The rise of the social worker in young offender institutions

After widespread criticism, the decline in the number of social workers attached to young offender institutions is now being reversed. Camilla Pemberton looks at this vital connection between young people and the outside world


After widespread criticism, the decline in the number of social workers attached to young offender institutions is now being reversed. Camilla Pemberton looks at this vital connection between young people and the outside world (Helen Chambers: “They’re the same kids social workers see in the community”)

“I’m 16. I’ve been in foster care and children’s homes all my life and now I live here, at her majesty’s pleasure,” says Nathan*, grinning sheepishly as he gestures towards the grey walls of a drab meeting room at Hindley young offender institution (YOI) in Wigan. He looks unsure of himself, but recites his abridged life story with a depressing sense of inevitability. “It was care, then prison,” he shrugs. “I’ll probably be back if my accommodation isn’t sorted when I get out.”

There are hundreds of looked-after children incarcerated in England and Wales. Nathan is one of 88 at Hindley, which holds about 340 boys aged 15-18. “They’re the same kids social workers see in the community,” says Helen Chambers, a senior social worker based at Hindley. “Same backgrounds, same vulnerabilities – just facing an even more difficult future.”

Special report on social care in prisons

Relationships between looked-after children and their social workers often break down when they are separated by prison walls. A recent inspectorate review found one-third of prison safeguarding teams felt social workers tried to sever contact with young people in YOIs, while more than half of looked-after children received no visits from their social worker. Although there should be at least 22 social workers based in 11 YOIs, more than half the posts have been empty since 2009 when councils failed to agree a funding formula.

The sparsity of YOI social workers has been widely criticised – Dame Anne Owers, the former chief inspector of prisons, branded it “disappointing” and “poor” – but things are set to change. In May, Youth Justice Board chief John Drew announced the board would allocate £3m to fund the posts for the next three years. Councils would recruit social workers and provide ongoing supervision, Drew said, adding that the arrangement was likely to become permanent.

Carlene Firmin, Barnardo’s assistant director of policy, said this would come as a relief to campaigners. “The safety of children in custody was being neglected,” she said.

Some councils have always recognised the importance of YOI social workers, according to Chambers, who is one of five based within Hindley’s central safeguarding unit. Her role was established five years ago to improve links between custody and community and provide Hindley’s inmates with an advocate and confidant. “Wigan Council has always funded our work,” she says. “It helps that the prison’s safeguards manager is a former social worker. Her passion has been instrumental in driving our service forward.”

As soon as a looked-after child is identified – almost always before they enter prison – they are allocated a social worker. Within 48 hours, the social worker meets them and explains how the service can help. “We then make contact with their social worker or leaving-care worker, who will already have received information from us about our service,” Chambers says.

A key part of her role is liaising with local authority social workers; making them aware of their duties, giving them feedback about their client and making arrangements for the young person’s life after prison. “There is a tendency for social workers to assume boys are being looked after inside and regard them as less of a priority,” Chambers admits. “I know it’s hard to get in touch with young people inside, but social workers are a vital part of the support network. We still have to chase some about their duties, but generally our service means there is a good flow of information between social workers inside and outside.”

Although the team deals mainly with looked-after children, care leavers, children in need and child protection concerns, staff can refer any boy if they are worried about his vulnerability. “We’re like a mini duty team because all safeguarding referrals are screened by us and logged on our database,” Chambers says. Last year the team received a record 3,000 safeguarding referrals.

The system is not perfect (many of the frustrations experienced by local authority social workers – high caseloads, red tape – are mirrored inside) but morale is high. “It’s a warm community as soon as you walk through those gates and we get really positive feedback from our young people,” Chambers says.

Hindley’s boys have their own reasons for valuing YOI social workers. Some are “only interested in how they can play the system”, one admitted, but for others they are a vital life line or a welcome break from the more punitive aspects of prison life. “It’s not my personal officer or key worker I go to when I’m troubled. It’s my social worker,” says Michael*, 16. “Things you say are safe and you can really trust them.”

“Yeah they’re all right in here, the social workers,” says Ashley*, 18.

Chambers hopes that more YOI social workers will lead to better outcomes for young people, but warns they will need the full support of their colleagues or could feel isolated. “Prison officers can differ from social workers in their outlook, but everyone here has worked hard to build mutual respect. We understand the need for control and officers understand our viewpoint: that these are children in custody and they need care as well.”

*Name has been changed


● “I can’t get in touch with my social worker outside but my social worker in here can call her for me. She also helps with my accommodation. She has a better idea of what I’ll be doing when I’m outside than I do” – Nathan*, 16

● “I’ve been let down a lot by social workers in my life but my social worker’s very helpful in here. She’s sound” – Ashley*, 18

● “I’ll stay out of prison if I’m busy and motivated. My social worker here helps me sort out what I want to do when I get out” – Michael*, 16

● “The social workers in here just want to do what’s best for you and what you want. You can tell that” Michael*, 16

*Names have been changed


Helen Chambers describes a typical day as a YOI social worker:

“My day starts any time from 7am until 9.15am and I can be here until 7.30pm. A typical day involves attending detention and training order meetings with young people and their youth offending team, looked-after child reviews or perhaps a course on restorative justice or parenting classes for young fathers.

“We also attend multi-agency meetings where we might discuss a boy’s behaviour and issues prison staff would like social care advice on.

“We see young people one-on-one. They’re in education or training for most of the day so it’s usually first thing in the morning, just after lunch or at the end of the day but they might shout your name when they see you so you’ll grab five minutes. Sometimes they want you to do something for them, like get more socks or boxers sent in, but sometimes they just want a chat.

“Yesterday one boy wanted to tell his social worker that he’d been assaulted by another boy and hadn’t retaliated. He was proud of himself, and so were we.”

This article is published in the 4 August 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “The fall and rise of the YOI social worker”

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