The new chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, John Drew, will be pressing for closer links between specialist youth justice services and children’s teams. He speaks to Derren Hayes
It is often said that you can tell a lot about a man by the colour of the tie he wears. A recent study by psychologists found tie colours could be linked to character traits. So the multi-coloured striped neck appendage sported by John Drew, the new chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, could be interpreted several ways. A man for all seasons? Mr Adaptable?
Such characteristics would have been useful for Drew over the past four years when he was director of housing and community services at Redbridge Council, east London. When the joint social services departments were split in 2004, Drew had housing, culture, leisure and adult learning services added to his adult social care portfolio.
Although some would find taking on such a wide brief daunting and confusing, for Drew it was a chance to take a broader view of services. “The role has given me an inside perspective on how these services link together and impact on the life of service users,” he says, speaking a few weeks before taking up his new job.
Forging closer links between specialist youth justice services and children’s services is high on Drew’s list of priorities in his new role at the YJB. In November, children, schools and families secretary Ed Balls called for youth offending teams to work more closely with mainstream services such as schools. This was driven partly by ministerial concerns that youth justice is failing to become sufficiently involved in children’s trusts and delivering on the Every Child Matters agenda. Drew sympathises with this view: “I once heard a prison governor say that all the time she’d been running a young offender institution she’d never heard of ECM, which is a real pity.”
To that end, Drew has walked the walk while at Redbridge. Its youth offending team (Yot) is now an “integral part” of children’s services, helped by the fact that they have always been run from the same building.
“When we set up our Yot in 1999 we put it into a bit of a silo,” says Drew. “Even until two years ago I was resistant to the idea of placing the Yot in children’s services as I could see the benefits of [it having] a clear crime reduction focus. Then one day I found myself in a youth court talking to a couple of social workers who said that the people they needed to talk to worked in children’s services.”
Moving the Yot into children’s services was a logical move, says Drew. “We want to see specialist social workers and probation officers because they are the most likely to be effective. But if you cut them off from the rest of children’s services then how can you achieve the ECM outcomes on employment, training and education?”
Despite his enthusiasm for integrated working between youth justice and children’s services, Drew recognises that what has worked for Redbridge might not be right for other councils.
“Putting Yots closer to all children’s services is a great direction of travel. But with a local authority hat on I’d say that we probably have 150 different ideas of what that looks like. It’s not the part of national government to dictate one solution.”
He also points out that “small is beautiful” – advice given by a retiring social services middle manager a week into his first social work job. “When you’re small you’re flexible and in touch – it applies to youth offending as much as anything else,” he adds.
So keeping that flexibility while being more closely aligned to the work and goals of the children’s department and local authority in general appears to be the holy grail. But how to get there? One argument that appeared to be gathering momentum last year was for the transfer of the youth custody budget to councils. Drew wasn’t surprised that the government rejected such a move – it was conspicuous by its absence in last summer’s Youth Crime Action Plan – for fear that it would lead to “the idea of a national strategy disappearing”.
Alternative to legislation
On delivering the action plan, the Association of Directors of Children Services disagreed with the YJB’s assessment that the government should legislate for councils to take on a raft of new youth justice responsibilities, including meeting the cost of court-ordered secure remand places. Drew – while reluctant to go into details on the action plan – would prefer to see an alternative to legislation.
“Let’s try to use local area agreements and the broader national indicator framework and see how far that gets us.”
However, on the specific issue of councils funding services he adds: “There are ways in which we can incentivise authorities so that they don’t see secure accommodation as a free service without financial consequences. The jury is still out on ways we can do that.”
Whatever the solution, Drew’s pragmatic tendencies dictate he will be looking for what works best. Throughout his career he has been drawn to effective solutions to problems. This applies to frontline youth justice work as much as organisational change.
“Too much of the debate on youth justice is about whether we are being tough or soft,” he says. “The real skill is to work out who you need to be tough with and who to be soft with. That’s about what works best for individuals.”
To this end, Drew says the challenge for the board is to balance its responsibilities for delivering justice with devising innovative alternatives to custody. “Our job is to ensure there are credible alternatives for magistrates to consider,” he says. To illustrate this, he cites the board’s intensive fostering pilot, which places persistent young offenders with specially trained carers. “Some young people haven’t had adult role models. Intensive fostering helps meet their care and accommodation needs.”
Drew envisages the YJB developing more of these types of schemes, particularly in areas such as housing and education support for young offenders. Such developments also dovetail with efforts to bring youth justice, children’s social work and universal services closer together in a system that resembles a rainbow – a collective body made up of separate parts. Judging by Drew’s tie he is already on message.
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Published in 8 January 2009 Community Care under heading The Ties that Bind