Early warning

    Forensic scientist Sir Sydney Smith once remarked: “No child is
    born a criminal, no child is born an angel, he is just born.”
    Shame, then, that the government seems determined to split children
    into two categories: the “yobbos” so loved by the tabloids and
    vulnerable children in need, without seeming to recognise that they
    are often one and the same. Thus, the green paper Every Child
    Matters
    omits young people involved in the youth justice
    system.

    They have their own paper, Next Steps which emphasises early
    intervention to cut crime and reduce reoffending. Three initiatives
    are key for achieving this:youth inclusion and support panels
    (Yisps), youth inclusion programmes (Yips) and identification,
    referral and tracking (IRT) – see panel, below. The Home Office’s
    five-year strategic plan outlines proposals to increase the number
    of the panels and programmes by 50 per cent.

    But many observers are becoming uncomfortable with the rationale
    behind early intervention and the emphasis on targeting children at
    young ages.

    Barry Goldson, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at
    the University of Liverpool, says: “Targeting children who have
    never broken the law on the basis that they are likely to become
    offenders raises issues about labelling and human rights.”

    The early intervention argument is a seductive one. Research shows
    that children who become offenders often come from the most damaged
    and disadvantaged communities. So targeting resources at addressing
    these issues early makes sense.

    The problem, says Goldson, is that it is driven within a context of
    crime and crime reduction rather than child welfare. “By
    definition, children will only have access to services if they are
    thought to be at risk of offending, rather than on the basis of
    universal child welfare.”

    Additionally, the main agencies associated with early intervention
    are youth offending services rather than child welfare services.
    Goldson says: “This is complicated further because they are
    separate from the remit of the Department for Education and Skills
    and closer to the Home Office’s agenda.”

    Kathy Evans, assistant director for policy at the Children’s
    Society, is also worried: “We can’t argue with the benefit of early
    intervention. But we have concerns about identifying early risk
    factors for offending and then using an offending system to
    respond.”

    Policies appear to be following a criminal agenda, she says, when
    really we should be looking at children and families in need of
    help, and responding through section 17 of the Children Act
    1989.

    Much of the thrust towards early intervention is legitimised by the
    underlying message that it is in the child’s best interests, and
    therefore also a welfare strategy. But another way of looking at it
    is as part of the government’s obsession with being seen to be
    tough on youth crime.

    Goldson says: “The Home Office’s strategic plan talks about
    ‘securing the freedom that we enjoy in the face of terrorists and
    criminals’. To begin to talk about offenders in the same breath as
    global terrorists is extraordinary, and ties in with the
    demonisation of young people as if they are the new enemy
    within.”

    Another concern is that, while the government ploughs substantial
    resources into crime reduction initiatives, more broad-based
    schemes for young people are losing out. “I spoke to youth workers
    in Liverpool recently,” says Goldson, “and they said there were
    almost no resources for young people’s services because of budget
    cuts – and it’s the start of the holidays.”

    Yet these services should be just as much a part of the early
    intervention agenda as those flagged up by the government. Evans
    says: “It’s clearly desirable that any early intervention has a
    positive impact and it’s desirable for everyone if a young person
    doesn’t go on to offend. But it would be of real concern if we
    thought of prevention as a success or failure based on whether the
    crime rate was affected.

    “Many positive things come from intervening early – they may stay
    in school when they were at risk of exclusion, it may alleviate
    poverty – but it might not change the course of their life so that
    they don’t go on to offend in the future.”

    Early intervention forms the basis of the charity Rainer’s work for
    undersupported 10 to 25 year olds, from Yips to leaving care
    projects to bail projects.

    Chris Chasten, senior policy officer at Rainer, says: “The benefits
    from investing in young children are longitudinal – you don’t get
    the pay-off until a lot later. And we don’t know whether they would
    have gone down the path to offend in the future, so it’s difficult
    to quantify, but it’s important that that work happens.

    “Whereas before we thought if we kept young people out of the
    system they would grow out of offending, that philosophy has
    changed and we have a whole battery of orders – child safety
    orders, detention and training orders and so on. This type of
    intervention can prevent them coming back into the system
    later.”

    Yet early intervention remains unpopular in some quarters. Goldson
    says youth crime and antisocial behaviour derive from poverty and
    disadvantage. “Although it may not be as politically seductive to
    talk about addressing these complexities as it is about being tough
    on crime, there’s no getting away from the fact that, until we
    establish more level playing fields for access to resources that
    are important in growing up, some will continue to express their
    difficulties in ways that are problematic to the wider
    community.”

    Children aren’t born criminals – problems in their early years
    often set them on that path. Unless the government cracks down on
    that, it hasn’t got a hope of cracking down on youth crime.

    – Community Care‘s Back on Track campaign is calling for a
    dramatic reduction in the number of children and young people held
    in custody. See www.communitycare.co.uk
    or more details.

    Of Yisps, Yips and IRT   

    • Fourteen pilot youth inclusion and support panels target eight
      to 13 year olds at risk of offending. Yisps are made up of
      professionals from youth offending teams, social services,
      education, the police and health who identify children displaying
      problematic behaviour. Agencies identify the young people referred
      to the panel, which suggests a programme of support.  
    • Youth inclusion programmes target 50 of the 13 to 16 year olds
      at most risk of offending, truanting or being socially excluded in
      a particular area. Yips work in the most deprived neighbourhoods in
      England and Wales. 
    • IRT is an information sharing system between local authorities,
      health, police and key criminal justice agencies that requires
      local authorities to identify, refer and track children up to 19
      years of age judged at risk.

    Good practice in southwark 

    Ten-year-old Damilola Taylor was killed in the London Borough of
    Southwark in November 2000 as he walked home from school. After the
    acquittal of four teenagers accused of murdering him, the local
    crime disorder partnership researched their backgrounds and found
    that all four were connected, had substantial histories of
    offending and antisocial behaviour, some had been excluded from
    school and had come to police attention before they were 10. 

    “We then looked at current police reports for eight to 10 year
    olds and found several hundred were coming to police notice for
    offences ranging from assault to burglary,” says Chris Domeney,
    youth offending service manager, Southwark.  

    An early intervention team for eight to 13 year olds was set up
    in September 2001, and the council took up the opportunity to
    become one of the 14 youth inclusion and support panel (Yisp)
    pilots last April. Children who come to the notice of the police or
    antisocial behaviour unit are excluded from school or are allocated
    a social worker concerned with their behaviour, are referred to the
    Yisp. They should have had no more than a reprimand for a first
    offence.  

    The panel agrees whether the threshold has been met, allocates
    services and reviews cases. Support can take several forms,
    including parenting classes and individual work with children
    around self-esteem, behaviour, managing anger and leisure
    activities.  

    “It’s about making them feel better about themselves. There is
    an exit strategy so they are linked to other services when they
    finish here,” says Domeney. 

    After early intervention about 85 per cent do not come to
    further police notice and more than 90 per cent start attending
    school full time.  

    “Early intervention is the best and most effective way to
    prevent youth crime,” says Domeney. “The earlier you intervene, the
    less entrenched the behaviour and the less serious the consequences
    for the children misbehaving.”

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