The combination of resource constraints and rising referrals facing children’s social work teams is contributing to ‘systemic’ failings in the youth justice system, an inquiry has found.
The review, by a cross-party group of peers and members of the House of Commons, also calls for urgent reforms of the youth court system in England and Wales, which it found was failing to prevent offending.
Children’s services and CAMHS teams are among agencies failing to address the needs of children at risk of and engaged in offending, the inquiry found. Many of its respondents cited such failures as a key reason “why children are in the youth justice system and struggle to escape from it”. High thresholds for accessing children’s services support, heavy caseloads and long on-the-day waits for hearings mean that in many cases, social workers don’t attend court, even for cases involving children already in the care system, it found.
“Submissions were mostly positive about the work of youth offending teams in working with the court to assess and address children’s needs. But there was overwhelming consensus that their effectiveness – and, in turn, that of the court – was often restricted by difficulties accessing needed support from other services, particularly children’s services,” the inquiry’s report states.
The inquiry recommends that:
- Allocated social workers be required to report to court, and that a system of timetabling be introduced to better enable busy social workers to attend.
- A specified proportion of children’s social workers be seconded to youth offending teams on a regular timetable in order to break down silos between the two services.
- Youth courts be given powers to order children’s services to investigate whether a child is at risk of significant harm, and to order other services such as CAMHS, schools and colleges to support child defendants.
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said: “This report highlights some of the serious deficits in the way young people are treated in the youth justice system and, sadly, demonstrates that we’re far from meeting our obligations to these young people in terms of maintaining a consistent approach across services in terms of prioritising the welfare needs of children and young people.
Mansuri added: “The issues identified by the inquiry are by no means new, but it demonstrates the urgent need for a ‘sea change’ to our current system, which is clearly not fit for purpose.”
Laura Janes, consultant solicitor at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Unfortunately, local authorities are systematically failing to give children the support they need.”
The inquiry also recommends that the Youth Justice Board establish ‘youth scrutiny panels’ in partnership with local authorities in order to promote diversionary and out-of-court measures with under-18s.
It also calls on the Home Office to urgently sign off draft guidance removing target-driven pressure on police to formally record minor crimes reported at children’s residential homes.
Other recommendations include providing youth-ticketed magistrates and judges in adult courts – and accredited legal professionals in police stations; wiping clean non-serious criminal records when children turn 18; and piloting a “problem-solving” approach in court to ensure children’s needs are met.
Lord Carlile, the chair of the inquiry, said: “Although much good practice has developed over the years in relation to crime committed by children, we found the youth justice system is far from being fit for purpose. Too often children are being left to flounder in court with little understanding of what is happening to them.”
The inquiry, which received 55 written submissions and heard from 43 witnesses, uncovered a series of concerns. These include a shortage of specialist professionals throughout the youth justice system, a lack of consensus on what its primary purpose should be, and inconsistencies in ‘diversion’ processes to help children stay out of the courts. It also highlighted a rise in children’s cases being heard in adults’ magistrates courts, and reviewed the unsuitability of the “intimidating” crown courts for children.
Penelope Gibbs, chair of the standing committee for youth justice, said: “The tragic suicide of a teenager just after appearing in an adult court indicates that the experience can be alienating and disturbing for children. As this report sets out, adult courts, whether presided over by magistrates or crown court judges, are particularly unfit to deal with children’s needs.
“However, even the youth court is in many ways unsuitable for children – it is staffed by lawyers who sometimes have no specialist training, and by magistrates who sit on youth cases infrequently. It too needs reform,” she added.
First-time entrants into the youth justice system dropped by 67 per cent between 2002-3 and 2012-13, according to the report. But many of those coming into the system are more vulnerable and display higher-level offending behaviour.
Lord McNally, chair of the Youth Justice Board, said: “[Children] that remain in the system have complex needs and are, on balance, more challenging to work with. It is important for the system to meet their needs to stop them reoffending.”