Commissioned by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, the Punishing Abuse report, which has been launched today, is one of the most wide-ranging contemporary studies conducted into children in the criminal justice system in this country. The ground-breaking research considers the lives of 80 children.
The report provides a number of recommendations and proposals that focus on implementing a system-wide change to how public organisations support disadvantaged children who have experienced adversity, abuse, loss and trauma.
‘Punishing Abuse’, authored by Dr Alex Chard, argues that a number of children in the youth justice system are being punished as a consequence of the impact on their behaviours of their early abuse and loss.
The report highlights the abuse and adversity that these children suffered is horrifying. Of the 80 children in the criminal justice system studied:
nine in ten children are known or suspected to have been abused;
eight in ten children are known or suspected to have a health issue;
eight in ten were subject to school exclusion or attendance at multiple secondary schools;
seven in ten are known or suspected to have lived with domestic violence whilst growing up;
seven in ten children are known or suspected to be a victim of violence;
seven in ten children lived in poverty;
there was only one child with no recorded abuse or childhood adversity.
The report indicates that exposure to abuse as a child may re-calibrate the emotional response system leaving latent vulnerability to aggressive behaviour, psychiatric disorder and poor outcomes across the life-course.
Report Author Dr Alex Chard said: “Poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion, linked with systemic failure to address their needs, creates a conveyor belt which propels vulnerable children towards exploitation and crime”.
“This report portrays the experiences children in the justice system have suffered, this is profoundly saddening and shocking. I hope that this report will initiate system wide change to improve the lives of the many children who experience adversity, abuse, loss and trauma, better protecting both those children and importantly their communities.”
“I hope that this report will empower West Midlands agencies to make a real difference in this area. Firstly, by enabling practitioners to better respond to such harmed and troubled children. Secondly, by transforming agency systems to improve the lives of children who offend and the wellbeing of their families and communities. Finally and perhaps most significantly, by helping to change the underlying structural factors that have impacted so adversely on these vulnerable children.”
Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands and chair of the WMCA, said: “Whilst there is never an excuse for committing crime, this report sets out some of the terrible experiences children in the criminal justice system have faced growing up.
“This report identifies a clear link between children and teenagers suffering from abuse, violence, and poverty, and then going on to commit criminal offences. It is therefore imperative that these underlying causes are addressed, and there is a serious amount of collaborative hard work needed to make that happen.
“Tackling gang crime and child abuse is of course an important part of the solution, but so is providing young people across the region with better opportunities to help them contribute positively and overcome the challenges they’ve faced early in their lives. From better job opportunities and better education in schools, to a crackdown on the criminals abusing and exploiting vulnerable young people’s futures, this has to be a collaborative effort and I am pleased the WMCA has commissioned this research hand in hand with the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s office.”
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said: “This is a harrowing report that lays bare some of the awful circumstances some young people find themselves in through no fault of their own.
“As Police and Crime Commissioner I am committed to improving the opportunities that young people have to ensure that they lead fulfilling lives away from crime. This report offers a number of recommendations and I am committed to working with partners to implement them.
“This report shows that much more needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable young people in our society and more needs to be invested to support children and their families who are at risk.
“Collectively we are failing some of our most vulnerable young people and we are all paying the price later on. This report needs to be a catalyst for change.”
Ultimately, these recommendations call for a more ambitions investment in support and intervention for the services that are needed to help children in crisis. The social and economic cost of inaction at the current time could be considerable and investing the below recommendations will help prevent the costs of failure while achieving social and economic returns.
Some of the recommendations of the report are:
Targeted resources for families at the highest risk of social exclusion – including, training and employment as well as supporting access to opportunities.
Schools, (including academies) need to be supported and incentivised to work to eliminate school exclusions. If exclusion occurs those children must receive an effective service to ensure that they continue to be positively engaged in full time education provision that meets their needs.
Primary health and social care services need to help parents further develop their skills to nurture children and develop positive patterns of attachment.
Models such as Sure Start and family centres deliver such services. Although these resources have shrunk, there is extensive evidence of longer-term economic pay-back of such approaches.
Early infancy is the most critical period in terms of the development of positive patterns of attachment between children and their carers. West Midland health services should review the extent to which primary health services, including health visitors consider attachment in child assessments.
Reduce prosecutions of vulnerable children in public care. This will involve working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to explore new ways of doing things.
Play a key role in the process of devolution of powers and financial resources that relate to youth justice from central government;
Work with partners to re-imagine youth justice in the West Midland that takes full account of abuse and loss;
Undertake or commission a regional review of Youth Offending Team function and resourcing;
Monitor the effectiveness of youth justice reforms and to champion the needs of children who are at risk of criminalisation.