Care and criminal justice: a lived experience rethink of the care system
Charlie and Anthony, Lived experience members
In this think-piece, Revolving Doors lived experience members, Anthony and Charlie, join our Rethink & Reset campaign to call for an overhaul of the care system. They reflect on their experience of the care system and how multiple failures led them and others into a cycle of crisis and crime. Anthony and Charlie also tell us how the care system can be reshaped to ensure children and young adults can lead lives that are fulfilling, nurtured, and crime-free.
People who have been in care in the UK are much more likely than others to end up in contact with the criminal justice system. Over half of kids in care had a conviction by age 24, compared to less than 1 in 8 of children who had not been in care. When it comes to prison, it is even more skewed – you are twenty times as likely to end up in prison if you have been in care than if you hadn’t been. As people who have been through both the care system and the criminal justice system ourselves, we have seen first-hand how trauma and a lack of support for care-experienced people has led many like us into a cycle of crisis and crime – but we also know what needs to change to make the system better.
Care and criminal justice: What’s the issue?
What is clear to us is the lack of love that children in care suffer from – and how that can push many of them into the criminal justice system. Children are put into a hostile environment from a young age, which leaves them impressionable and vulnerable to people whom they shouldn’t be around. Those working in the criminal justice system often talk about the importance of family ties in recovery and rehabilitation – something that children in the care system often don’t have. For instance, someone who shows ‘disruptive behaviour’ in care might be separated from their siblings and moved to a different unit.
The truth is that being in care forces you to grow up quicker than most children. Living in a hostel when you are as young as 15 means you have to make adult decisions every day: from cooking your own food, to being given money for your own groceries. You lack any discipline or structure – you’re treated like an adult, but you’re still a child. We were forced to grow up before we turned 18, before we even had a childhood. The trauma that comes from this plays a big part in why care-experienced people end up in the criminal justice system.
Despite facing such trauma at a young age, children who grow up in care rarely get the support they need. You may have been abused, and if you ever do tell someone, you are often told that there is nothing they can do and you need to “get over it”.
When you have been through this or any other trauma, you don’t get trauma therapy or other help with your mental health. Instead, you are often seen as a disruptive attention seeker – not a child who needs help. The signs of grooming, exploitation or coercion into criminal activity often go unnoticed because social workers are so overworked and they can’t afford the time to sit down with you, gain your trust and talk about what you’re going through – but it is us, the kids in care, who ultimately pay the price.
This is when other drivers of crime, such as problematic substance use, often start – while you are in the care system. We have seen other children stealing our subsistence money to fund their addiction, in an attempt to numb the pain of the trauma they’ve gone through. This makes problems with drugs and alcohol a big issue in the care system.
We feel that these issues are often exacerbated in the private foster care system, where foster carers are paid to look after you.
For some of these foster carers, the primary motivation can be money, rather than the child’s well-being. In these cases, children end up not being cared after or loved.
Another issue with the care system is that children can be sent miles away from their homes where they grew up, to where a space with a foster carer is available. This often then ends up in children running away and having the police called – and this is where the cycle of crisis and crime often begins. When they’ve been through all this, it’s no wonder so many children who’ve experienced the care system end up involved in crime.
So what needs to change?
First and foremost, we need a care system that cares. What does this mean in practice?
Firstly, we both believe that hostels – or supported independence units – are no place for any person under 18.
They should only be used as an absolute last resort, as hostels just do not offer the safe and nurturing environment that a child deserves. Sadly, many people working with young people in care do not understand what the reality of living in a hostel is like. Social workers and others who are responsible for finding places for children and young people to live should live in these units and see what it’s really like for the kids and young people living there.
What goes in hand with this is a shutdown of the private foster care system.
Looking after children who carry significant trauma and vulnerabilities should not be a business, and no child should be made to feel like they are just a number. This is not to say that fosters carers should not be reimbursed, but for their heart to really be in it, we should not allow profit to be made off the children they look after.
Just like most children growing up in care, we both suffered from a clear lack of opportunity. When you’re not given access to the sorts of activities most children take part in while growing up, it reinforces the stigmatization of children in care. This also pushes many of us into the criminal justice system because we are searching for a sense of belonging, or are exploited by others. This needs to change. Children in care need to be offered free regular activities that match their interests – whether it’s ballet, football, music, or drama – anything that can occupy a child’s time meaningfully. Preventing children from sitting in a room bored and left to their own devices goes a long way to prevent poor decision-making.
In terms of support, so much more is needed to make sure we don’t have to reach crisis point or be on our last leg before we get the help we need.
Instead, the assumption should be that every single child in the care system needs mental health support, with every child able to access it. Children leaving care are often set off on the wrong foot because they haven’t been taught all the things that people need to know when they enter adulthood, such as budgeting, cooking, paying bills, doing chores – this should be addressed through proper independence training when they are approaching 18. There also needs to be tailored support offered to children in care to prevent more of us from being exploited and ending up in the criminal justice system. But that support can only work if there is consistency. Children in care need to be provided with a sense of family and normality instead of being moved around and uprooted over and over again. When that stability just isn’t there, crime often seems like the only option.
We believe that a new role needs to be created to support children throughout their journey in the care system – a personal advocate, who is different from their social worker but works alongside them.
This person could make a marked difference to young people’s journey through care by talking them through their rights whenever needed, providing emotional support regularly, and providing the consistency and lasting relationship that care-experienced children so desperately need. These roles would ideally be undertaken by people with lived experience of the care system. We can go out and meet people in care to help social workers deal with caseload issues, as well as being able to mentor people in care, understanding the issues they’re going through.
Finally, and most importantly, people with lived experience of the care system need to be central to a re-design of the system. We need to be sitting on boards, we need to be central to consultations and programme design and policy-making.
The system needs overhauling to prevent more children falling into the cycle of crisis and crime, and we’re the ones who need to lead this change.