Geographical barriers to supporting care leavers

28 October 2019

Oli PrestonOli Preston

Research in Practice for Adults carries out research and evaluation projects across social care, social justice, and criminal justice.

Recently we have been doing an evaluation of two projects supporting people with care experience in prisons. These projects are being funded by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and are being delivered by Barnardo’s in HMP/YOI Brinsford and HMP/YOI Portland and by Nepacs in HMP/YOI Deerbolt and HMP/YOI Low Newton.

In a previous blog I spoke about the disproportionate number of young people with care experience in the criminal justice system, discussing some of the research which aims to explain this inequality, and some of the approaches being taken to address it.

Since writing the blog, our Research and Evaluation team has completed the first phase of a two year evaluation of the Barnardo’s Care Leavers Engagement Service (CLES) at Portland and Brinsford prisons, and a service being delivered by Nepacs in Deerbolt and Low Newton.

The services both work with young people aged 18 to 25 in prison who have been in care and quality for support from their local authority (so-called ‘former relevant children’ in the relevant legislation). Portland, Brinsford and Deerbolt all house male prisoners, and Low Newton is a female facility.

Both programmes provide direct support for care leavers in custody and also aim to strengthen their positive relationships in other areas of life, improve the level of support they are receiving from the relevant local authority leaving care teams and the prison, and support wider system level changes for care leavers in custody.

I want to highlight some of the key findings from our evaluation of these services, and hopefully add to the conversations that are already happening nationwide on how we can improve the already tumultuous lives of people who have been in care. In this blog, the particular issue I would like to discuss is geography.

Case study

This is a fictional case study, but one which draws from several very real stories we have heard in our research so far:

'Ty' is currently 22 years old, serving a sentence in HMP/YOI Portland.

During his early life, Ty was removed from his family due to his mother’s mental health difficulties and had a number of short-term foster placements in and around Portsmouth, eventually being placed with his grandmother just outside of the city.

During his early teenage years, Ty became involved in a gang and caught up in some minor crimes. The relationship with his grandmother broke down and she was unable to care for him.

Ty had expressed an interest in music to his social worker, and it was judged that Ty should be moved to a placement in Brighton which would enable him to study music and move away the gang in Portsmouth.

Ty didn’t engage with the music course and wasn’t allowed to continue studying at the college. During his time in Brighton, Ty had encountered a group of young people and men who congregated near the residential placement. They offered some stability in the new city and Ty built a couple of strong friendships. He would regularly travel up to London with this group to visit other acquaintances.

By age 20, Ty was living between Brighton and South London, regularly going and staying with one of this group and going to parties in Buckinghamshire, north of London. Ty earned a bit of money selling pills to the people who came to these parties.

One day, at age 21, Ty and another of this group were arrested by an undercover police officer. Ty was holding drugs for several others in the group and was eventually sentenced to a minimum term of 18 months for having a lesser role in a category 4 supply of Class A substance. Because of his age and the sentence, Ty was sent to HMP/YOI Portland, in Dorset.

The case of Ty might sound familiar to many working in prisons or local authorities, and it is similar to some of the cases we have already seen in care leavers through this project. In particular, the geographical complexity of Ty’s story highlights several key points:

  • The instability due to multiple changing care placements which Ty experienced in his early life was potentially a key factor in his involvement in crime later in his life. 
  • Ty lacks a stable family unit who might proactively rally around him during this time to disrupt the lifestyle which has led to his arrest and entering custody. 
  • Ty has been in care in two different local authorities, formerly Portsmouth, and more recently in Brighton (but just as a reminder, this is a fictional case). 
  • Ty has developed support structures in various locations across the south of England – Portsmouth, Brighton, London, and Buckinghamshire. Although not all of these relationships are positive, none of these are easily accessible from Portland.

Our early findings suggest that young people like Ty are at high risk of being further neglected due to the geographical disparity of their case. After the age of 21, Leaving Care teams are only responsible for supporting young people with care experience who actively seek support. At this hectic stage in their lives, and possibly due to negative former experiences, young people may not engage with local authorities proactively.

Furthermore, for young people like Ty who have moved between placements as well as moving out of the area at 18, it is not always straightforward for a local authority to track who is responsible for keeping contact. In the context of staff turnover, changes in the local offer, changes in legislation, outsourcing of Personal Advisor services, and increasing caseloads, it is understandable that the more complex cases are the ones which slip through the gaps.

Our evaluation looked at data collected by workers in Brinsford, Portland, Deerbolt and Low Newton related to the young people they were working with. The data shows that geographic disparity for care leavers is commonplace.

In the most extreme case in our dataset, the distance between the local authority responsible for providing support and the prison where the care leaver has been sentenced is over 300 miles. Driving this would take approximately six hours, each way. A total of 600 miles, 12 hours of travel, and £270 in fuel and transit costs (at £0.45p per mile). Should we expect a Personal Advisor, family member, or friend to be able to undertake this journey on a regular basis?

This issue is not exclusive to care leavers in custody either. The issue of geography is present across social care and social justice. Locality models, out-of-area placements, county lines, working with Traveller populations, social care transport costs; the issue of supporting people who have moved between areas is always challenging.

In the case of care leavers in prison, this geographical movement is both a potential factor in their initial incarceration, and a potential barrier to rehabilitation.

Addressing the problem

How then, when the evidence suggests that strengthening relationships and establishing stability pre-release is crucial for improving the outcomes of care leavers (Broome, Knight, Knight, Hiller, & Simpson, 1997; Brunton-Smith & McCarthy, 2016; Farmer, 2017), can services overcome this barrier?

Firstly, this is a problem which needs acknowledging at a national level. As this project continues, Research in Practice, Barnardo’s, NEPACS and HMPPS will be contributing additional evidence related to the geography of care leavers in custody.

Secondly, local authorities need to consider their approach to providing appropriate support to care leavers in prisons in remote locations. This might require the development of relationships with leaving care teams nearer the prison as well as the various services which exist within prisons across the country for young people with care experience. At its most aspirational, this might include a joined-up regional or national approach to supporting care leavers, rather than a post-code lottery whereby some receive proactive support whilst others are left neglected in prisons far away from their home.

Thirdly, prisons and offender management units need to think about the geographical factors surrounding care leavers in their prison, and acknowledge that certain young people may face additional vulnerability to reoffending given their journey to the prison gate (which they won’t necessarily voice).

And fourth, the criminal justice system at a judicial level should consider the impact of sentencing on local authority leaving care teams and young people with care experiences. The system needs to take a long-term and multi-agency view, whereby sentencing considers care leavers as a vulnerable population, and who considerations should be made for to ensure they have support at this complicated stage in their lives.

And the benefits of this aren’t just for care leavers and the leaving care teams who are tasked with supporting them. At a local and national level, reducing the cost and time pressures on leaving care teams is good for local authority capacity and budget too. Furthermore, strengthening positive relationships for care leavers is a protective factor for rehabilitation, which could ultimately reduce the demand on the criminal justice system.

Ultimately, geography is only one of a handful of problems faced by care experienced people who find themselves in prison; however this is a clear problem and one that we can begin to address in order to make a real change in the lives of young people.

About the author

Oli Preston is Head of Research and Evaluation at Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults. 


Broome, K. M., Knight, D. K., Knight, K., Hiller, M. L., & Simpson, D. D. (1997). Peer, family, and motivational influences on drug treatment process and recidivism for probationers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(4), 387–397. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169394

Brunton-Smith, I., & McCarthy, D. J. (2016). The Effects of Prisoner Attachment to Family on Re-entry Outcomes: A Longitudinal Assessment. British Journal of Criminology, 57(2), azv129. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azv129

Farmer, Lord. (2017). The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime Final Report from The Farmer Review. Available online: https://bit.ly/2Wi05BQ

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