‘Social workers judged me without knowing me’: tackling the criminalisation of care-experienced girls

Care-experienced women are stubbornly overrepresented in the justice system. Tackling this involves social workers challenging negative stereotypes of young people and improving support, finds research

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Photo posed by model (credit: Photographee.eu/Fotolia)

By Dr Claire Fitzpatrick

Too many women in prison today were the girls in care of yesterday. Beyond the gaze of the community, their experiences are easily ignored. Yet the stubborn over-representation of those with care experience in custody must be addressed by dramatically improving the care and support that individuals receive at earlier points in their lives.

This is one of the findings from our Nuffield Foundation-funded* project report, Disrupting the Routes between Care and Custody for Girls and Women. Led by Lancaster University, in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Bristol, this research has explored the neglected needs of care-experienced girls and women in contact with the youth and criminal justice systems.

With my colleagues Drs Katie Hunter, Julie Shaw and Jo Staines, we completed 94 interviews including 37 with care-experienced women in prison across three prisons in England and 17 with girls and young women in the community with youth justice system contact. Forty interviews were also completed with professionals from various agencies including children’s services, youth offending teams and the judiciary.

Despite ongoing efforts to prevent this, our research highlights that girls in care remain at risk of having their challenging behaviour unnecessarily criminalised. Participants described how police call-outs to some care homes occurred for behaviour that would not necessarily result in police involvement for other children. As one interviewee said, the behaviour of girls in care may be looked at “under a microscope” due to their care status. By contrast, the victimisation and exploitation of girls in care may be minimised or overlooked, with inadequate support also evident during the transition to leaving care and for those in custody.

‘Racialised judgments’

Negative views of girls in trouble may also combine with racialised judgments of those from Black and minoritised communities to create overlapping layers of disadvantage for some girls in care in conflict with the law. Girls and women in our study stressed that an over-reliance on official files by professionals could also reinforce negative perceptions of those in care.

“I felt like the social workers that had worked with me just read my file and formed an opinion on me without actually knowing me.” (Bobbi**, 20)

“My support worker at the care home, one of the things she said that really peed me off was that she was like, ‘I’ve read your file, I know everything about you’. I was like ‘no, you’ve read my file, you know what’s on my file, I am more than just a piece of paper’.” (Ellie, 18)

Whilst Bobbi and Ellie illustrate the problem of over-reliance on an official record, file or ‘paper self’, we note also Lucy’s comment on how “refreshing” it was when she finally met a member of children’s services willing to look beyond her official story.

“She sort of said: ‘This is your report, this is everything I’ve read about you. You sound like an absolutely horrible individual on paper, however I don’t care. Tell me who you are and we’ll take it from there’, which was really refreshing and really new as well.” (Lucy, 23)

The need to look beyond the official record

An ability to look beyond the official record, and the inaccuracies and prejudices they may contain, is not only an example of good practice, but should be essential for those working with care-experienced girls and women in trouble. This is not least because negative judgments could affect individuals across a range of different domains that are not just limited to offending – but were also evident in relation to victimisation and if girls and women later became mothers.

Participants in our study wanted a care system that went beyond the basics. ‘Care’ needs to be so much more than just providing accommodation, and we must raise aspirations of both our systems and the individuals within them. Raising the status of the sector requires investment in staff and appropriate placements, including ongoing training and support for carers and social workers. Raising aspirations of systems and individuals is also about challenging the stigma attached to care experience, moving beyond negative gendered and racialised judgments, and questioning any assumed inevitability of the link between care and justice system involvement.

Our research also stresses the vital importance of making time to listen to girls and women who have been in care, beyond tokenistic consultation. Girls and women in our study wanted to be listened to without judgment and treated with care and respect, have their views taken seriously and to be believed.

Dr Claire Fitzpatrick is senior lecturer in criminology at Lancaster University

*The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors

**All names have been changed to protect identities

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