It’s an indisputable fact that in this country, a background in care means facing a 6 times higher risk of being criminalised than other young people (Prison Reform Trust, 2016). It also means being 10 times more likely to receive a custodial sentence (ONS, 2022).
Data from 2023 shows that a shocking 59% of children and young people in custody in England are care experienced (HM Inspectorate of Prisons). It’s also estimated that 25% of the adult prison population have been in care at some stage in their life.
It does not have to be this way. Law and policy affecting care-experienced children and young adults can be used to achieve fairer outcomes.
Over the last couple of years, the Drive Forward’s Care-Experienced Policy Forum has been working to change this situation. Through the work of the Forum, the need to reduce the unnecessary criminalisation of children and young adults with care-experience has been recognised by decision-makers in the criminal justice system. This has been reflected in the development and implementation of nationwide protocols, including the London protocol, which was co-produced with members of our Policy Forum.
Yet, protocols and good practice have not sufficiently alleviated the grossly disproportionate and unnecessary criminalisation of care-experienced children and young adults.
That is why the Forum has worked with youth justice experts to create a new guide for lawyers to use when representing care experienced young people.
On 13th September, we presented Dare to Care: Representing Care Experienced Young People at an exclusive launch event kindly hosted by Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry MP in the House of Commons.
Our guests included representatives of the criminal justice system as well as affiliated charity representatives and campaigners.
We were honoured to be joined by Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, who highlighted the CPS’s ongoing commitment to a child first approach, pointing to diversion, restorative justice and reparation. Max Hill KC said that the CPS is ‘committed to understanding the unique circumstances, prioritizing welfare and wherever it’s appropriate, diverting away from the system.’
Taken from their own personal experience of being drawn into the country’s criminal justice system, members of the Policy Forum passionately voiced their concerns for current and future generations if we don’t act now.
Kadiatu has been an active campaigner and care-experienced policy consultant for over a decade told the room ‘the more you hear our voices, the more you understand us’. Reflecting on her story she said, ‘So, why am I standing in front of you today? To ensure that those who work in the criminal justice system know how best to support the care experienced young people they work with.’
The guide is full of practical tips for lawyers to use when representing care-experienced young people. We know that being care-experienced increases the vulnerabilities young people face, and it is essential lawyers working with young people in the criminal justice system take the time to find out if they are care-experienced as the young person themselves may not even realise the relevance of this to their own case.
Children in care and care leavers continue to be more likely than other children to encounter the criminal justice system (London Protocol 2021)
Stepping into their power of vulnerability, our members’ voices were a striking reminder of the importance and impact of hearing individual’s personal stories of struggle, resilience, and growth. Their speeches were the undisputed highlight of the event and all of us at Drive Forward and our partners are incredibly proud of them.
In addition to inspiring a room packed to the brink, the event attracted national press coverage including The Law Gazette, which headlined an eye-opening story of one of our members. As a minor, they were forced to plead guilty for a crime that they hadn’t committed, because ‘no one will believe you’.
It’s heartbreaking stories like these which inspired and further motivated the guide’s authors Katie Aubrey-Johnson, a barrister and mediator at Garden Court Chamber, and Dr Laura Janes, lecturer at London South Bank University and consultant solicitor at Scott-Moncrief & Associates and GT Stewart solicitors. Both have extensive experience in representing and working with care-experienced young people. They know the ever-repeating stories only too well.
They’ve spent months developing the Dare To Care Guide aiming to give care-experienced children and young people a better shot at getting justice.
As Dr Laura Janes said, ‘The law is very clear and what we hope this guide does is to really take lawyers through the key things to look out for, to counter the terrible disadvantage that we have heard about today, where children in care are still six times more likely to be criminalised than their peers’.
Before concluding the event, care-experienced Drive Forward Foundation ambassador and Policy Forum member Shimron challenged the audience to put themselves in the place of a young person in care:
Sending a clear message, Emily Thornberry’s closing comments transported hope and a call to collaborative action:
‘When we come together on one issue, when we put politics to one side, when we recognise our shared responsibilities, this Parliament can be a transformative place, it is a place where we can drive change’.
The issue of the over-representation of care-experienced children and young adults in our criminal justice system reaches beyond party allegiances and is fundamentally a social justice and child rights issue.
If you’d like to learn more about the Care Experienced Policy Forum, our work, or get involved, please get in touch with:
Will Kerridge, Political Engagement & Policy Officer