Care Leavers and the Criminal Justice System : a sorry state of affairs…

By Darren Coyne

Date Posted: June 15 2013


Darren Coyne is currently employed by the Care Leavers’ Association asking questions in a policy context on current discourses in relation to the care experience(s) of post care adults. Darren grew up in care, experienced homelessness, joblessness and custody and now boasts an education from the University of Leeds, BA Sociology, MA Social Research, during which he taught first year Social Policy & Sociology.


Care Leavers and the Criminal Justice System : a sorry state of affairs…

By Darren Coyne


The sorry state of affairs to which I refer is the fact that we have a significantly large group of care leavers for whom neither the state, nor anyone else has ever been a responsible parent, role model or a positive influence in their lives!

I’ve written elsewhere on this subject so what I say is not anything new; see Moments in Time

I’m particularly referring to those who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. I’m not just talking about those recent care leavers, but also those in their 30s, 40s and older who I meet in the course of my work, and who tell me that they have been in and out of custody since they day they left care, abandoned by their corporate parent. Surprisingly, they hold no grudge and rather blame themselves for not asking for help.

Both Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) in 2011 and The Youth Justice Select Committee in their 7th Report (2013) point to the effective abandonment of care leavers when they find themselves in custody, with little or no real effort made to ensure a joined up approach to their sentence planning and release planning.

Let me draw your attention to some alarming figures, which I would suggest make clear the appalling situation we find in our prisons today cannot be denied. Research shows there to be disproportionate numbers of care leavers in the Criminal Justice System (CJS), juvenile and adult, male and female and demonstrates the need to develop innovative approaches to understanding why.


    • Children in care and care leavers account for less than 1% of the population.
    • Over 25% of the adult prison population has previously been in care.
    • 49% of young men under the age of 21 in the CJS have spent time in care.
    • 27% of young men in custody have spent time in care.
    • 40% of girls in custody in the age group 15 to 18  have spent some time in care.



As evidenced through our current work within the Criminal Justice System, it is also the case that rates of re-offending and the risk of re-call upon release are significantly higher for this group, risks that can be mitigated if release into the community is adequately supported and tailored to the specific needs of care leavers.

The relationship between care and offending is a complex one; coupled with a poor start in life, a fragmented education and diminished life chances, some will have been abused or seriously neglected. For reasons outside of their own control their future prospects have been diminished.

Through our own work within the secure estate, it is not only clear that the figures above are somewhere near the mark, it is also clear that the secure estate is not equipped with the knowledge to deal with the massive disadvantages routinely experienced by care leavers, such as:


  • Poor unsuitable housing;
  • lack of support networks;
  • inability to locate oneself as an individual separate from the institution (institutionalisation),
  • emotional wellbeing;
  • attachment issues;
  • anger;
  • poor social skills;
  • lack of pro-social development;
  • poor education;
  • no family to talk of and thus no visits or letters;
  • a sense of abandonment;
  • loneliness; and
  • a lack of aspiration knowing they will be released to the same sense of loss they felt before going to custody.


We can look at all of this and conclude, as some do, that care leavers are inherently bad, that there is a cause and effect in respect of care and offending. The suggestion is that if you are from care you’re likely to go on to offend. Any fair minded person (which we care leavers are,) would say “b*****ks” and “don’t tar me with that brush”, because the idea of care being a cause of offending is utter nonsense and is the kind of nonsense peddled by the media and a society that enjoys a good moral panic, supported by such figures as those presented above.

A more considered response would not fail to ask questions of the ‘system’. This includes the care system, and its provisions for those leaving care. It also includes the legislature who fail time and again to recognise care leavers fully and appropriately within their policies, affording the opportunity for poor local authorities (corporate parents) to ‘duck and dive’, avoiding their legal responsibility for the young care leaver until they reach that age (generally 21) where they can say ‘case closed, now be off with you’.

Finding one’s way through the challenges of independent life is a daunting task for any young person. How much more so for a young person who is on the fringes of Society, alone and often in housing that we could easily define as ‘difficult to let, difficult to live in and difficult to get out of’. It is unfortunately a task too far for some.

The Care Leavers’ Association (CLA) has been working within the secure estate; engaging care leavers aged 16 – 25 and those across the life course. It is clear there are pockets of young people and adults from the care system living parallel lives who rarely feel able to reach out to other communities who do not share the same identity. The multiple disadvantages experienced by young people from care can have a negative impact upon them throughout their lives if they are not tackled squarely before care leavers make the full transition to adulthood.

These disadvantages are further exacerbated by the intense negative scrutiny to which care leavers with experience of the criminal justice system are subject by the press and media. There is a plethora of misinformation about care leavers, which is rarely contested and usually absorbed uncritically as an acceptable way to represent what is seen as a deviant community. These misrepresentations further perpetuate the exclusion of care leavers and young people from care.

However, if one looks at the data it becomes obvious that entry into the care system in 98% of cases is due to issues outside the control of the individual. Only in 2% of the cases is it a result of ‘socially unacceptable behaviour’, which of course can be defined in a number of ways and incorporate a number of behaviours.

The prevalence of historic prejudice and myth alongside the influence of families and peer groups cannot be under-estimated. Much of the suspicion of the care leaver community has roots in historical prejudice and myth and the notion of family. Care is not identified in terms of ‘family’ and as such is not seen as fitting that idea of ‘normal’ amongst peer groups.

It sometimes seems that Society takes the view that whatever is not “normal” is not understood and whatever is not understood must be feared. Communities have been shown to fear the idea of having a children’s home placed amongst them. Would a care leaver be as welcome in the family home of a friend as much as any other friend who did not have a care background, or would there be an increased suspicion?

The tendency of both government and public bodies to view young people from care as social deviants is apparent from their over-representation in the wider criminal justice system.

As alluded to above, legislative imperatives which should exist to protect and benefit care leavers within the age group of 16 – 25 are often a barrier to services. They are applied by practitioners such that what is there to protect rather serves to inhibit life chances, and perpetuates stereotypes of care leavers in Society. They potentially criminalise, or at least label, care leavers as deviant, ultimately failing them. Care leavers are then forced to face the back lash of poor life choices and discriminatory policy directives throughout their lives. This can result in their receiving at best a limited sense of self determination. What this does is alienate the most vulnerable from an early age, such that they dare not ask for help. This may not be because they are scared they won’t get help, rather because they fear incompetent professionals making a bad situation worse. In such cases, they may choose to ‘go it alone’.

This group of care leavers are not part of this thing we call “democracy”. Their movements are entirely restricted within policy directives that serve to police, control and manage any individual to the point of apparent ‘independence’, whereby they are expected to responsible for their own actions. In such scenarios, they may be sanctioned for the wrong choices, often criminalised, demonized and subject to acute social exclusion. They may experience the sharp end of social divisions, yet never be allowed a stake in their own resettlement. In the end, they are set up to fail.

This group of care leavers are denied ‘safe spaces’ that they can really call their own, and therefore have limited ability to mount challenges. Decision making arenas, which should be “safe spaces” for care leavers, are policed or occupied by ‘professionals’.

Their relationship with authority figures such as the police, local authority and the criminal justice system is defined in terms of their perceived ‘susceptibility’ to crime, and this is reflected in their disproportionate over-representation in the criminal justice system. A child absconding from a children’s home gets a lift back in a ”Black Maria”, almost as if he or she was a criminal. Accordingly, the police begin to see the absconder as a ‘problem’ and they are defined as having an ‘increased susceptibility to crime’. There is often limited recognition of the positive contributions they could make to Society if there was an attempt to understand them as an individual citizen rather than as a social deviant. This can make them more susceptible to crime.

I do not wish to build on the already existing negative stereotypes of care leavers. These make it difficult to identify oneself as a care leaver and can act to turn a significant minority away from democratic processes and civil Society. This in turn can leave them at risk of turning towards more extreme responses and destructive pathways.

Rather, I seek to highlight the plight of a forgotten group of care leavers, those that are travelling through the system, yet never experiencing a real sense of freedom. This is an institutionalised minority for whom a traumatised childhood, abuse, neglect, fear and torment have played a significant role in their life course.

These are men and women for whom life has presented great challenges. Regardless of their life trajectory and current status within the criminal justice system, they have survived, and in doing so have demonstrated life skills that most ‘normal’ people are too far removed from to recognise.

I say that Society should celebrate these skills and instead of locking them up, releasing them and re-locking them up provide a space for them to develop those life skills into functional skills that they can use positively for the benefit of themselves and others around them.

We offer a chance to be involved in peer mentoring here at The CLA and we do so because we recognise the untapped talent of this group of care leavers and welcome any approach from care leavers who have direct user experience of the criminal justice system and from agencies working with them.

Our work has a number of solution focused objectives, being outcome focused with the aims of;


    • Promoting engagement across key agencies concerned with the transition of Looked After Children (LAC) and Care Leavers as they access and/or sit on the periphery the Criminal Justice System
    • Developing and promoting innovative approaches to national partnership working with LAC/Care Leavers in the CJS that address their individual needs
    • Promoting transparency, openness and accountability of public services to LAC and Care Leavers, in view of the overwhelming impact of public services on their life chances and quality of life
    • Providing training and information on the needs of LAC/Care Leavers, their emotional well-being and legal status
    • Ensuring user led perspectives are central to policy developments and implementation


We seek to address issues and challenges for Care Leavers at the point of their transition from care; identifying a number of key points in the transition of Care Leavers into and through the criminal justice system;

      1. Arrest
      2. Sentence
      3. Release
      4. Preventative
      5. Custody
      6. Community Based


At each of these points we need to consider a number of questions in the context of these transitions:

Identification of care leavers at key points of the CJS is paramount to understanding their legal status. It raises several key questions:


      • What happens now?
      • How could we improve the current systems?
      • What are the benefits to identification?
      • How do we relay these benefits to practitioners to ensure accurate identification?


Legal parameters – highlighting current legislation and its application in practice:


      • What are the legislative imperatives that exist for care leavers currently?
      • How do these work in practice?
      • Can we make better use of legislation to support care leavers and reduce re-offending?


Should Advocacy and referral be available once care leavers and LAC are identified and their legal status is established:-


      • Where would they be referred to?
      • Who would advocate for them?
      • What would be the benefits of referral to reducing dependency across services?


Information and Data sharing as this is essential if we are to develop a more joined up approach to the needs of care leavers :


        • What are the data and information sharing issues?
        • How can we overcome these?


A User Led Approach brings the value of the lived experience. Given this:-


        • What are the benefits of this approach?
        • How is it utilised?
        • How and where is it ultilised?


Given that Older Care Leavers do not stop being Care Leavers:-


        • What can we learn from our knowledge about older care leavers and their sometimes poor outcomes?
        • What are the effects of living with the residual issues of a care experience and poorly managed transition to adulthood?
        • What can we do at the key points in the CJS to improve outcomes?


Training on the issues identified above must be recognised as essential. Services need to identify the particular training needs for their organisation.

The Care Leavers’ Association currently works with practitioners within the secure estate, with probation and other statutory services and with voluntary and community organisations highlighting issues faced by care leavers that many staff recognise they had not considered prior to our intervention.


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