Preventive fostering

Would you welcome the prospect of having a young offender come
to live with you for £24,000 a year? If you have exceptional
personal skills and a background in dealing with challenging young
people, you might be just the kind of person the government is
looking for.

Extending the use of highly supervised and supported placements for
persistent young offenders on bail is one the proposals put forward
in the recent white paper Justice for All.1
However, recruiting suitable foster carers is a problem.

Jane Scott is head of service at Coram Family’s Fostering New Links
project, which specialises in fostering for the most challenging
young people. She says: “It’s hugely difficult to recruit people.
We run a continual recruitment programme and invest an enormous
amount of our budget in advertising.”

The exceptionally demanding nature of the work requires people with
specialist skills. Many of the foster carers at Fostering New Links
have a background in teaching or social work, and the service also
gets enquiries from ex-policemen and from magistrates. Scott says:
“We ask for at least two years’ experience of working with
challenging behaviour in adolescents. We interpret that broadly. It
could be in the extended family or friendship network, or through
private fostering.”

Foster carers are paid a fee of about £24,000 a year, plus a
£120 a week allowance to cover food, education, leisure,
travel, clothing and so on.

Given the recruitment crisis facing the caring professions,
including fostering, and the resource constraints on social
services, one might question whether the government has understood
the implications. Scott says: “It’s a brilliant way forward as an
alternative to custody, but it needs a huge amount of investment
and support. The government needs to think about how local
authorities will fund and support it.”

Foster carers at Fostering New Links have access to 24-hour
support, including calling out a support worker for an emergency
consultation. Scott explains: “There’s always a social worker at
the end of the phone. The work is hugely draining emotionally.
People can get caught up with the dynamics associated with severe
neglect and abuse. We have support structures to care for staff and
to release them if necessary, so the young person goes to another
family for respite.”

Another distinguishing feature of the service is the intensive
support offered to enable young people to attend mainstream school.
Fostering New Links employs teachers to work with young people
fostered through the project while they are at school. This may
involve one-to-one work with the young person in the classroom, as
well as teaching the class while the class teacher works with a
small group, including the young person being fostered.

Scott says: “Offending behaviour tends to escalate if you put
someone in a setting with other young people with similar problems.
From the beginning we set up a situation where the person is able
to attend mainstream school. Peer support is very important. They
learn to measure their behaviour against the average. It’s resource
intensive but we have a big success rate.”

The project offers parenting support to the relative who is caring
for the child and is closest to them, as well as intensive social
work support to the young person. It also ensures access to mental
health services where appropriate and provides leisure activities
during school holidays.

Fostering New Links charges £1,800 a week to local authorities
using the service, almost twice the cost of a young offenders’
institution. Scott says this underestimates the true cost because
Coram Family contributes voluntary income on top. “It’s not a cheap
option. A project like this requires sustained investment. You
can’t set it up in six months. It’s taken us three-and-a-half years
to set up properly.”

Schemes like this, which aim to help the young person tackle their
offending behaviour and other personal difficulties while
supporting them in the community, are widely supported by both
child care and crime prevention experts. There is a consensus that
custody is profoundly damaging for young people and serves to
increase the likelihood that they will re-offend on release. For
all forms of custodial sentences, the re-conviction rate is around
80 to 90 per cent within two years.

Despite the government’s professed intention of preventing youth
crime, the UK has one of the worst records in Europe in holding
young people in custody. And the numbers of juveniles remanded in
custody is still rising – by 6 per cent last year, including a 42
per cent rise in the number of girls held, despite no corresponding
increase in youth crime.

As John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence
points out, many of these young people are charged with relatively
trivial offences such as shop lifting or non-payment of fines, and
are not a danger to the public or to themselves. He says: “Any way
we can find to reduce the use of custody is to be welcomed. Remand
fostering is a good way forward, as long as sufficient resources
are put into it.”

However, as with other apparently progressive measures for
responding to young offenders, there are concerns that an increase
in the availability of remand fostering may serve to draw more
young people into the net rather than being used as a positive
alternative for young people who would otherwise be in

For example, there is evidence that magistrates are using the new
Detention and Training Order for young people who should not be in
custody because they are attracted by the post-custody
rehabilitation programme.

Similar worries apply to the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance
Programme, which combines training and community-based support with
a home curfew enforced with electronic tagging. As Chris Stanley,
head of youth crime at rehabilitation agency Nacro, points out:
“The response should be proportional to the severity of the
offence. The danger with all these new initiatives is that if
something is out there it has to be used.”

Stanley acknowledges that a lack of suitable accommodation for
challenging young people is often a contributory factor in
offending, and makes it more likely that a magistrate will choose
custody. “If someone doesn’t have accommodation, offending is
likely to escalate. Often it’s because parents won’t have them back
home.” Magistrates are more likely to agree to bail if they see
that a young person has suitable accommodation, yet there are few
bail hostels for young people and children’s homes may not be right
for them.

Another welcome proposal in the white paper is to offer more
parenting classes for the 25 per cent of young offenders in custody
who are parents or about to become parents. The government is
anxious to try to break the problem of inter-generational
offending, which shows that young people with a criminal parent are
four-and-a-half times more likely to offend themselves.

Coleman endorses the proposal. He says: “Bad parenting is a major
risk factor for crime. All the studies show that young men make
good use of parenting training.”

Another welcome government proposal is to wipe clean the criminal
records of most young people after they have completed their
sentence, making it easier for them to get a job – undoubtedly one
of the best ways of keeping them out of trouble and giving them a
stake in the future.

Despite supporting these initiatives, Nacro would like to see a
wholesale review of the youth justice system, rather than the
piecemeal and at times knee-jerk approach adopted by the
government. Prevention outside the criminal justice system should
be the cornerstone of the policy.

Stanley says: “Up to 90 per cent of juveniles in young offenders
institutions have a mental health problem or learning difficulty.
We need to focus on what reduces crime, not on punishment.”

1 Home Office, Justice
for All
, The Stationery Office, July 2002 from

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