Does the criminal justice system punish young people for their abuse?

Work with offenders on challenging research on the link between County Lines and abused children

There is a continuing debate about the extent to which young people involved in County Lines drug dealing gangs are criminals or victims. We also know that although the numbers of children detained in custody has reduced massively over recent years (there was an average of just over 780 children in custody at any one time during 2019/20, a fall of 68% compared with ten years ago), those who are detained have very complex needs.

This issue was brought under the spotlight even more by new research commissioned by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and published earlier this year. The “Punishing Abuse” report 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”.

Essentially, the report identifies a clear link between children and teenagers suffering from abuse, violence, and poverty, and then going on to commit criminal offences. It goes on to call for more investment in support and intervention for the services that are needed to help children in crisis. The report argues that the current social and economic cost of inaction could be considerable and investing the below recommendations will help prevent the costs of failure while achieving social and economic returns.

The report’s key recommendations 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. 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.
  • Undertaking a re-imagining of youth justice that takes full account of abuse and loss;
  • Champion the needs of children who are at risk of criminalisation.