I have been reflecting on my early career as a youth worker in a semi-secure children's home. In this role I worked directly with many young offenders who, despite their misdemeanors, were all very damaged or mentally ill children. At that time I felt like a lone voice advocating that we should be helping them come to terms with the abuse and harm that they had suffered rather than punishing them.
Sadly, youth justice is still predicated on seeing the young person as an ‘offender' first.
This focus leads to a simplistic delineation between ‘offender' and ‘victim', which can be at odds with the experience of many young people in the youth justice system who are victims of crime, as well as abuse and neglect.
Many children who come to the attention of youth justice services will have been exposed to trauma in their life - either directly experiencing physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, or witnessing events that cause extreme distress. Some will have experienced repeated and extended ‘complex trauma' that increases the chance of lasting issues.
Of course, it is imperative not to excuse offending behaviour and its impact, but rather to understand and address its causes in order to prevent its recurrence. Signs or disclosure of past trauma may only become apparent after an offender has been in the system for a period of time. The wider discourse on victims of crime largely neglects to acknowledge that young people who offend are disproportionately more likely to be a victim of crime.
The evidence on the relationship between children who offend and children who have suffered trauma is well established. Studies indicate that between 33-92 per cent of children in custody have been affected by traumatic experience. A study of YOT caseloads in London found that:
- Around 50% of children in the caseload have had traumatic experiences, been the victim or witness to crime, abuse and/or violence
- Around 40% of the total caseload have emotional and mental health needs related to these experiences; and
- Fewer (around 20% of the caseload) receive support for these needs with provisions cited as variable and over-stretched.
The negative effects of unaddressed trauma in young people can include developmental delays, difficulty in developing and maintaining trust, diminished resilience and increased aggressive or risk-taking behaviour. Thus, recognising trauma and understanding its impact can guide how to work with children who have offended to break cycles of offending and prevent further victims.
With this in mind, the multi-disciplinary national Victims Reference Group (which is chaired by a member of the Youth Justice Board) was convened to tackle this challenge. It was tasked with informing a re-focus of the system and influencing policy and practice by considering current thinking and development around trauma, adverse childhood experiences and other initiatives.
Locally, Nottinghamshire's Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner is also taking forward a project, with the cooperation of City and County Youth Justice colleagues, to identify the nature and extent of the relationship between the victimisation of young people and their subsequent offending in order to inform how to meet their needs and address risks.
The role of schools, parents/carers and the services that we provide are vital in providing support to this vulnerable group. As are:
- Making sure that both victims and offenders have equal access to effective support services (and making sure that they are aware of these services).
- Opportunities for young people to engage in structured and supervised social activities.
- Education and awareness raising for victims, offenders and staff.
- Engaging parents and carers of young people in breaking the cycle of victimisation and offending.
While never condoning violence or serious crimes, I am advocating that we should be working with young offenders, and those at risk of offending, to understand and support them to come to terms with the impact on their behaviour, of poverty and their family experiences.
In exactly the same way, that across partnerships we all play a role in safeguarding our young vulnerable children we need to ensure that safeguarding our teenage offenders is also everyone's responsibility!
Alison Michalska is ADCS president and DCS at Nottingham City Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website