Last week the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Association of YOT Managers (AYM) and the Local Government Association (LGA) jointly published a policy position paper on youth justice. It has called for fundamental changes in both policy and practice to continue to divert more children away from the system whilst ensuring it is safe for, and meets the needs of, the children already in contact with it.
In many ways recent youth justice policy can be considered a success story, with the dramatic reductions in cautions, convictions and overall contact with the youth justice system over the last decade or so. However, these headline achievements mask very significant challenges that require urgent attention, and crucially, action, from the over-representation of children with special educational needs and children in care to an alarming growth in racial disparities and rising use of remands.
The paper particularly focuses on the five years since the shocking BBC Panorama exposure of aggressive staff behaviours towards children at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC). A host of related reviews, inquiries and reports, have been undertaken during this time, with hundreds of recommendations for change proposed by independent reviewers, select committees, the inspectorates, and others. The BBC documentary, and the strength of public reaction to it, should have been a watershed moment, but sadly it was not.
Five years on many of the same issues remain or have been heightened by the pandemic, from backlogs in the courts and children’s access to education in custody to the way we respond to criminal exploitation. The inspectorates have documented an alarming deterioration in conditions and performance of the youth secure estate over the last couple of years, with two secure training centres closing and fresh concerns arising in recent weeks about the safety and wellbeing of the children in the country’s last remaining secure centre. It is unthinkable this situation would be replicated elsewhere in children’s services e.g. a school or children’s home.
The cohort of children now involved with the system have more complex needs and their offending behaviours often mask underlying vulnerabilities, including trauma, neglect and school exclusion. Levels of violence and self-harm in custody are high and rising indicating needs are not being met. Children in and on the edge of the youth justice system deserve better.
A redesign of the current youth justice arrangements is clearly required to achieve the government’s ambition to have a truly ‘child first’ approach. We need to work differently with children, families and communities, while agencies, including government departments, need to work differently, and together, to bring about change.
Charlotte Ramsden OBE is the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Strategic Director for People at Salford City Council.