We spoke with Dr Anne-Marie Day, Criminology lecturer at Keele University about insights from her report ‘It’s a Hard Balance to Find’: The Perspectives of Youth Justice Practitioners in England on the Place of ‘Risk’ in an Emerging ‘Child-First’ World.
Anne-Marie has many years’ experience as a practitioner and policy maker within criminal justice. Anne-Marie's research interest primarily focuses on the Youth Justice System (YJS), and more specifically upon the experiences and perceptions of children’s pathways into, through and out of the YJS.
What inspired your study into the conflict between risk management and child first based approaches?
I was asked to evaluate a constructive resettlement approach that’s being trialled in South and West Yorkshire by the Youth Justice Board (YJB). It suggests that when children are released from custody they should be worked with in a way that is desistence and Child First based – a move towards looking at future focus, and an identity shift in children. I was asked to evaluate it and that involved speaking to practitioners about whether they think this approach is effective in resettlement. As I spoke with practitioners, I was made aware of discussions around risk and the fact that they felt they were being asked to work in a desistence, Child First way but felt that there was strong focus from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Probation (HMIP) on risk. Practitioners felt that there was a clash between the two approaches and found it difficult to reconcile that. This was a strong theme that came out while analysing my interviews and I felt it deserved a paper in its own right.
What was the most interesting or surprising finding from your interviews?
I knew that there was a reluctance to move away from the risk based approach and towards a welfare based, Child First approach but the reasons for that reluctance was really interesting. Practitioners felt exposed moving away from risk because the risk assessment process, forms and even the bureaucracy of OaSys with adults or AssetPlus with kids offers practitioners a degree of protection. Practitioners can say; ‘I’ve assessed the child entirely, I’ve put this plan in place and I’ve done everything that I can’. There were concerns that if there is a move away from risk based assessments, what protections are offered to the workers if there is serious incident or mistake made. The welfare based culture that existed in youth justice 20 years ago has evolved into a culture and workforce that is more risk averse. As a result, there seems to be some misunderstanding between the differences in approaches and a real nervousness of what to replace risk management with for working with the kids that practitioners consider to pose a ‘high’ risk of harm
What did practitioners want to see to address this?
It is important to realise that Youth Offending Team (YOTs) workers are working with children who might be at risk, to themselves or the public. Therefore, a child first, desistence based, trauma informed approach where the child is assessed but there is a holistic wider assessment where the focus is not just on risk but also meeting the needs of the child, is necessary. Practitioners want a clear message from central government about which approach should take priority in order to satisfy inspections, be in line with the YJB’s objectives while doing work that is most effective for the child. In order to be Child First, the infrastructure in place need to be reassessed, potentially considering having an inspectorate that focuses on the welfare needs of the child. The current inspectorate is set up for an adults and has been adapted for children which is part of the problem with the youth justice system, it is too adulterised and often doesn’t suit the needs of children.
What would suggest could be done locally to address this?
Having a supportive YOT management board and operational managers that recognise the pressures that staff are under and the extra work it is causing. Managers need to look at how to get a better balance so that workers are able to spend the time they need with the children, to work with them in a Child First way. So looking at minimising the paperwork and assessments as much as possible. The good thing about youth justice is that it is all localised, so management boards can make decisions to take the pressure off and hopefully this will lead to a conversation about developing a clear narrative. Spending as much time with the children as possible and having the freedom to develop relationships is essential but you need senior management support to do that, and too often they prioritise the expectations of HMIP.
Where do you do you think diversion sits within the Chid First approach?
Diversion does sit within the Child First approach but it needs the proper investment and infrastructure to be done in the right way. The aim of diversion to divert the child away from the criminal justice system and minimise the effects labelling through contact with justice agencies. However, we are seeing YOTs having 60-70% of their caseload being diversion cases because there is no one else to pick up the work. Diversion requires that investment as there are huge disparities within diversion, in terms of race with black and mixed heritage children not being offered diversion for similar offences to white children. Children in care are being diverted due having contact with the police, where if they were in a family home they wouldn’t have come to the attention of the police. The ideal model would be to divert children into universal services where their needs could be met by the third sector, social services with a contextual safeguarding focus, education and other non-criminal justice agencies.
I am writing up findings from my thesis in collaboration with my PhD supervisors, which is looking at children in care from an identity perspective focusing on how contact with care and the criminal justice system makes you more likely to engage in behaviour that is criminalised. I’m also looking at neruodivergence, looking at children in the youth justice system who have neurodivergence both diagnosed and undiagnosed because we have a massive disproportionality and there is not a full picture of yet. In my previous research into custody, a lot of children had undiagnosed neurodivergence in particular ADHD, their needs weren’t being met and they were often placed in solitary confinement. I’m hoping to amplify the voices of these children because they are often not heard.