"We need to tackle their wellbeing first"
New research in the Youth Justice journal published on 13 August examines Understanding and Supporting Care-Experienced Girls in the Youth Justice System. This open access (hurray!) article is written by Jo Staines, Claire Fitzpatrick & Katie Hunter and presents novel findings from interviews with 17 girls and young women and eight Youth Offending Team (YOT) staff, highlighting how being in care can affect offending behaviour and how YOTs may provide support to care-experienced girls who have been inadequately supported elsewhere. Reviewing research and practice through a gendered lens helps to demonstrate how and why care-experienced girls may be escalated through justice systems at a greater rate than boys.
The article begins with an exploration of participants’ views of some of the reasons why girls may become involved in the youth justice system while in care, including how alleged offending behaviour may be an expression of previous trauma, feelings of not belonging or not being listened to.
The article then considers how the unique position of YOT staff may enable them to provide individualised, gender-specific support to care-experienced girls. In particular, YOT staff may have the capacity and ability to develop trusted, consistent relationships that focus primarily on the well-being, needs and concerns of the girls, rather than being complicated by the competing demands that, for example social workers, have to balance.
However, the authors highlight “a troubling tension” — while the findings clearly highlight the importance of YOT support in addressing girls’ well-being, it is argued that such relationships must be available to girls outside the youth justice arena to avoid further criminalisation and prolonged involvement with the youth justice system.
The authors set out the scale of the problem. t 52% of care-experienced children who attended school in England had a criminal conviction by the time they were 24, compared with 13% of those who had not been in care. Furthermore, despite less than 1% of all children in England being in care, over half (52%) of the children in custody have previous experience with the care system.
This over-representation particularly affects girls: care-experienced girls are more likely to receive both non-custodial and custodial sentences than girls without care experience, with the rates of immediate custodial sentences being 25 times higher for girls who have spent time in care. Black and minoritised girls who have been in care may be especially disadvantaged within the youth justice system, with Black and Mixed heritage care-experienced children having higher rates of imprisonment than those from White or Asian backgrounds.
The interviews explored possible reasons why some girls in care come into contact with the youth justice system, as understanding the precursors to this is arguably key to developing and implementing effective interventions to reduce it. A number of inter-related themes were identified within the participants’ responses including the inappropriate criminalisation of behaviour in care, the response of the police and how supportive interventions by the YOT can counter some of the negative situations experienced by girls in care.
Although not gender-specific, inappropriate criminalisation was a recurrent theme within the interviews, with girls, young women and YOT staff discussing how care workers may be ‘more geared towards picking up the phone to inform the police when things get out of control’ and how children in care are ‘at risk of being prosecuted for behaviours that they would not be prosecuted for if they were living in their own home’.
The Howard League has run a long-standing campaign on this issue and succeeded in influencing policy and practice to significantly reduce the number of arrest of children in care but point out that practice remains inconsistent across the country and the problems described above are far from uncommon.
Interactions with police
The nature of police interactions emerged as being particularly problematic, creating points of conflict and drawing girls further into the youth justice system. The girls and young women felt that previous contact with the police led to them being labelled and unfairly targeted. This was particularly the case for Black girls who felt that they were more visible and more likely to be targeted by police.
YOT professionals discussed how girls in particular may ‘panic when they are restrained’, leading them to ‘lash out’ at or assault the police. Panic may be an entirely rational response to being restrained, particularly for girls who may have experienced violence, abuse and/or physical coercion. The ability of police officers to recognise, understand and respond appropriately to potentially distressed girls was seen as vital.
Supporting care-experienced girls in youth justice
The YOT professionals discussed the impact of gender on their relationships with care-experienced girls, the gendered nature of interventions and the importance of adopting a trauma-informed framework, which is increasingly being promoted within care and justice systems. The YOT interviewees recognised the impact of trauma on girls’ behaviour and mental health and emphasised the need to respond to the difficulties experienced before any meaningful work on offending behaviour could be undertaken.
An overarching message from the research was the importance of prioritising girls’ well-being before addressing their offending behaviour – indeed, the authors argue that addressing well-being concerns, particularly those related to previous and/or current trauma, could reduce the need for specific offending-related interventions.
Both the girls and the professionals interviewed highlighted how girls’ challenging behaviour could be an expression of anxiety, distress and uncertainty yet recognised that these behaviours were often met with punitive responses from care staff and the police that exacerbated involvement in the youth justice system, rather than reducing it.