“Stop drinking. Stop taking drugs. Stop getting sent to court. Stop getting arrested. Don’t end up back in jail. Try my best to keep out of trouble. Get a job.”
This is the wish-list of a young offender about to be released from prison.
Like thousands of others each year, he faces often seemingly insurmountable obstacles to becoming part of society by finding a home, a job and enough support to help him find his way around the system.
But a pioneering scheme run by charity Revolving Doors has helped him to work towards achieving his goals.
Since it began in March last year, the charity’s link worker scheme has proved successful in meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable young people caught up in the criminal justice system.
As part of the scheme, based in Kent and Haringey, east London, link workers take referrals from young offender institutions, courts, probation and youth offending teams.
Their job, as their title suggests, is to help young people navigate their way through what can be a confusing array of services designed to address their needs, while providing an informal listening ear and helping them to make informed choices.
The scheme was set up to provide a “holding space” for young offenders aged between 15-22 who are caught up in the often precarious transition between the criminal justice system and the community.
A recently published evaluation into the scheme’s first 15 months by Revolving Doors identified a “cliff-edge” of provision when young people reached the age of 18.
It found that even where post-18 provision existed, there was no means of bridging child and adult services, causing “serious aggravation” of young people’s emotional and mental health problems.
One link worker for the scheme illustrates the challenges facing many of the young people: “It is not that they don’t want to conform to what society wants, it is that they don’t necessarily know what society wants and expects of them, they don’t know how to conform. Nobody has actually sat down and explained the basics that the rest of us assume and take for granted.”
Alan Browne, a link worker in Kent, says the aim of the scheme is to help young offenders from “slipping through the net,” particularly those with mental health issues with no form of diagnosis.
Browne is one of two link workers based in Medway, Kent, taking referrals from prisons, courts, probation and youth offending teams. The scheme has a further two workers based in Haringey, east London.
Browne would like the scheme to be expanded nationwide, with a minimum of two link workers in every borough.
“There is a lack of interagency working which we try and address. Social services that previously provided care for a young person may lose track of them and not realise when they have end up in custody. Part of my job is to make the links between agencies and plug young people back in,” Browne says.
Most of the schemes’ users have been in care, have been excluded from school and have mental health or emotional problems. Many have experienced physical or sexual abuse, and have had parents with substance misuse or mental health problems.
A recently published evaluation by Revolving Doors into the experiences of 76 young people who have benefited from the scheme found that many had experienced a variety of traumatic episodes in their lives, which had a “major” impact on their mental health and emotional well-being.
“Ideally, we try to get to know young people when they are in custody to help prepare for their release,” Browne says.
He sees accommodation as the biggest problem for many young people, many of whom return to London after time in custody in Kent.
“Young people are often put in short-term accommodation like bed-and-breakfasts on release, but this does not leave them anywhere to put roots down. There is also a problem with the criteria for supported accommodation, such as having to be a ‘model’ tenant, and being alcohol and drug-free.”
Browne believes that resettlement workers in institutions outside of young people’s original localities lack the necessary knowledge to know where to place them or which services to link them to on their release.
“For many of our service users who come from London, and return there after serving their sentence, local knowledge of accommodation and services is key to providing effective resettlement.”
The recent evaluation by Revolving Doors found the Kent scheme’s rates of success with finding accommodation were promising.
Rates of homeless young offenders were cut from 54 to 42 per cent, while numbers of placed in supported housing rose from four to 12 per cent. Tenancies also rose from zero to four per cent.
Drug misuse was also being tackled effectively by the scheme, according to the evaluation, which found that drug misuse problems improved or did not worsen for more than two-thirds of young people as a result of contact with link workers.
One young person who has used the scheme describes it in simple, but powerful terms: “Just to have someone who I know will listen to me is the best thing… I need help with money and my house, but it is having someone there
to talk to that really counts.”