What Progress on Justice for Care Leavers?

Dr Claire Fitzpatrick

Are care leavers just more criminal? You might think so when you see them over-represented, year after year, in the criminal justice statistics. Would it be fair to think like this? Of course not! In reality, the situation is far from straightforward. This is certainly evident from current concerns (such as those raised by the House of Commons Justice Committee) over the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care for minor offences, their treatment in the youth justice system and their effective abandonment by local authorities as care leavers in the criminal justice system.

Last month the government’s progress report on the cross-departmental ‘Care Leaver Strategy’ was published to coincide with National Care Leavers’ week. The document provides a progress report on the original strategy which was first published last year. The very publication of such a strategy highlights that there is now some recognition in policy spheres that a more joined-up commitment to care leaver issues is required. In my view, this is absolutely crucial for care leavers who come into conflict with the law. However, it is questionable whether much more than lip service is being paid to the key issues by the policy makers who claim to be addressing the needs of care leavers in the criminal justice system. Interestingly, the ‘Youth Justice’ section in the one-year progress report is noticeably one of the shortest sections of the document at not much more than half a page.

In fact, the longest sections in the government’s progress report are devoted to areas like education and employment. These are perhaps more comfortable topics for ministers to get to grips with, unlike the area of ‘justice’ where the boundaries between ‘victims’ and ‘villains’ become murky and blurred when care leavers are discussed. Whilst it has long been established that there are a disproportionate number of young people who have been in care in prison, what is often neglected is the official statistics that highlight that 62% of children and young people enter care because of abuse or neglect – and a mere 2% because of their own behaviour. What does this say about the state in its role as corporate parent?

Appendix A in the progress report outlines how various government departments have supposedly met or are meeting their targets from one year ago. In relation to the commitments of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), these included appointing a National Care Leaver Champion which has been done, with the post being occupied by the Governor of HMP/YOI Swinfen Hall. A further MoJ commitment is as follows:

“MoJ will develop clear ways of identifying care leavers in adult services both in custody and the community so we can better ensure they receive the right support…It will be coupled with guidance for practitioners who are completing assessment tools so that they understand better who qualifies for care leaver status”.

According to Appendix A, this commitment has been “met”, with guidance published by NOMS (2013) issued to staff in probation and prisons on ways of identifying care leavers. However, whilst the very publication of such guidance is a step forward, it is disappointing that the very first sentence notes that this guidance imposes no new requirements (emphasis in the original). This is certainly not a ringing endorsement for busy, often over-stretched practitioners to sit down and read it. The guidance may well have been produced and disseminated as the care leaver strategy progress report outlines, but the crucial question is has it actually been read, let alone changed ways of working?

To suggest that there are now clear ways of identifying adult care leavers in all parts of the criminal justice system, as indicated in Appendix A, is at best misleading and at worst simply not true. This was a sentiment echoed by a number of practitioners at a recent multi-agency stakeholder event in Lancashire on care leavers, looked after children and the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, my research with Patrick Williams of Manchester Metropolitan University on a pilot programme for care leavers on an intensive community order, and our recently published report for The Care Leavers’ Association shows that the issues are really not that simple. Some of the practitioners we spoke with disclosed a lack of knowledge and understanding about care leaver issues, as well as a fear of raising ‘care issues’ with young people – often because of genuine concerns over labelling and stigma. As one key stakeholder astutely observed in relation to the woeful neglect of care leavers in the criminal justice system:

“It’s not been a high priority or any priority sometimes when it comes to policy and direction and instruction and even assessment systems. It’s kind of like one of the things that’s ignored. Who knows properly why? I think some of it is they thought it wasn’t that important when actually it’s incredibly important. I think some of it is possibly concern about how to do it. When do you ask? Are they going to want to say? Should you be asking? Is it personal? How do you record it?…I think there’s some genuine concern about labelling…”.

It is clear that the issues raised above are not peculiar to our research site, but how can they begin to be addressed? As we argue in our report, specialist support is required that goes beyond more generic family-focused projects. The practitioners and care leavers that we interviewed both emphasised the value of a user-led intervention – delivered by those who have had experience of the care and criminal justice systems – and who had specialist knowledge about the support that individuals might be entitled to under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

A second multi-agency roundtable discussion on some of these very issues will take place in Lancashire next spring which will be organised in collaboration with The Care Leavers’ Association. The event is supported by the Lancaster University FASS Enterprise Centre and aims to give practitioners from the North West and beyond a chance to grapple with some of the challenges their organisations may face with supporting care leavers in the criminal justice system. A further objective is to identify potential solutions and action points to take forwards, building on some of the good practice that already occurs.

Whilst not wishing to undermine the good practice that does exist, and can be found, in various pockets of the country, the simple truth is that, in spite of the official rhetoric that creates an illusion of targets met, not nearly enough progress has been made centrally in relation to providing sustainable and consistent support to care leavers in the criminal justice system. Far more political and strategic will is required for this to happen – in the UK as well as in other jurisdictions. Care leavers deserve better than this.

Dr Claire Fitzpatrick is Lecturer in Criminology in the Lancaster University Law School and has a long-standing research interest in children in care and care-leavers in the criminal justice system. She has written widely on this topic including the book Young People in Care and Criminal Behaviour (JKP, 2006). Her recent working paper on ‘Achieving justice for children in care and care leavers’ (2014) has been published as part of the Howard League for Penal Reform’s ‘What is Justice? series.

You can find out more about Claire’s research at http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/law/profiles/claire-fitzpatrick

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