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. 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 .
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. 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
-  Schofield, J., Biggart, L., Ward, E., Scaife, V., Dodsworth, J., Haynes, A. & Larsson, B. (2014) Looked After Children: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience. London: BAAF.
-  Taylor, C. (2006) Young People in Care and Criminal Behaviour. London: Jessica Kingsley.
-  Children’s Commissioner (2020) Stability Index 2020
-  Day, A. (2017) Hearing the Voice of Looked After Children: Challenging Current Assumptions and Knowledge About Pathways into Offending. Safer Communities, 16(3), 122-133.
-  Prison Reform Trust (2016) In Care, Out of Trouble: How the Life Chances of Children in Care Can Be Transformed by Protecting Them from Unnecessary Involvement in the Criminal Justice System (The Laming Review)