“I don’t sit there and say to them ‘Look I’ve got the same t-shirt as you, therefore we’re from the same family’. I say to them ‘I’m going to hear you, your experiences and what you’re about in a very different way to what some other practitioners might.’”
Care leaver and former offender Darren Coyne is explaining his role delivering support sessions with Clear Approach, an “empowerment programme” to support young care leavers at risk of going to prison in Manchester.
The 10-week programme, which has been developed by user-led charity the Care Leavers Association, works exclusively with care leavers who are on intensive alternative to custody (IAC) orders (see box). Developed through two years of work regarding IAC orders, the first cohort was delivered in March 2014. Participants take part in one-to-one and group sessions to explore the links between care and offending.
For Coyne, the programme’s focus on empowerment is key.
“We’re not trying to absolve them from responsibility, we are trying to say to them that they’ve got to take responsibility for who they are, what they’ve done, which is why you’re here on this order,” he says.
There is a pressing need to improve support for the group Clear Approach works with. Care leavers are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system when compared to the rest of the population. Around a quarter of men in the prison were taken into care as children, according to Ministry of Justice figures.
The benefit of personal experience
Coyne has personal experience of both systems, and as projects and development manager at the Care Leavers Association he has also played a key role in developing and delivering Clear Approach. The benefits of the programme offering young men the chance to talk to others with personal experience of care and criminal justice was highlighted in an evaluation of the scheme’s first pilot cohort that was published towards the end of last year.
“There was a feeling from the young men that they were being spoken to by someone who understood some of the issues they were facing, perhaps more than a classic practitioner might,” explains Claire Fitzpatrick, a criminologist at Lancaster University who co-authored the evaluation.
The evaluation recommended that funding be made available to roll out Clear Approach to mainstream provision after finding the scheme had several benefits.
Participants said their confidence had improved, as well as their understanding of what was going on in their lives. With the help of the support sessions, one care leaver built his CV and got a job. Another was helped to access a leaving care grant he was previously unaware of. It was also noted that care leavers who had stopped engaging with other conditions of their IAC order were still engaging with Clear Approach.
But the research team also identified several challenges. The chaotic nature of the young men’s lives made timetabling appointments with Clear Approach facilitators difficult and many criminal justice system practitioners lacked the knowledge and confidence to deal with care leaver specific-issues. Some feared even asking the ‘care question’ to young men, worried that it would open a ‘can of worms’ they felt ill equipped to handle.
Taking it forward
Coyne is optimistic about the future for Clear Approach now that the evaluation has provided evidence of its impact.
“We’re looking to take that now and sit down with policy makers, regional and national, and say ‘Look here’s a small piece of evidence based practice, how do we look at developing that,” he says.
Coyne wants take the project beyond their current setting and work with care leavers in other settings such as youth offending services and custody. Offering care leavers the freedom to speak about past experiences and how that links to offending is what separates this approach from others, he believes.
“I’m not going to open a book and within five minutes start writing things down,” he says. “I’m not going to feedback any personal information you give to me to your offender manager – I just want to understand you. It’s about giving people permission to speak confidently about that part of their life they’ve kept locked up.”