NYAS recently launched a new campaign called ‘Trouble with the Law’, which urges Police and Crime Commissioner candidates across England and Wales to make a commitment to protect and empower care experienced children and young people in the 2021 Police and Crime Commissioner May election. Joshua Williams, NYAS public Affairs Officer and Jennifer Downie, NYAS Policy and Research Officer wrote the below article for Policing Insight, explaining why it is important to keep care experienced young people out of the criminal justice system.

Since their introduction across England and Wales in 2012, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) have become vital in holding police forces to account and elevating the voices and concerns of the electorate. They are uniquely positioned to tackle systemic and cultural issues within their local forces, advocating for the material needs of their communities and having the potential to create long-lasting change. It’s clear that their work can have a huge impact on vulnerable children. However, when it comes to children and young people who have experienced our country’s care system, too often they fall through the cracks.

Unfamiliar environments

The care system is supposed to provide a place of refuge, free from traumatic childhood experiences, abuse, and neglect. Despite this, these children remain vulnerable, with a unique set of needs to their peers. Research has found time and time again that care experienced young people are disproportionately affected by crime, both as victims and as offenders.
16 and 17-year-olds living in children’s homes in England and Wales are 15 times more likely to be criminalised than other children of the same age. In England, children in care are six times more likely than other young people to be cautioned or convicted of a crime. Though the majority of children entering the care system have been victims of abuse or neglect, the trouble with the law is that it soon goes on to criminalise them more than their peers.

From the moment they enter care, children must become accustomed to living in unfamiliar new environments, with many moved miles away from their home county. Isolated and vulnerable, it is a harrowing statistic that more than a quarter of all identified or suspected victims of child trafficking in the UK last year were missing from care. Despite this fact, vulnerable children and young people who are exploited by organised crime gangs are too often treated as criminals, not victims.

Being care experienced does not absolve a young person from responsibility. However, a failure to understand childhood trauma can leave young people isolated, unnecessarily arrested for minor offences and at severe risk of exploitation. We welcome recent steps by many police forces to become trauma-informed.

Child-centred policing

Adopting a child-centred policing model that supports non-criminal justice interventions is vital to preventing care experienced young people from ever entering the criminal justice system.

Decisions made with the best intentions can re-traumatise children. A 14-year-old boy NYAS were supporting in the Midlands was repeatedly reported missing and it became clear he was being exploited by a county lines drugs gang. It was decided by the local authority that it was in the boy’s best interests to move him to Wales. For fear of him absconding, he was only told he was being moved at the very last minute. This was likely the right decision to protect him from further exploitation, but it is so important that he would be listened to and taken seriously.

This boy told us afterwards how he had cried during the whole car journey to Wales. He did not know where Wales was or how far he was travelling. He thought of it as a foreign country, and had never been abroad before. He was anxious about having no passport and told us he thought no-one there would speak English and be able to understand him. He told us all these fears and anxieties, but he had not felt able to share this with his social worker who was driving the car. Confusion, instability and powerlessness must not be compounded by professional decision-making.

PCCs can coordinate efforts by partner agencies to be child-centred and uphold children’s rights. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that all children have the right to be listened to and taken seriously. That must be the starting point for improving policy.

Pledge your support

NYAS’ national ‘Trouble with the Law’ campaign is asking PCC candidates to pledge to support care experienced children and young people.
PCCs have a unique and vast opportunity to change young people’s lives for the better. For too long, care experienced children and young people have been more likely than their peers to be in contact with the criminal justice system.

Our campaign asks PCC candidates to sign up to the following pledges to:
1. Work to keep care experienced young people out of the criminal justice system.
2. Never make policies about young people, without young people.
3. Protect victims of exploitation and missing children.
4. Campaign to end the life-long stigma of criminal records.

We are asking candidates to pledge to work with young people for a better future.