By Claire Fitzpatrick and Katie Hunter
This International Women’s Day we choose to challenge the over-representation of care-experienced women in prisons across the country. Despite popular perceptions continuing to link care experience with troublesome behaviour, just 1% of children enter care because of ‘socially unacceptable behaviour’. However, women who have been in care as children (for example, in foster care or children’s homes) have long been over-represented in the criminal justice system. Whilst only 1% of the general population have been in care, estimates suggest that this is the case for 31% of adult females in custody. This figure is very likely to be an underestimate because of the difficulties in identifying past care experience amongst those in prison.
Our interviews with care-experienced women in prison have powerfully highlighted the need to challenge any assumption that their involvement in the criminal justice system is inevitable and can be reduced purely to individual-level issues. In fact, our interviews have revealed a series of systemic failings by the state as parent that highlight various missed opportunities. This includes a failure to provide appropriate support at earlier points in life, failure to respond appropriately to past trauma and a failure to offer safety and stability in care and beyond. Women’s reflections on their own care and justice experiences frequently reveal lives that are layered with trauma and multiple experiences of prior victimisation such as sexual abuse and domestic violence. The effects of such trauma often remain with individuals as they navigate the pains of imprisonment.
The Strength of Women
Yet despite the trauma that was so evident in many women’s lives, there was also a great deal of strength demonstrated by those who had suffered, and continue to suffer, great adversity. In sharing their stories of survival, numerous instances emerged of women demonstrating solidarity and support. For example, Faye (30) had gone around the prison asking women if they would be interested in being part of a peer support group for those with care experience, taking down names on a piece of paper. This took a great deal of courage. Meanwhile, Mandy (46) went to the laundry room every day to check on her friend Amy who worked there, and who was an 18-year-old fellow care leaver who had not long entered the prison. In another prison, Cassandra (38) had taken it upon herself to create a pamphlet of information for new entrants, signposting support services for women when they are at their most vulnerable.
Reflecting on the lack of support from her leaving care worker whilst in prison, Lucy (23) described how she encountered other care-experienced young people in a similar position as herself. Recognising their collective struggle not only made her aware that she was not alone, but inspired her to develop work to identify, engage and support other care experienced women.
“I found a group of individuals where it was not just me. These problems weren’t just my problems and they weren’t a struggle that I was facing by myself, and not just that, there were care leavers that were…in a worse position than me and it was something that I just didn’t want to continue to happen”
There were various other examples of women demonstrating solidarity and strength in recognition of the struggle faced by others with care-experience, some of whom lacked wider family support in the community and felt abandoned by their local authority. This included looking out for each other and often, a determination to change things for the next generation.
Such themes were also evident in interviews with women in the community who had had youth justice-involvement. For example, Jenny (22) and Hannah (26) were both studying at university and hoped to become residential children’s home workers. Jenny (22) was also working with her local authority to improve services for looked after children and had recently secured an increase in toiletries money for girls.
“I just kind of want to help other young people in the similar situation to what I’ve been in” (Jenny, 22)
If we choose to cast our gaze beyond easy perceptions of criminalised women who have been in care as either ‘mad or bad’ on one hand, or simply ‘vulnerable’ on the other, we are far more likely to see their potential and strength and notice the common aspiration to learn from past experiences to support and empower others.
This International Women’s Day, we choose to challenge the over-representation of care-experienced women in prison. There is nothing inevitable about this, and this is not the way things have to be. In highlighting this issue, we also seek to challenge perceptions of imprisoned women who have been in care. When we listen to the voices of those who have suffered harm across state care and control institutions, histories of trauma are very evident. However, women’s stories also clearly reveal narratives of strength and survival. We would be doing women a disservice if we did not recognise their immense courage and the determination of many to improve our systems of support for future generations.
All names have been changed to protect participants’ identities
 Department for Education (2020) Children looked after in England including adoption 2019-2020, National Statistics.
 Innovation Unit (2019), Falling Through the Gaps: Fragmented and Underfunded Systems are Failing Care Leavers who Serve Prison Sentences, in Custody and in the Community. Innovation Unit.