Changing Outcomes: Listening to Girls and Young Women in Care

By Katie Hunter

A major theme from our interviews with care-experienced girls and young women was the feeling of not being listened to or consulted about significant life events, and the impact that this had on their trajectories through the youth justice system. The research literature demonstrates that sustained, consistent, and nurturing relationships are key to promoting the wellbeing of children in care and can reduce the risk of justice involvement[1][2]. However, many children in care are exposed to significant instability and disruption which can include moving placements and schools, often living far away from their home area [3].

Consulting Girls and Young Women about Their Lives

Many of the girls and young women interviewed as part of our study experienced multiple placement moves and some also changed schools numerous times. The majority of our participants wished that they had been consulted about such moves and their lack of involvement in choices that would have a significant impact on their lives was acutely felt. Nicky (17) strongly believed that unsuitable placements had contributed to her offending behaviour and felt that if she had been involved in placement decisions she would have avoided many situations that had got her into trouble. By contrast, Grace (17) had a positive experience of care and the youth justice team and credited both with helping her to stay out of trouble. Grace’s experience was relatively unusual as she had only moved once and had been actively involved in her placement choice, with her social worker allowing her to visit a potential foster carer beforehand. Grace felt that the foster placement was not the right fit for her and another placement was found.

Clearly, it is important that girls feel listened to when decisions are made about where and with whom they are going to live. Not being listened to was also apparent more generally, with many participants feeling unheard by the professionals in their lives. Lucy (23) told us that no one had ever really spoken to her about what she wanted and that this was essential to preventing girls in care from entering the criminal justice system. Ellie (16) entered care aged 16 and was placed into semi-independent accommodation with much older housemates. She felt that care workers’ expectations of her ability to manage in such a placement were too high, given her young age. Ellie felt that her carers did not take the time to understand her needs; she said that they ‘talk over us instead of talk to us’. Similarly, Charlotte (20) wanted professionals to make more of an effort to understand the needs of care experienced girls in the criminal justice system and to tailor interventions accordingly. She said that girls needed more opportunities that were not generic, that fitted their individual aspirations.

The Importance of Trusting Relationships

Our interview participants told us that in order to have their voices really heard, they needed trusting relationships with carers/professionals. Both Zoe (25) and Charlotte (20) highlighted that carers needed to be more emotionally involved in the lives of children and to recognise the importance of the caring role. As Charlotte put it: ‘this is your job and my life’. Certainly, poor relationships with carers can leave children feeling alienated and angry, which can manifest as difficult behaviour[4][5]. Lucy (23) was finally able to open up to her personal advisor, after having a string of social workers who she ‘hated’. Despite Lucy’s initial reluctance, her personal advisor continued to work with her and they developed a strong relationship in which Lucy feels supported to ‘get where I want to be’.

The significance of having one individual that the girls/women could trust was also a theme in our interview data. All participants had the option of being accompanied during the interview by a support person (e.g. a foster carer or social worker) if they wished. Six participants took this option; all six chose to be accompanied by a trusted professional, this included five Youth Offending Team (YOT) workers and one social worker. The interviewees accompanied by YOT workers had all cultivated special relationships and most workers had gone above and beyond their role to provide support. For example, Amelia’s YOT worker had continued to work with her after her youth justice order was completed because she recognised there would be a gap in support. Even more striking is that Zoe (25) briefly moved in with her former YOT worker, Suzy, when she needed accommodation. Zoe said that her relationship with Suzy was like that of a family member. What was key about these relationships is that the interviewees had someone who made them feel like they mattered, who listened to them and responded to their specific needs. We also found that workers who attended interviews benefitted from the process. For instance, Roxanne’s YOT worker described hearing her interview as ‘powerful’ as it was the first time she had heard Roxanne’s full story.


It may seem obvious but we must listen to girls and young women in care in order to appropriately meet their needs. When girls and young women feel supported and in control of their lives it can help to reduce their risk of youth and adult criminal justice involvement. While this could be considered common sense, the care system currently does not prioritise the wishes and feelings of girls. This is not just about amplifying voices in so much as making sure carers and professionals are listening in the first place. We must also recognise that failures of the care system are currently being mitigated by some professionals who are going above and beyond their roles, which is unsustainable. Like all children and young people in care, girls and young women deserve a care system which gives them agency, includes them in decision making and champions their views. In future, we must make sure we are listening.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of participants and accompanying workers


Challenging the Over-Representation of Care Experienced Women in Prison

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’[1]. 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[2]. This figure is very likely to be an underestimate because of the difficulties in identifying past care experience amongst those in prison[3].

Our Research

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”
(Lucy, 23)

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

[1] Department for Education (2020) Children looked after in England including adoption 2019-2020, National Statistics.

[2] Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (2012), Prisoners’ Childhood and Family Backgrounds. Ministry of Justice.

[3] 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.