Research reveals overwhelmingly negative experiences of the care system for victims and perpetrators of youth violence.

In March 2023, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) commissioned research on the lived experiences of those who have committed – or experienced – serious youth violence. The findings were published alongside HMICFRS’s report into the policing of these issues and as cross-disciplinary calls increase for a rethink of how serious youth violence is tackled. In a follow-up to his previous blog, Paul Egunjobi looks at the findings.

The charity User Voice spoke to 13 young people aged between 18 and 24 who were in prison, young offenders’ institutions or on probation. They listed five factors which young people believed made them vulnerable to serious youth violence. These were postcodes, poverty, community and crime, being targeted, care doesn’t care, early youth criminalisation, family and, lastly, money and respect.

Of the young people spoken to, nine out of 13 had been in care. All recounted negative experiences, describing a system that didn’t care for their emotional wellbeing. They had been taken away and alienated from their families and moved across the country to areas that were hostile or foreign to them. Most of the young people in the report were from disadvantaged areas where crime and postcode wars were considered the norm. Many spoke of family members who were involved in crime or in prison. This displacement has a profound psychological and emotional impact on children and young people who did not volunteer for this to happen.

The placement of a young person is primarily decided by local authorities which, the research found, tend to put young people with families who generally had little or no understanding of their lives and couldn’t, or didn’t want to, connect with the young people. By the age of 16, at least three of the young people interviewed were in semi-independent accommodation, living alongside 18-to-80-year-olds who were heavily involved in drugs and crime. Others moved between relatives, friends, care homes, hostels, and prison. This would invariably lead to a rise in criminal activity.

The young people interviewed felt their friends acted as a proxy family. They felt that their friends offered a level of security and a means to earn the money that their parents didn’t have. Quite often those who are taken into the care system do not have contact with members of their birth family whether these are their sibling, parents or external family members. They seek familiarity and an offer of ‘no explanation needed’ type of support, throwing themselves into fights with little knowledge of why or who they were fighting.

The level of care the nine young people received from social care workers ranged from “pointless” to actual abusive behaviour, with two incidents reported. The young people noted that social care workers simply stopped engaging with them. These workers are the primary custodians and guardians of young people and should be protecting their interests, and so it is a sad indictment that this view is often shared by many who have entered the care system.

Many described themselves as poor, and spoke of needing money and of the embarrassment of being poor. Some described seeing others make good money selling drugs and noted that there weren’t any options for them to get a job. The view amongst those who have taken up that lifestyle is that it is quick, fast money – and not taken by the taxman. This is one of the seduction methods used by older community members to take advantage of those more susceptible to influence.

Some of the young people surveyed described themselves as being initially targeted at school or in their communities. Some said this led them to becoming more seriously involved in violence and crime. Others described being set up by people who they thought were their friends or acquaintances. They said that this pushed them into “not caring” anymore and becoming more involved in violent and criminal activities.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in December 2022 revealed that 52% of children in care had a criminal conviction by the age of 24 compared to 13% of children who had not been in care. These numbers are staggering and indicate that a young person in the care system is four-times more likely to have a conviction than someone who is not. A separate poll conducted in March 2023 by Walnut Unlimited found that 69% of people thought the government should look for solutions to the root causes of youth violence rather than relying on policing. Somewhere in the system, things have gone wrong.

By 12 years of age, most of the people spoken to by User Voice felt criminalised and had built up a bank of negative interactions with the police that would fuel their distrust and aversion to police into young adulthood, and beyond. The young people revealed that initially they were the targets of serious violent offences and this was as a result of their postcode, friend or gang associations, or simply being a relative of a known criminal.

There were mixed views on whether youth offending teams (YOTs) are helpful or not. One young person mentioned in the report recounted that a YOT had put his life in danger by enforcing orders that put him in locations that he couldn’t safely go to (e.g. school). In some cases, YOTs reportedly sent young people to probation services in an area which already posed a significant risk of violence between rival gang members.

The young people spoken to for the research believed that children should be diverted from the criminal justice system, authorities should establish the root cause of the behaviour and they should develop a better approach to deal with it. They feel the root cause of their behaviour is never questioned or addressed because “no one cares”.

Initially, once in a community setting a young person will want to find a group which shares the same interests as they do. Sadly, many are drawn into gangs and spend much of their youth trying to gain respect within that collective. Quite often this involves serious violence and drugs. Much of the violence in the lives of the young people spoken to revolves around gaining or not losing respect.

Living in volatile environments and underprivileged areas, and not having the right options or support networks in place to either walk away from the situation or to leave the area without losing face, or their life, some of the young people didn’t feel like they had a choice. The support that was on offer was merely seen as a box-ticking exercise.

The report suggests that those who have lived experience should be employed and or engaged by agencies. There is belief that a person who has gone through a similar process could relate to young people who are currently in or have been involved in serious violence. In addition, it was suggested that there should be a focus away from criminalisation. The impact of having a criminal record limited employment opportunity and continues a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It appears that the User Voice findings are supported more widely among the general public. A report published on 25 April 2023 by a coalition of nine organisations (including Liberty, National Survivor User Network, Release and Kids of Colour), stated that a community-led approach should be used to tackle serious youth violence, and this should include more funding for youth services and mental health initiatives at the same time as a reduction in certain police powers.

There are organisations working hard to change outcomes for young people who have experience of the care system; the outcomes of the HMICFRS projects we have written about suggest that government agencies should perhaps be working with – and learning from – these organisations. For example, the Foundling Museum is a charitable organisation that has a focus on care-experienced children and young adults and has strong links to the care-experienced community. Since 1767, this charity has understood that rehabilitation is key to changing outcomes for this community.

Clearly, it is time for change, and to show that someone does care. This could save lives.