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“We simply cannot carry on as we are”: Leaders call for new youth justice strategy

Publishing a joint policy position paper on youth justice, council leaders have call for a move towards a “more localised, responsive and child-centred system” in the future.

25/11/21

“We simply cannot carry on as we are”: Leaders call for new youth justice strategy

Service, strategic and political leaders in local government today (Thursday 25 November) publish a joint policy position paper calling for a new youth justice strategy.

They say whilst huge progress has been made in recent years in reducing numbers of children in contact with the youth justice system, significant challenges in both policy and practice remain. Children in care, from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and with special educational needs are increasingly overrepresented in the system. Urgent action is required to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children who are in custody and a greater focus on prevention efforts in the community is needed so that more children can be diverted away from the system.

Charlotte Ramsden, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the complex needs of children who are in conflict with the law can often be overlooked, despite their vulnerability.

“Many have been exposed to repeated and extended trauma, such as bereavement and family breakdown. A growing number of children are being groomed, coerced and exploited by criminal gangs yet the youth justice system works with children as ‘offenders’.

“The shocking deterioration in both conditions and performance in parts of the custodial estate evidenced in consecutive inspection reports is perhaps the starkest illustration of the disconnect between a ‘child first’ rhetoric and reality. It is simply unimaginable that any other area of services for children could be allowed to fester and worsen without significant intervention from the Department for Education.

“We need to work differently with children, their families and communities, and agencies, including government departments must work differently too, under the banner of a single, cross cutting strategy. We must improve the experiences and outcomes of children who are already in the system whilst acting on the reasons why children are more susceptible to crime, such as poverty and deprivation. We simply cannot carry on as we are.”

The coalition, comprised of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Association of Young Offending Team Managers (AYM), and the Local Government Association (LGA), believes a 2016 Panorama investigation exposing unacceptable staff behaviours and inappropriate restraint at Medway Secure Training Centre should have been a turning point, however, little has changed since then.

Multiple reviews, inquiries and reports have been undertaken in the last five years generating hundreds of recommendations for change, yet many issues remain or have worsened during the pandemic. Regulation, frameworks and guidance for youth justice services continue to focus heavily on risk and offences rather than children’s needs and outcomes and national governance and oversight arrangements continue to be a concern.

The Paper sets out the case for a new approach drawing on issues and challenges, such as the ongoing reviews into special educational needs and children’s social care. The Paper identifies a series of quick wins to improve children’s experiences and outcomes, including better information sharing between police and local authorities, changes to court arrangements and a long overdue review of the age of criminal responsibility in the UK, which at 10 years old is the lowest in Europe. They argue that adopting a public health approach to youth justice and childhood vulnerability, focusing on the journey of the child rather than departmental boundaries in order to prevent children falling through the gaps, is the principle long term ask.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said councils’ efforts in this field are often hampered by a lack of clarity surrounding funding, policies and strategy for young people in the justice system.

“If we are to incorporate a ‘child first approach’ as advocated by the Youth Justice Board, there needs to be significant changes in the existing system.

“It is essential to build on the good work of councils in preventing children from coming into the justice system, but the recent failures in the secure estate and the experience of young people during the pandemic shows how the system is letting some young people down. Rapid action is required to change those aspects of the system that are not working and which are having a significant impact on the outcomes of some of the most vulnerable children and young people.”

Hazel Williamson, AYM Chair, added that the paper will be a “good foundation” from which to identify developments to support further improvements for the future and improve outcomes for children to prevent them entering the criminal justice system.

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