by Karis Rae, Campaigns and Parliamentary Officer, TACT
Many myths exist about looked after children, one of which is spending time in the care system leads to crime. Whilst it is true looked after children are over represented in the youth courts (and prison population), less than 10% of the looked after population actually come into contact with the justice system.
This month, TACT and the University of East Anglia launched the findings of a two year Big Lottery funded research project into the links between being in care and offending. The report, 'Looked after children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience', is designed to improve the life chances of children in care at risk of offending and criminalisation. It is the most extensive study into crime and the care system undertaken in the UK.
What stands out the most from the report is the positive message uncovered: that entry into the care system can reduce the risk of offending behaviour. Yes, that’s right: care can act as a positive influence on young people at risk of offending.
It is important to note, first, that many of the risk factors for looked after children are the result of the previous trauma they have experienced prior to entering the care system. Experiences such as adverse parenting, abuse and neglect all contribute to shared risk factors that place a young person at risk of exhibiting offending behaviour. These behaviours can often be misattributed to being in the care system.
Another serious risk factor evident in the care system is inappropriate criminalisation through police and youth courts as a response to challenging behaviour and minor offences. The involvement of the police in situations within the family home can result in a criminalisation process that current practice protocols fail to prevent.
Crucially, TACT’s research shows that early entry into the care system followed by sensitive parenting in a stable placement with good professional support from a range of agencies minimises the risk of offending behaviour. This is not to say that entry into care as an infant is the only way the system can build resilience; the findings also demonstrate that entry into care in adolescence can also reduce the risk of offending.
The entry into care during adolescence and the transition from care to independence are key, defining periods in a young person’s life. Yet, these periods can present the opportunity for positive change and the research highlights that if the system capitalises on the protective potential of relationships and involvement in constructive activities for the young people, they can reduce their risk of offending.
The research includes over 30 practical recommendations for government, local authorities and agencies working in the criminal justice system. These include requiring all children entering the care system to have a full developmental screening (including mental health, learning difficulties, and speech and language). However, one of the best provisions to reducing the risk of offending is high quality foster care and residential placements. TACT prides itself on providing long term stable placements and has seen the progress and success this bares for looked after children. The research with UEA can now help spread this message so more children can benefit from its findings.More Articles by TACT (The Adolescent & Children's Trust) ...