‘How we’re helping to raise the profile of care leavers in the criminal justice system’

Care leavers' needs are often neglected in prison. Darren Coyne describes how the Care Leavers Association is trying to change this.

HMPYOI Ashfield (Credit: Christopher Jones/REX)

Over the course of the last two years The Care Leaver’s Association has been focusing on the justice system – looking at how the care experience and pathways into the justice system are often interconnected from a user perspective.

In HMP Risley, for example, we’ve been working with groups of men aged between 21 and 40 who have all had care experiences. We are helping them try and unpick those experiences so they can see the influence it has on their behaviour now. These guys have established their own, very unique and innovative peer-led mentoring group, with a view to this being rolled out across the prison.

However, this work is also identifying key gaps in the system, which we are now trying to take back to policy makers to raise awareness.

For example, social care treats a young person as a care leaver right up to the age of 21 (or 25 if they’re in education and/or training), yet the criminal justice system cuts it off at 18. After this age they are never asked whether they’ve been in care and subsequently the resources that might be drawn upon to help them in resettlement are not available.

National Care Leavers Week 2013 runs from 24-30 October

This is important because care leavers in the criminal justice system are a group who can be difficult to engage, have issues with trust and therefore often fail to commit to resettlement and rehabilitation programmes.

Our work succeeds because it gives the care leaver permission to speak about their experiences in a safe and supportive environment. It relates care to past and present offending, not as cause and effect but so as to ask the young care leaver to accept that positive choices can be made within what might seem like poor circumstances. This empowers them to see how they can be responsible for their own life outcomes if they make the right choices.

The work has demonstrable effects in terms of helping the young person engage with practitioners, such as offender managers seeking to steer the former care leaver away from offending. The unique and innovative user-led approach is based on the shared experience affording a depth of understanding and awareness that is not necessarily available to other professionals within the criminal justice system.

During the course of this work we can also identify what support the care leaver needs from service providers to realise their own life choices. If we were then able to draw on the resources and procedures already in place for care-leavers it would increase our chances of success immeasurably.

We have met with the Ministry of Justice and they are releasing guidance on offender management across the whole of the criminal justice system on how to identify care leavers – what to ask, when to ask and then what you do with that information to try and help them.

Despite the guidance still being narrowly focused on the 18-20 year age group, that is a massive outcome for us. Particularly because the work we’ve been doing shows that often when you touch on a person’s care experience it does open up a whole can of worms and so professionals within the secure estate need to know how to handle it and help effectively.

Darren Coyne is Projects and Development Manager at The Care Leavers’ Association

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