Memorandum submitted by National Children's Bureau (NCB)

 

 

1.0 Summary

 

1.1 NCB promotes the voices, interests and well-being of all children and young people across every aspect of their lives. As an umbrella body for the children's sector in England and Northern Ireland, we provide essential information on policy, research and best practice for our members and other partners. NCB has over 20 years of experience in research, policy and practice development relating to looked after children and young people. We host the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Care, a two-year project, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), to improve standards of practice and outcomes for children and young people in residential child care in England. NCB also leads the Healthy Care Programme, another DCSF-funded project, which has developed tools to help local authorities and their partners to provide healthy environments for children and young people in care.

 

1.2 Looked after children or care leavers are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Approximately 40% to 49% who enter custody have been in local authority care at some point. This vulnerable group are not only disadvantaged in terms of the poor outcomes associated with entering the youth justice system, but are also more likely to experience resettlement problems upon leaving custody. While we welcome measures in Care Matters: Time for Change[i] and the Children and Young Persons Bill to address the needs of this group, we believe that further action is needed to break down the welfare/justice divide, which affects all children in custody but particularly those who are in local authority care or who are care leavers. We are calling for:

Systems and approaches that can more effectively link justice to welfare, and the promotion of a relationship-based system to respond to offending behaviour.

Clarification of the responsibilities of social, education and health services to looked after children who offend, and the development of mechanisms to hold these services to account when they do not meet these responsibilities.

A joint crime prevention strategy that looks at how services can address unmet welfare and other needs that contribute to offending behaviour.

An investigation of all youth justice interventions for their suitability for children and young people.

A safe custodial system that provides care, education and training, and prepares young people for their release into the community.

The needs of looked after children in custody to be highlighted in inspection frameworks for HMI Prisons and Ofsted.

Greater cross-departmental and inter-agency working to ensure health and well-being needs of young people in the youth justice system are identified and met.

These issues to be addressed in the Government's forthcoming green paper on post-justice continuity of care, and that that paper contains specific proposals for looked after children and care leavers engaged in the youth justice system.

 

1.3 A separate submission on improving health outcomes for looked after children and young people, drawing on the work of the DCSF-funded Healthy Care Programme, is also to be sent to the Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

2.0 Submission: looked after children in the youth justice system

 

2.1 Looked after children or care leavers are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Approximately 40% to 49% who enter custody have been in local authority care at some point.[ii] Research has found a strong prevalence of poor health, educational and welfare outcomes among all young people involved in the youth justice system. For example:

One study of young people in custody found that over a third of those of compulsory school age had a reading age of seven or less, and approximately half were functioning at or below the numeracy level of an average seven-year-old.[iii]

95% of young offenders in custody have at least one mental health problem and 80% have more than one.[iv]

45.4% of young people in custody have been dependent on a substance.[v]

One study of young offenders found that 40% of under-18s had lived either on the street, in temporary accommodation or independently, or had sought formal housing provision and/or support. This compares with 1.5% of the general population of children and young people.[vi]

Looked after children who are involved in the youth justice system are particularly vulnerable; they are not only disadvantaged in terms of the poor outcomes associated with engagement in the youth justice system, but are also more likely to experience resettlement problems when they leave custody.

 

2.2 Through our work in the youth justice system, NCB has identified barriers to the delivery of much-need educational, health and welfare services to young people who offend, particularly looked after children. This division between welfare and youth justice services (the 'welfare/justice divide') is built partly upon the fact that practitioners from the different spheres work within separate teams, to conflicting targets and using different systems for storing information, carrying out assessments and delivering interventions. In addition, practitioners within the different services operate under separate pieces of legislation, an issue which we are seeking to address during the passage of the Children and Young Persons Bill through Parliament.

 

2.3 Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) were initially set up as multi-disciplinary teams consisting of professionals from a number of relevant sectors. However, the links between the YOTs and their staff members' 'home' agencies are becoming blurred, with YOT staff becoming specialist youth justice practitioners. The impact of this specialisation of YOT staff may not be so concerning if there were greater clarity around the relationship between the YOT functions and responsibilities and those of other agencies. In many areas, however, this is still lacking.

 

2.4 The Children Act 2004 requires children's social care, health and youth justice services to work together for the benefit of children and young people. Section 10 places a duty on local authority children's services and their local partners - including youth offending teams, the police, Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts - to work together to improve the well-being of children and young people, in relation to the five Every Child Matters outcomes. Section 11 requires local partners - including local authority children's services, youth offending teams and prisons/secure training centres - to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people.

 

2.5 Despite the existence of these duties, and the clear link between offending, entering custody and other poor outcomes, young offenders, including those with experience of the care system, do not always receive the services they need, encountering barriers to accessing: education, employment and training; accommodation; and mental health and substance misuse services.

 

2.6 NCB, therefore welcomes the proposals in Care Matters and the Children and Young Persons Bill which seek to ensure that looked after children who enter custody maintain a consistent relationship with their social worker and local authority. In particular, clause 13 of the Bill places a duty on local authorities to ensure that a representative of the authority visits each looked after child on a regular basis. This will apply to looked after children who enter custody, and, through regulations, to those who were accommodated under section 20 Children Act 1989 prior to entering custody. NCB welcomes this approach and during the passage of the Bill is seeking assurances around the qualifications of those who visit a looked after child in custody and the timing and purpose of those visits (see NCB submission to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee inquiry on the Children and Young Persons Bill, 1 February 2008). We will also seek to ensure that these procedures apply equally to children who are accommodated under section 20 before they enter custody.

2.7 While we welcome the requirements under clause 13, we are calling for further action to break down the welfare/justice divide, which affects all children in custody but, in particular, those who are in local authority care or are care leavers.

 

2.8 We are asking for:

 

2.9 Systems and approaches that can more effectively link justice to welfare, and the promotion of a relationship-based system to respond to offending behaviour

Despite the existence of legal duties requiring children's social care, health and youth justice services to work together, the specific aims of the children's social care and youth justice systems are different. Children's services agencies are concerned with safeguarding and promoting well-being, whereas the purpose of the youth justice system is to prevent offending. Many vulnerable children receive a service from both, but NCB believes that more needs to be done to enable joint working across the boundaries. Children and young people are clear that they want a more flexible approach towards helping them, and that they value people who take an interest in them as individuals and who are prepared to stick with them through a range of difficulties.

 

2.10 Clarification of the responsibilities of social, education and health services to looked after children who offend and the development of mechanisms to hold these services to account when they do not meet these responsibilities

The blurring of YOT staff members' links with their 'home' agencies, and the lack of clarity about how the responsibilities of the YOT fit with those of other services, means that there is a risk of children, particularly those with multiple needs, being constantly passed between agencies as someone else's responsibility. Despite Justice Munby's ruling in 2002 that children in custody continue to be eligible for support under the Children Act 1989, mainstream services such as social care and education continue to be reluctant to engage with children in or leaving custody. There are currently no mechanisms to ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities, and hence an increasing use of judicial reviews as the only lever. More productive and positive means need to be identified.

 

2.11 A joint crime prevention strategy that looks at how services can address unmet welfare and other needs that contribute to offending behaviour 

The problems that lead young people to offend are also those that place them at risk of other adverse outcomes, including the risk of entering local authority care. This is well recognised, but mainstream services often have such high thresholds that help may not be available at an early enough stage to prevent offending behaviour. Children may be labelled as potential offenders in order to access help, but this may have negative consequences in the ways that they or others perceive them. The challenge is to ensure early access to help for children and their families in a non-stigmatising way. Although many local authorities are looking at creative ways of working together to prevent offending among young people, there are barriers that need to be overcome, such as separate funding streams.

 

2.12 An investigation of all youth justice interventions for their suitability for children and young people

There is considerable emphasis within the youth justice system on assessment activity, and on identifying the factors associated with a young person's offending, but less on the interventions that will help. Many young people are offered programmes, such as anger management or victim awareness courses, that may rely on cognitive skills to be effective, and the popularity of other approaches does not necessarily reflect a firm evidence base. There is a need to evaluate these programmes to ensure their suitability and effectiveness for children and young people. Alternative ways of engaging and supporting young people need to be considered, such as pro-social modelling or more individualised responses based on a holistic assessment of need.

 

2.13 A safe custodial system that provides care, education and training, and prepares young people for their release into the community

Although custody should be the last resort, the experience of those young people should be as positive as possible in order to increase their chances of successful resettlement. This is particularly important for children who have been in care, who: may have experienced disruption in accessing education; are at greater risk of engaging in risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol misuse; and may have difficulties developing positive relationships due to experiences of loss, neglect or abuse. The first requirement is that establishments are safe, so that young people can live without fear. Only then will they be able to take advantage of the services that should be available to them. Services provided to young people in custody should at least match the quality of those available to children in the community, and they should be measured against the same standards.

 

2.14 The needs of looked after children in custody to be highlighted in inspection frameworks for HMI Prisons and Ofsted

The inspection arrangements for children in custody are complicated, and do not reflect those of children living away from home in other settings. The expectations and standards are different from those required within the National Minimum Standards for registered settings (e.g. local authority children's homes, residential special schools), and local authorities are not held to account for the custodial establishments that lie within their boundaries. The inspection frameworks should be aligned with those for other children living away from home so that expectations are clear and child-centred.

 

2.15 Greater cross-departmental and inter-agency working to ensure health and well-being needs of young people in the youth justice system are identified and met

The health and well-being needs of young offenders should be met in a holistic way, throughout the young person's stay in the secure estate, and ensuring appropriate continuity of care on release from custody. NCB's Department of Health-funded project, 'Healthier Inside - Improving the Health and Well-being of Young People in Custody', has produced a number of resources to share effective practice in making secure settings as safe and healthy as possible.

 

2.16 This year, the Government is expected to publish a green paper on post-justice continuity of care.[vii] NCB hopes that these issues will be addressed in the green paper, and that it contains specific proposals for ensuring greater continuity of care for looked after children and care leavers

 

February 2008

 

 

 

 



[i] Department for Education and Skills, 2007

[ii] YJB (2005) Youth Resettlement A framework for action. London: YJB.

[iii] YJB (2005) Youth Resettlement A framework for action. London:YJB.

[iv] Lader D, Singleton N, and Meltzer H (2000) Psychiatric Morbidity among Young

Offenders in England and Wales. Office for National Statistics.

[v] YJB (2004) Substance Misuse and the Juvenile Secure Estate. London: YJB.

[vi] YJB (2007) Accommodation Needs and Experiences of Young People who Offend. London: YJB

[vii] Department for Children, Schools and Families (2007) The Children's Plan: Building brighter future (paragraph 6.84).