Childhood in care raises risk of entering English youth justice system eightfold

<span>Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy

The largest ever study of care experience and the youth justice system in England has revealed that children who have lived in care are eight times more likely to have received a youth justice caution or conviction than those who have not.

Using data collated by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Department for Education, the study monitored the experiences of almost 2.3 million children born in England between 1996 and 1999. Their data was recorded between the ages of 10 – the minimum age of criminal responsibility in England – and 17.

It revealed that 33% of care-experienced children received a youth justice caution or conviction, compared with 4% of those without care experience. This figure was even higher for some care-experienced minority ethnic groups including black Caribbean (39%), mixed white and black Caribbean (42%), Travellers of Irish heritage (46%) and Gypsy/Roma (50%).

The study, led by Dr Katie Hunter, a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and supported by Lancaster University, was funded by Administrative Data Research UK. Of the children monitored, 2,241,250 did not have care experience and 50,070 did. Care-experienced people accounted for 2% of the overall dataset but 15% of those with youth justice involvement and 32% of those who received a custodial sentence.

At total of 9%of black and mixed ethnicity care-experienced children received custodial sentences – almost twice as many as white care-experienced children. The proportion of those with no care experience who received a custodial sentence was less than 0.5%. Hunter said minority ethnic care-experienced children faced a “double whammy” of disadvantage.

Children with experience of care were far more likely to be “juvenile prolific offenders” – defined by the MoJ as individuals who have received four or more youth justice cautions or convictions. Care-experienced children with a criminal record had an average of seven cautions or convictions, compared with three for those without care experience, while those who identified as black and mixed ethnicity received on average eight and nine youth justice cautions or convictions respectively.

Children with a criminal record who had been in care were more than twice as likely to be given a custodial sentence as those who had not.

Indian and Pakistani children with care experience were least likely of all ethnic groups to have experience of the youth justice system (16%), but this was still four times higher than children who have not experienced care.

Hunter pointed to a number of reasons why care-experienced children were more likely to have a criminal record and to be over-represented among prolific offenders: they are often criminalised for behaviour that would not result in a youth justice intervention if it had occurred in a non-care setting; children can face excessive surveillance in care; police can unfairly target certain categories of children, including those from broken families.

Care-experienced children are also more likely to have mental health and drug problems and to struggle at school, all of which increase the likelihood of being criminalised. Hunter said these disadvantages could be exacerbated by instability and a lack of support available within the care system.

During the period covered by the study, the number of children cautioned or convicted in England fell sharply. About 39% of care-experienced individuals born in 1996 received a criminal record, compared with 26% of those born in 1999. The drop was steeper for those without care experience, with youth justice involvement halving from 6% to 3% across the four birth years, so the gap between the two groups widened during this period. While care-experienced children born in 1996 were seven times as likely to be cautioned or convicted as their non-care-experienced peers, those born in 1999 were nine times more likely.

Anne Longfield, the chair of the Commission on Young Lives and a former children’s commissioner, said: “The disproportionate number of care-experienced children who receive a youth justice caution, conviction or custodial sentence is shocking. This is further proof that many of the systems that are supposed to protect and support our most vulnerable young people, particularly black and minoritised children, are instead failing them.

“Without better investment in and reform of children’s mental health services, children’s social care, family support and the education system, we are writing off the life chances of thousands of young people before they even reach adulthood.”

David Graham, the national director of the Care Leavers’ Association, said: “The figure of 33% of such children having contact with the youth justice system is far higher than previous estimates. It is a terrible indictment of the failure of local authorities to parent and support children in their care. If birth parents were told there was a one-third chance their children would end up in the youth justice system, they would do whatever it took to stop this happening. It is time for the government to wake up to this situation and take concrete steps to support children in care to lead positive and thriving lives.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The overwhelming majority of children in care do not have any interaction with criminal justice system … We have a national protocol in place on reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers, and are taking action on risk factors that can lead to criminal behaviour, including through our work to improve school attendance.”