What is it about the care system that correlates with criminality?

11 February 2019

Oli PresonOli Preston

‘I came into a system that couldn't hug me when I needed a hug the most. And then, years later, I’m the one diagnosed with an attachment disorder?’

These are hard-hitting words from Lemn Sissay, addressing over 200 leaders and practitioners from across Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Lemm is Chancellor of the University of Manchester, author, playwright and poet. He is also a ‘care leaver’. But as Lemm puts it, he didn’t leave care. Care left him.

In his own words, Lemn was ‘built for prison’ by the care system. Taught not that he should aspire to great things, but that he should learn how to sign onto the dole so that he could make ends meet when he turned 18. You get the sense that the strengths evident from his public speaking – his quick tongue, his vivid imagination, his inability to stay still, his racing mind – that these traits could have been the exact thing that made his experience in care so difficult.

Although he didn’t end up in prison, as a care leaver, Lemn Sissay is from a population of people who are much more likely to become mixed up with the criminal justice system. Although this fact has until recently been overlooked, there has been a new focus on better supporting care leavers and reversing the trend.

This particular speech was made at the second HMPPS annual Care Leavers Conference, hosted by Teresa Clarke, the service’s ‘Care Leavers Champion’. In the last few years, the criminal justice system in England has started to respond to the mounting evidence that the care experiences of prisoners require a great deal more attention. To see why you don’t have to look much further than the headline statistics:

  • In 2016-2017, there were over 70,000 young people in some form of care in England alone. This includes foster care, residential homes, secure homes, or short term placements. The majority of these young people (approximately 60%) were in this situation to protect them from abuse or neglect. Only two percent of the care population were being parented by the state because of their own ‘socially unacceptable’ or ‘criminal’ behaviours (Department for Education, 2017).
  • The number of 18-21 year olds who are defined as care leavers in the same reporting year was approximately 27,000.
  • Overall, care leavers (aged 16-18) make up less than 1% of the under 18 population – 62 children for every 10,000 in England.
  • However in English and Welsh prisons, estimates suggest that over 25% of young offenders and more than 50% of the people in secure children’s centres have been in care (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, 2011; Redmond, 2015). This is not exclusive to a single area of the criminal justice system either. In both male and female, youth offender and adult facilities, you are more likely to meet a care experienced person than you would out on the street (Farmer, 2017).

What is it about the care system that correlates with criminality? And what is the nature of this relationship?

My instinct as a researcher and evaluator is not to jump to conclusions, but to ask more questions. It would be easy to blame the system and say that the experiences someone has in care make them more likely to offend, but this perspective overlooks the many hard working foster carers, social workers and other professionals who fight every day to improve the lives of the young people they work with.

Also, we shouldn’t overlook ‘confounding’ factors – things such as family and personal poverty, which might explain both the likelihood of being in care and of being imprisoned. Indeed, a review of evidence by the Care Leavers Association highlighted the links between poverty, the absence of familial support, and care leaver involvement in the criminal justice system (Graham, 2015); and a report by the Howard League for Penal Reform (Fitzpatrick, 2014) showed the large systemic gaps in support for people with care experience when leaving prison. The House of Commons Justice Committee (2013: 47) also identified this gap, citing the 'devastating implications' following release due to ‘the effective abandonment of looked after children and care leavers in custody by children’s and social services’ (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2013).

However, saying that this is simply ‘a money problem’ risks overlooking deeper systemic and societal issues. It might also lead people to believe that increasing payments for care leavers would solve the problem. But what kind of parent, corporate or not, would bring their child up in a system where they are taught that the appropriate replacement for loving family support is a slight increment in their Universal Credit entitlement?

Without further epidemiological research, it’s hard to know the exact relationships between poverty, care and prison – and the likely answer is that this relationship is complex and very much depends on the specific context of the young person. However, many studies suggest that a key factor in preventing offending and reoffending is a supportive family or social support structure, something which people who have been in the care system are less likely to have around them, both before and after they’ve been in prison (Fitzpatrick & Williams, 2017).

This lack of a stable family life, whether this family is biologically related or not, might explain a number of key factors that relate to criminological outcomes, and it has been shown that attachment to family is a significant factor in the prevention of reoffending (Brunton-Smith & McCarthy, 2016). For instance, family might help with money and accommodation, overcoming substance addiction (Broome, Knight, Knight, Hiller, & Simpson, 1997), and provide emotional support throughout early adulthood. Family might also offer support, advice and guidance around employment. Indeed, of the 27,000 care leavers in 2016-2017, 40% were not in education, training or employment, compared to 13% of the wider population (Department for Education, 2017).

In his recent review, Lord Farmer highlighted the absence of ‘key protective factors’ for care leavers, such as living with family after release and maintaining contact with family members or significant others during a sentence (Brunton-Smith & Hopkins, 2013; Farmer, 2017). Indeed, Ministry of Justice research found that rates of reoffending were 39% lower for prisoners who received regular visits from partners or family (Ministry of Justice, 2016); however these are clearly factors that may be more complex for people who have been in care. The evidence therefore suggests that the focus should be on helping young people to develop stable systems and relationships which can provide the type of familial support that might otherwise be unavailable to people who have previously been in care.

What would this support look like practically and why isn’t it already happening?

  • In his 2016 report, Lord Laming highlighted several areas for services to improve the quality of support for care leavers to reduce re-entry into the criminal justice system, including increased support during custody, better and targeted rehabilitation for young people who have experienced care, and improved multi-agency working between social care and criminal justice services (The Prison Reform Trust, 2017).
  • The Farmer review (2017) made recommendations that familial and other significant relationships could be better developed for care leavers before they leave prison. Furthermore, the review highlights the central role of staff (specifically, prison officers) in understanding care leavers’ circumstances and how to recognise the potentially sparse external support system they may have.
  • Furthermore, there could be efforts to increase the use of entitlements that already exist. Care leaver legislation and policy stipulates that young people who have spent a significant period of care in their lives (13 weeks or more) have a number of entitlements, including regular contact with a Personal Advisor (PA), a pathway plan which should be reviewed every six months, and financial support for things like accommodation, education and training. But these entitlements may not be accessed by all care leavers, and in prison the practicalities of accessing this support become even more difficult. Prisons might be located away from the local authority the care leaver is from, PAs might not be able to visit within visitation hours, and pathway plans might not be relevant to the terms of sentence and probation. In all, the realities of incarceration make support challenging.

However, there are already examples of services within prisons and local authorities which are addressing these needs. In HMP Drake Hall, a service led by an inmate and care leaver is improving the identification of other inmates who have experienced care, providing a regular support forum for care leavers, and assisting them with access to their entitlements, including regular visits with PAs and financial support for training.

In HMP Brinsford and HMP Portland, Barnardo’s are undertaking a programme of training for prison and local authority staff, focusing on appropriate support for care leavers. Their Care Leaver Engagement Workers will also be offering one-to-one support for care leavers, help with the development of positive relationships, and peer support groups. In Salford and HMP Forest Bank, the local authority care leaver service and local probation service have developed a multi-agency approach, including a shared protocol and joined-up pathway plans and probation plans for care leavers. And in the North East of England, the charity NEPACS are co-producing support with care leavers in HMP Deerbolt and HMP Low Newton to develop training resources and improve resettlement and resilience of care leavers.

Adequately supporting young people and young adults who are already in prison is only part of the solution. To really address the overrepresentation of care leavers in prison we require a more appropriate response to both the individual challenges that children in care face and the systemic issues which might be responsible for their criminalisation in the first place.

The recommendations in the Prison Reform Trust review (2017) have a particular focus on how the local authority, as the recognised parent of children in care, should be providing the kinds of support that are typically provided by families and are crucial to preventing young people from becoming involved in the criminal justice system in the first place. This includes reducing unnecessary involvement with police and criminal systems for arbitrary or non-serious acts; and improving the consistency in the way the Home Office deals with young people in care.

This feels like a particularly powerful recommendation given the context of corporate parenting’. Specifically, if a child from a stable family was to be punished by their parent – perhaps to be grounded, or to lose their allowance for a month – this might have some implications on family relationships, but then it would be over. Just a memory of ‘that time when you did that thing’. But punishment by a corporate parent might involve the inclusion of other services, social workers, even the police. And these services have statutory obligations to collect detailed records. Records that stay with young people throughout their childhood and often their lives.

As Scott King, a care leaver and trainer in providing support to care experienced people put it back at the HMPPS conference:

‘We should stop punishing care leavers. Most of these people have been punished enough – their parents and foster carers have all given them that message, and the system’s response to their reaction is to punish them further. But the things they’ve achieved despite the challenges they’ve faced is amazing. These strengths should be appreciated and acknowledged.’

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting young people who’ve been in care, and making a change to their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system will not be an easy task; however, the work of many individuals and the commitment of several organisations is starting to make a difference. And there are easy ways in which other organisations and care providers can join this movement too. As the evidence mentioned here suggests, any work which strengthens relationships for young people in care and care leavers would be a step in the right direction. Services should focus on ensuring care leavers are fully accessing the support they are entitled to, but more importantly, that leaving care is not the end of care.

All young people should have a family group – whether they are relatives, non-relatives, friends, work colleagues, class mates, PAs, or other professionals – well into their adult lives. Furthermore, developing and nurturing this support structure and planning for a family beyond care should be the focus of services and corporate parents long before a young person begins the transition into adulthood.

About the author

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

Related Research in Practice for Adults resources

Transitional safeguarding – adolescence to adulthood: Strategic Briefing

Transitions – supporting young people in transition to reach positive outcomes in adulthood: Webinar


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 Psychology53(4), 387–397. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169394

Brunton-Smith, I., & Hopkins, K. (2013). The factors associated with proven re-offending following release from prison: findings from Waves 1 to 3 of SPCR. Available online: https://bit.ly/2teS3fz

Brunton-Smith, I., & McCarthy, D. J. (2016). The Effects of Prisoner Attachment to Family on Re-entry Outcomes: A Longitudinal Assessment. British Journal of Criminology57(2), azv129. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azv129

Department for Education. (2017). Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending 31 March 2017. Available online: https://bit.ly/2USMQ8R

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/2wbo4Go

Fitzpatrick, C. (2014). Achieving justice for children in care and care-leavers. Available online: https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/HLWP_14_2014.pdf

Fitzpatrick, C., & Williams, P. (2017). The neglected needs of care leavers in the criminal justice system: Practitioners’ perspectives and the persistence of problem (corporate) parenting. Criminology & Criminal Justice17(2), 175–191. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1177/1748895816659324

Graham, D. (2015). Anti-poverty strategies for care leavers: the same as prisoners? Available online: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/cjm/article/anti-poverty-strategies-care-leavers-same-prisoners

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. (2011). The care of looked after children in custody: A short thematic review. Available online: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/08/Looked-after-children-print.pdf

House of Commons Justice Committee. (2013). Youth justice. House of Commons, UK. Available online: https://bit.ly/2Gl4uyO

Ministry of Justice. (2016). Prison Safety and Reform. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prison-safety-and-reform

Redmond, A. (2015). Children in Custody 2014–15 An analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experience in secure training centres and young offender institutions. London. Available online: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/12/HMIP_CP_-Children-in-custody-2014-15-FINAL-web-AW.pdf

The Prison Reform Trust. (2017). In Care, Out of Trouble: How the life chances of children in care can be transformed by protecting them from unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system: An independent review chaired by Lord Laming. Available online: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/WhatWeDo/ProjectsResearch/CareReview

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