One of the major concerns of the care system is the overrepresentation of looked after children in the criminal justice system. Although only 7.9% of children in care aged 10-17 offend in any one year, this is more than twice the number of children in the general population (3% – Department of Education, 2011).
This has raised questions about the overall effectiveness of the care system, and to public misconceptions about perceived links between care and crime.
In order to address these concerns, TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust) teamed up with the University of East Anglia (UEA) to undertake research identifying how best to reduce risk and promote resilience.
The resulting project is the most extensive study into the criminal and care systems ever conducted in the UK.
By analysing the report we are able to examine these concerns and dispel a range of myths.
Myth 1: Entry into the care system leads to a life of crime
Arguably the most troubling misconception the public care system faces. While there is overrepresentation of children in care in the criminal justice system, it is important to consider that most looked after children are exposed to various risk factors that lead to offending prior to entering care. These risk factors include:
- Family instability
- Delinquent peers
- Low academic achievement
- Stress, anxiety & depression
- Attention problems
- Familial substance abuse
- Lack of supervision
Whilst many of these factors are common amongst all children that commit crime, children in care that offend are:
- More likely to have been exposed to abuse and/or neglect
- More likely to have experienced mental health problems
- More likely to have special needs
The correlation between care and offending is to a large extent a result of these shared risk factors, and must be considered before assuming the care system is a root cause, as opposed to a solution.
Myth 2: Care doesn’t provide the necessary positive environment for troubled youths
The report demonstrates that this couldn’t be further from the truth, and that the care system is extremely effective at providing protective factors for children. These protective factors include:
- Trust in relationships
- A good ability to understand emotions and intentions
- A good ability to control emotions
- A good sense of morality
- Higher self esteem
- Strong cultural or national identity
The overall aim for creating a protective environment for youngsters is to instil the idea of resilience.
Resilience is a positive reaction from a young person who, in the face of adversity, manages to gain a sense of security and belonging whilst promoting pro-social values. All evidence suggests that children living in an environment with protective factors, whether it be with foster carers, residential workers or social workers, build resilience, and in turn confidence and self-esteem.
Myth 3: Care should be seen as a last resort
This rather outdated myth, sees the care system as the place where young people end up when there is no other hope left and nowhere else to go.
Again the evidence of the report debunks this myth, claiming that:
- Early entry to care followed by sensitive parenting in a stable placement with good professional support from a range of agencies, including education and health, minimises the risk of offending behaviour
- Late entry to care in adolescence can also reduce the risk of offending if it capitalises on the protective potential of relationships and involvement in constructive activities
Window of Opportunity? Or Slipping through the net?
What is also important to consider is that there are two critical ‘transitional periods’ for young people in care. These occur a) when the child first enters into care and b) the child’s transition from care to independence.
If the system works effectively this window of opportunity can mitigate risk factors as well as build resilience. If not there is a danger of the harm done before entry into care being exacerbated and an increased risk of entry into the criminal justice system.
Myth 4: Punishments need to be harsher for young offenders
There is a common misconception that the best way to prevent criminal activity is to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach and always bring charges if a young person is suspected of committing a criminal offence.
However, it is more likely that this will increase the risk of emotional and behavioural problems whilst also reducing the likelihood of young people getting back into education, training and employment. The report highlighted better ways to deal with offending youths involved:
- The use of ‘community resolutions’ whereby the offender should meet with the victim to make personal or community reparations, rather than resorting to the criminal justice system
- Improved procedures between children’s services and the police, to ensure such situations are handled appropriately based on the youth’s care status and situation
- Avoiding bringing criminal charges, particularly when a young person is resident in a children’s home, if it is not absolutely necessary
You can help!
There is a lack of foster carers who would like to work with children, including those at risk of offending.
Contrary to what many believe, there is no age limit to becoming a carer, you don’t have to be female, straight or be a homeowner. As a foster carer, you will receive a healthy fostering allowance each month and benefit from tax reliefs.
If you are interested in fostering, please get in contact with TACT – you can truly turn a child’s life around.