very high levels of ACEs among the 200 children involved in the youth justice system in Manchester and who were part of this study. Two thirds of the 200 children who were assessed had five or more ACEs. Indeed, over a fifth had eight or more ACEs, and three children had all 10 ACEs. Only two children had no recorded ACEs.
The relationship between serious youth violence and ACEs
The research found an increased tendency to respond to situations through anger and/or aggression apparently exacerbated by the domestic violence that many of the children had witnessed and/or experienced as victims. Children who had witnessed domestic violence tended to react to confrontational situations with violence, either through children socially learning to use violence, or violence becoming normalised for them.
The researchers found that despite growing awareness of trauma-informed practice, delivering a TIP approach in youth justice settings remained challenging. Children who have experienced ACEs may be likely to avoid engagement with youth justice services both because of a lack of trust in adults and a natural unwillingness to think about or discuss painful experiences and events. Many children do not necessarily see the links between their ACEs and their offending behaviour.
The report ends with six key recommendations, reproduced below in full:
- Avoid quantifying ACEs as a measure of risk. Simply quantifying ACEs and interpreting them as a measure of risk of becoming involved in SYV (either as a perpetrator or victim) is at odds with trauma-informed approaches to working with children. Instead, the advancement of high-quality trauma-informed policy and practice should rely on the identification of ACEs and an understanding of the impact ACEs might have on individual children. This knowledge and understanding should then be used to co-develop with children, personalised approaches to addressing their involvement in SYV which consider both socio-cultural and psycho-social factors.
- Deliver training around implementing trauma-informed practice. While youth justice workers acknowledged that they had received some general training on ACEs and trauma-informed approaches, what they felt was lacking was more specific training on how to implement trauma-informed practice in a more therapeutic way. Training to address this need should be provided by qualified professionals.
- Provide clinical support to those children who need it. Clinical support around trauma should be readily available to those children who may need it. The responsibility for the delivery of this support should not lie with youth justice workers. This has the potential to be harmful to both youth justice workers and children. Instead, clinical support should be delivered by qualified professionals based within youth justice services.
- Offer clinical supervision to youth justice workers. To protect youth justice workers from vicarious trauma, the opportunity for clinical supervision with a qualified professional should be made available to all youth justice workers who are expected to work in a trauma-informed way. This provision should be in addition to any other existing supervision procedures that youth justice services currently offer.
- Deliver training across the youth justice system. Funding should be made available for qualified professionals to deliver training on ACEs and trauma-informed practice to other bodies in the youth justice system, such as the courts, the police, and the secure estate. This will help to embed an awareness of ACEs and trauma-informed practice throughout the justice system. This systemic approach is necessary to ensure that children receive a consistent trauma-informed service, irrespective of which stage of the system they are at.
- Develop a systemic approach to trauma-informed practice. The identification of ACEs and subsequent delivery of trauma-informed interventions should not be the sole responsibility of the youth justice system. Children should receive trauma-informed intervention/s at the point of the adverse experience/s. Schools, children’s services, and health services should be adequately funded and equipped by central government to embed trauma-informed practice into their services and organisations.