Grief and crime

In April 2004 youth offending teams were four years old. These
multi-agency, multi-disciplinary teams were set up to prevent
offending, and their composition means they can take a genuinely
holistic approach to the prevention and reduction of offending by
children and young people.

In particular, YOTs offer a rare opportunity to look at the effects
of social policy upstream with social services, health and
education: what is going on, and what might be changed. They are a
good place to ask questions about what might prevent offending by
children and young people. A recent survey of more than 1,000
children under YOT supervision revealed some startling messages for

YOTs supervise children from the age of 10 up to and including
young adults aged 17 and often 18 if lengthy supervision is
required. They provide an incredibly rich source of expertise about
children, young people and crime. YOT staff have a very wide range
of backgrounds and skills in such things as social work, probation,
health screening and health care, parenting, education, policing in
its many forms, career, drug and accommodation specialisms, victim
liaison, and restorative justice. They are also responsible for
supporting, mentoring, cajoling, encouraging or overtly insisting
that young people grow and develop without recourse to criminal
behaviour or activity.

The survey’s findings about the nature of YOTs’ work include:

  • Only about 7 per cent of YOTs’ work concerns children aged 14
    or under.
  • A significant number of children and young people had no
    previous convictions. This was 46 per cent of the sample overall,
    but more than 60 per cent of girls and young women had no record of
    previous convictions.
  • Robbery and burglary figures are down. As primary offences for
    which supervision is required they account for about 5 per cent of
    offending. A few years ago burglary might have accounted for 15 per
    cent of a typical youth justice team caseload, with robbery not far
  • The most numerous offences requiring YOT supervision are of
    theft or assault. Where the offence is of assault this usually
    denotes offences of common assault or public order.

Much of the behaviour associated with criminality among young
people shows itself at school. The benchmark calculation from the
Connexions service is that 9 per cent of schoolchildren in the
general school population require medium to high maintenance at
some point in their school career. This includes children with
special needs, children who truant regularly, and those with
behaviour which entails additional support, or removal from routine
classroom activities among other things. The YOT survey revealed
that 82 per cent of children under supervision by the teams
required medium to high maintenance during their education.

Some of the survey’s most significant results concerned emotional
well-being. Research into issues of loss and grief and their impact
on youth crime is rare. Yet during the study, it became apparent
from reading the files of children and young people under a range
of supervisions in the YOTs that factors affecting their emotional
well-being were often scattered in different parts of their file,
and were not often pieced together. Accordingly a set of criteria
covering loss or rejection were constructed, and files were read
and checked against these factors. The findings are startling:

  • 68 per cent had experienced family breakdown resulting in
    permanent loss of contact with one or more parent.
  • 42 per cent had experienced outright neglect or rejection by
    parents and carers.
  • 18 per cent had experienced “impermanence” of home, (excluding
  • 13 per cent had been bereaved of a parent or carer.
  • 7 per cent had experienced loss because the parent or carer
    became disabled to the point where they could no longer function in
    that role.

In all, some 92 per cent of children and young people under
supervision by the YOTs had experience of one or more of these

While being a significant percentage by proportion, it is also
possible that instances of loss and rejection were subject to
under-reporting. Indeed, it would be unusual for children and young
people to readily divulge information about such events.

While it may be hard retrospectively to know how events may have
been handled, there was no evidence to suggest that adults with
responsibility for the care or development of the children
concerned had acknowledged or dealt with these experiences: no
records of bereavement counselling where it was clear that the
child had witnessed the death of their parent for instance.

YOT staff were asked, as part of the study, how best to prevent
offending. They said, unanimously, that parents and families are
crucial. And how parents and adults set appropriate boundaries of
love and care for their children was the highest priority.

However, the messages that we give to parents, families and
children are often not helpful. Cultural issues, and specifically
the culture and approach of agencies were identified by YOT staff
as the second most important factor in preventing offending. At a
simple level, culture means feeling welcome, that the service is
intended to include you as a recipient, that your needs have been
thought about and particularly that no judgement has been made
about you. Services that were identified by staff as needing to
tackle cultural issues in this regard included education (numerous
references), employment providers, GP surgeries (young people who
offend are rarely listed with a GP) and the environments and
cultures of YOT offices.

As workers in an organisation with 10 years’ experience of
researching youth crime issues, we were startled by the survey’s
findings. We do not know of any other factors which correlate so
highly with youth crime as issues of loss and rejection.
Information rarely provides the final word on a subject, more often
a starting point for discussion, and this study is no exception. It
raises more questions than it answers.

Do these factors provide the missing links in preventing offending?
As a generalisation we tend to accept that boys externalise
emotional pain, girls to internalise it. So do loss and grief
issues contribute to our experience that boys commit more crime
than girls (an 85 per cent to 15 per cent split in our

Do issues of loss and grief which have not been dealt with hold the
key to related behaviours: aggression in school for instance,
substance misuse, high rates of unwanted teenage pregnancy?

What about children and young people who experience loss and grief
but who do not commit offences? Is there something from their
experience that can be learned about how to prevent offending?

– To further our research, we would like to hear about examples
where practice has become more emotionally literate or where
emotional resilience has been developed in children and young
people, and this has made a difference to offending or related
behaviour. Please phone 0161 233 6800 or contact us at

The survey

The survey, conducted by the YOT managers of Greater Manchester
and West Yorkshire, covered Kirklees, Rochdale, Salford and
Stockport YOT teams. The research was carried out between September
2002 and September 2003.

The case records of 1,027 children and young people were studied,
and in a sample group of 147 case files, all documents and notes
were read. Forty-eight staff members were interviewed.

Declan Kerr is director of the Youth Justice

Background Reading

Copies of the survey, On the Case, are available free of charge.
The Youth Justice Trust provides some of the infrastructure for the
10 youth offending teams of Greater Manchester to work together,
and have been researching and evaluating youth crime since

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