Contested Vulnerability: A Case Study of Girls in Secure Care

This ethnographic study in a secure unit in England explored girls' concepts of vulnerability. It argues that by conflating childhood and vulnerability, the unit disenfranchises girls from services that are designed to help them.

Author Katie Ellis

Published in Children and Youth Services Review 88 (2018)

Children in the youth justice system generally have similar characteristics and needs as children who are the subject of welfare services. A child who suffers abuse at home receives support from social services. However, if the same child is caught stealing, they are likely to become the responsibility of the youth justice system.

This qualitative study was conducted in one secure unit (LASCH) to explore girls' perspectives of their pathways into secure care. It included: participant observations; semi-structured interviews with 15 female residents aged between 12 and 16; case note analysis; and interviews with five members of staff.

Study findings

Seven girls were placed in the unit on welfare orders and eight were serving criminal sentences. Although separated by legal sentences and definitions, there was a crossover between the two. For example, 13 girls had lived in local authority care at some point and 14 had been arrested at least once. In addition, the legal status of some girls changed while they were in the unit. For example, two girls on welfare placements were sentenced for crimes committed before their placement.

The dual purpose of the unit was a source of frustration for the girls, particularly those who were the subject of welfare orders. They frequently commented on the injustice of being "locked up" with children sentenced for committing a serious crime. In addition, they felt that it was unfair that girls with a criminal sentence had a fixed end date for leaving the unit, whereas they did not know if or when they would leave.

The girls were provided with a range of enrichment activities, which were designed to occupy them and divert them from "less productive" behaviour. Some felt that the unit was trying to "erase" their previous experiences because they had been inappropriate for a child their age. They felt that the unit's classification of them as children did not fit well as their lives had been filled with adult activities. Thus, they found the enrichment activities infantilising. Others, however, embraced the opportunities provided by the unit to feel like a child.

The term "vulnerable" was frequently used by staff and in case files to describe the girls. The girls themselves strongly disagreed with this description. Rather than their difficult experiences making them vulnerable, they felt that they had demonstrated strength and independence by surviving these experiences. In particular, they felt that there was a contradiction between them taking responsibility for criminal actions and being too vulnerable to manage everyday decisions.

To avoid further trouble in the unit, the girls tended to play the part of a compliant resident without necessarily accepting staff's messages and ideals. Staff felt that discussions of adult topics with the girls were inappropriate, which meant that opportunities to empower the girls to be independent and to learn new coping strategies were lost.

Implications for practice

This is small-scale study in one girls' secure unit, which limits the ability to generalise about the findings. However, the following implications for practice are suggested.

  • It is important that all staff have an understanding of young people's complex and often traumatic life experiences. This requires specialised training and support to ensure they are able to work with them on a case by-case basis.
  • Professionals also require skills to encourage young people to engage with one another where relationships would be helpful for recovery and rehabilitation.
  • Discussions of vulnerability in its wider sense - emotional vulnerability, financial vulnerability - would enable young people to identify how and where they have been taken advantage of. Such discussions would also help them realise that, as well as being vulnerable, they are also astute and resilient. Instead of blaming themselves, for past choices it would help them to reframe their experiences and plan different pathways for their future.


Related resources

Exploration of the Challenges and Opportunities for Trauma Informed Practice for Females in Custodial Settings, Lisa Thomson, July 2018

Child-friendly Youth Justice, National Association for Youth Justice, September 2017

Tangible Trauma Informed Care, Scottish Journal of Residential Childcare, 2017

Evaluation of the Enhanced Case Management Approach, Welsh government, March 2017

Review of Youth Justice System in England and Wales, Charlie Taylor, December 2016

Related resources by Research in Practice

Trauma Informed Approaches with Young People: Frontline Briefing, Danny Taggart, August 2018

Developing and Leading Trauma-informed Practice: Leaders' Briefing, Julie Wilkinson, August 2018

Research in Practice blog: AssetPlus - a Vehicle for Desistance Thinking?, Kathy Hampson, August 2016

Time for Positive Youth Justice?: Blog; January 2016

That Difficult Age: Developing a More Effective Response to Risks in Adolescence: Evidence Scope, Hanson and Holmes, November 2014

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust

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