Think before you judge – on the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children

In National Care Leavers’ Week, we want to shed light onto specific issues which disproportionately affect care-experienced people; from the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children, to youth mental health, to stigma and discrimination, and to a general lack of training and support for people working in the sector. We passionately believe that children and young people deserve better and that positive change is possible #deservingbetter

As our September event at City Hall illustrated, unnecessary criminalisation in care has long-term consequences that follow affected care-experienced people throughout their lives. To end this unnecessary injustice, we advocate for a criminal records reform relating to young offenders, and especially children under local authority care. 

K. remembers her first significant interaction with the criminal justice system:

‘When I was 12 it was the first time I got arrested. I can’t remember why I got arrested, but I just remember they were properly ruffing me up and I was only 12.’

Reflecting on the proclaimed gravity of her offences and justifications given for calling the police on her she continues, ’If I’m honest it is silly things, things that you probably wouldn’t get arrested for if you were at your mum’s house.’

Coupled with the current punitive approach taken by the Home Office to criminal justice, this only fosters an environment where these instances of unnecessary criminalisation will thrive. Currently, children living in residential care homes are 10 times more likely to be criminalised (Howard League 2019) and care-experienced people continue to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

However, it’s the often overlooked and difficult to quantify long-term repercussions of such instances which place a life sentence of disadvantage on care-experienced people. England’s criminal records system currently doesn’t allow for expunging until 100 years of age, and there’s little to differentiate adult criminal records from children’s.

Often faced with the absence of a parental figure to advocate and fight for them, looked-after children are left especially vulnerable to accumulating unnecessary cautions or convictions. These are also children who will typically have experienced or be going through trauma from early adverse childhood experiences; meaning they are likely to be under considerable stress that can manifest in negative behaviour.

Our criminal justice system is currently not comprehensively trauma aware, meaning such behaviour is not understood and only increases the risk of accumulating a damaging record. Many of these young people may not even realise they have a record until they fill in a DBS form or attempt to get a travel visa.

Reform of our criminal records is, therefore, pivotal if we want to ensure we don’t leave behind care-experienced people who have already gone through the criminal justice system. We call for special dispensation for children of the state’s records to be wiped for minor offences acquired in childhood. We additionally strongly advocate wholescale reform in our country’s approach to criminal records for all young offenders.


Rory Morgan is the Head of Mentoring of Drive Forward Foundation

Rory Morgan


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