Effects of pandemic risk a surge in the criminalisation of children

New research has highlighted a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions caused by the pandemic which risks record numbers of vulnerable children entering the criminal justice system.

24/03/22

Effects of pandemic risk a surge in the criminalisation of children

New research from the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) says there is a “significant risk” of a surge in the number of children drawn into the youth justice system following the pandemic.

The briefing says the exacerbation of children’s vulnerabilities, support services being under severe strain, and the complex and challenging policy context has caused the increased risk, and that Government must act now to prevent a surge.

It finds that the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children has been devastating, as not only have pre-existing vulnerabilities been exacerbated and safeguarding concerns heightened, but many more children and families are now exposed to new and increased challenges.

One Senior Official in HMI Probation told researchers: “There’s a whole range of things that YOTs will see young people coming through with, more serious mental health issues, issues that haven’t been picked up, issues that haven’t had that support.”

Access to support was also said to be at risk as services are under severe strain. Authors said the pressure on statutory and voluntary sector services as a result of COVID-19 should be seen in the context of systems already under severe strain, that were already struggling to meet children’s needs before the pandemic.

“When the justice system intervenes, it is often in place of other forms of support, resulting in a response focusing on the ‘offender’ rather than the child. This can act as a key moment when behaviour begins to negatively spiral, labelling and reinforcing criminal identities in children,” the report said.

“But without coordinated and concerted action, the commendable progress made over the last decade to reduce the criminalisation of children risks being reversed in the post-pandemic period. The range of vulnerabilities and social problems that have been compounded by the pandemic coincide closely with many of the factors that bring children into conflict with the law, with disadvantaged and marginalised communities suffering particularly adverse impacts.”

The AYJ said the pandemic has also exposed a lack of national strategy for children, criticising a “fragmented policy landscape [that] creates a real danger that children will fall through the gaps”, and punitive measures risk widening the net of children within the realm of enforcement and criminalisation.

The Alliance says that strong leadership and co-ordinated action are required to address the impacts of the pandemic and prevent an influx of children into the youth justice system.

“We call for vulnerable children to be at the heart of policy and practice, and concerted efforts to maximise diversion of children to positive pathways outside of the justice system,” the Alliance said, releasing the report.

Writing in a blog responding to the report, former Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who now heads up the Commission on Young Lives, said: “There is no doubt that many children have found the last two years extremely tough.”

“For thousands of vulnerable children though, lockdown was particularly horrendous. Even before Covid, there were hundreds of thousands of children in England growing up surrounded by addiction issues, domestic violence, serious parental mental ill health, or poverty. For many, Covid rocket-boosted these existing problems. For others, Covid brought them on.”

“Sadly, these are the families who are so frequently invisible and go unsupported, and these are the children most likely to fall through gaps in the education or care systems. Often, they are the children who can end up in harms’ way - exploited by ruthless organised criminals into county lines or by the abusers who have such a talent for spotting the most vulnerable teenagers.”

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