Turning strong language on its head, connecting policy priorities and moving beyond the limits of the law could reduce the number of children in care ending up in prison.
Research that charts new ground on the care-crime connection calls for policy-makers and professionals working across state care and control systems to adopt new strategies.
‘Reducing the Care-Crime Connection in a Climate of Crisis’, written by Dr Claire Fitzpatrick, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Lancaster University Law School, is published in ‘Child and Family Law Quarterly’ today.
The ‘crisis’ relates to conditions within the care and prison systems, currently both ‘bursting at the seams’.
Dr Fitzpatrick says the number of people who have been in foster care or children’s homes and involved in the criminal justice system could be further reduced.
“However, continued diversionary push-back from the youth justice system, that prevents children from having youth justice involvement in the first place, is vital if we are to avoid children in care being unnecessarily criminalised in the future,” she adds.
The research breaks new ground by comparing recent trends in the care system, (where numbers of children have risen rapidly), with the youth justice system, (where numbers of children have dramatically dropped) with the prison system, (where conditions have significantly deteriorated).
It calls for the need to avoid unnecessarily criminalising children in care despite the current crisis backdrop.
The youth justice system could hold the solution with its commitment to ensuring that vulnerable children are treated as ‘children first, offender second’, and kept out of the justice system wherever possible.
Ultimately, adds Dr Fitzpatrick, this could reduce the numbers of children with a criminal record and the numbers who go to prison.
She suggests a number of strategies including challenging and changing the ‘stigmatising language’ used by the systems, processes and people – turning the ‘strong language on its head’ and, instead, focusing on the human being.
Phrases, often heard and found in official files and reviews, such as ‘profound deficiencies’, ‘serious failure’, ‘hard to reach’, ‘difficult to engage’, ‘enormously complicated’ and ‘poor attachment’ would be out.
Instead ‘a more positive overall narrative’ would feed into a more hopeful practice and raise aspirations.
“The danger is we simply reproduce some of the negative risk and perceptions of riskiness so often associated with this with ‘care experience,'” says Dr Fitzpatrick.
The language used in legislation and policy is also questionable and telling, she added, with the restrictive legal definitions of who gets offered leaving care support leading to individuals being categorised as ‘eligible’, ‘relevant’ or ‘former relevant’.
“This is hardly a means of encouraging practitioners to keep the human being in mind, and also discourages policy-makers and practitioners from casting their gaze beyond early adulthood.
“From a life-course perspective, this is deeply problematic because it ignores individual development over time, and fails to see the connections between childhood and adulthood.”
There was, she added, a serious need to challenge the narrative of blame so often associated with children in care, particularly given the capacity of language to invoke moral judgements
The development of a life-course perspective could significantly improve understanding of the impact of care-experience over time.
“Understanding the impact of care-experience across the life-course is crucial because this experience does not simply disappear at age 18 or 21, even if the support offered by the state does”.
Further strategies outlined by Dr Fitzpatrick include the need to highlight the long-term consequences of criminalisation in care, and the fact that criminal records obtained in childhood remain for a long time – with potentially life-long consequences.
In addition, support for adults with care-experience could be mainstreamed for the first time in locked institutions ‘to ensure that older care leavers are not abandoned’.
This could be achieved by connecting the ‘care’ agenda with other prison service policy priorities including the recent interest in prisoners’ families and the promotion of a rehabilitative culture.