Youth Justice Officer and author Andi Brierley (@andibrierley) may regret posting such an interesting comment on my blog entry about coproduction – because of course I asked him to turn it into a guest blog. I’m glad I did anyway: this is such a powerful personal piece on why we need many more people with lived experience working in – and leading – our public services. It follows Rachel and Tim’s guest blog yesterday about more meaningful relationships in social work, both of these pointing to the fascinating conversations which are taking place across the adult and children’s services divide about the relationships we have – and those we need – between people offering and seeking support. Andi writes:
I was born to a mother living in a children’s home aged just 16. I spent time in care as a result of mum’s capacity issues leaving me and my siblings abused and neglected. I was excluded from school aged 15, addicted to heroin aged 16 and then exploited into selling drugs by older men. When I was eventually caught, I was sent to a Young Offenders Institution for 18 months. This sentence did little to address my life challenges and upon release, I served a further 3 sentences for offences that all related to drug and alcohol related offences.
I eventually started volunteering for the Youth Justice service in 2007, only two years after release from my last prison sentence. Having been granted an opportunity, I grabbed it with both hands and have worked in youth justice ever since, qualifying in 2013. I have also written a book ‘Your Honour Can I Tell You My Story’ about my experiences, in which I draw on my unique combination of 11 years as a service user and 13 as a youth justice worker, to argue that our institutional responses to disadvantaged communities, children and families do not – and cannot – work.
Let’s take the Criminal Justice System. The regulatory body of Probation and Youth Justice, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) is set up to regulate ‘risk management’ processes. Do these processes keep us safe?
According to a 2016 Ministry of Justice report, 25% of the adult prison population had experienced care and 42% had been excluded from school: they were known to services from a very early stage in their lives, and many excluded from school and criminalised in their care setting (see this 2018 DfE report). So risk management at that early stage was ineffective, and then, post-incarceration, the reoffending rate for children within 12 months of release is a high as 70%.
The most severe risk management tool is incarceration, which politicians want us to believe ‘rehabilitates’ offenders. However, rehabilitation implies that these individuals were once living a ‘normal life’, which the statistics above show was not the case, and the reoffending rate is currently 46% for all prisoners within 12 months of release. For prisoners serving short sentences, this rises to 60%. I can’t find research on this, but from my lived experience, I think these will disproportionately be care-experienced prisoners: care experienced and traumatised individuals are more likely to be dysfunctional than organised armed robbers. The National Audit Office estimated in 2010 that this reoffending costs us as a tax payers, anywhere between 9.5 to 13 Billion.
So it seems hard to argue that the current Criminal Justice System is effective when dealing with children that have experienced childhood adversity. Research conducted by the US health maintenance organisation Kaiser Permanente and others found children that suffer abuse and neglect in the absence of an attachment to a positive adult show profound neurological damage. They found that that the more exposure to adversity, the more likely the individual is to experience teenage pregnancy, criminality, drug addiction, health problems and even early death. I can relate to this both personally, but also professionally. I am currently working with children that do not and cannot understand the impact of their environment on their own behaviour, yet we continually view them as a risk instead of doing more to change their environments. The criminal age of responsibility being 10 years old doesn’t take into account neurological impairments.
I believe that the root cause of this is the core belief of the criminal justice system that the children are making choices and therefore they can assist in helping them make better choices. This view is rooted in many professionals’ belief that they themselves would not commit crime, even faced with the environmental factors the children are facing. Let’s explore this even further. To become a professional in the care or criminal justice sector, you often require a degree, particularly if you want to rise to senior management level. Yes, there will be professionals that have faced adversity and even some that come from disadvantaged communities. However, they are extremely unlikely to have experienced the level of childhood adversity or transgenerational trauma the children in the criminal justice system have, particularly those that end up in custody. Currently, only 6% of Care Leavers obtain a degree between the ages of 18-21. The number of incarcerated children obtaining a degree will be considerably lower. This indicates criminal justice services, with some exceptions, are being shaped by a group which does not include people who know first-hand what it is like to be exposed to the environmental factors the children within it face.
HMIP recently inspected the service I work with and spent a week reading what we as professionals write on the recording system. They didn’t speak to the young people in reaching judgements about our practice. Now I see why, when I was a service user, I didn’t know the system was ‘managing’ my risk in this way. I was secondary: the institutional process was primary because that was what the regulators focussed on. But our failure to listen to or value service users goes a long way to explaining the ineffectiveness of the system in helping offenders desist from offending.
I am by no means the person with the answer, but I do have a unique perspective. I know for certain that professionals that haven’t experienced childhoods like ours should not take the view that they wouldn’t have been significantly challenged by such experiences. The Criminal Justice System needs to be built upon the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences research which can’t show the reason for a particular offence, which is a decision on an individual day, but does show clearly how a childhood like mine affects the individual’s life course and goes some way to explaining the root causes of the behaviour.
The system would become more effective if it was flexible enough to incorporate the views of people within the communities that the individuals come from. Lived experience is a skillset, so we must reduce barriers to work within the system itself, such as criminal record checks. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. Co-production needs to be more than a buzz word. To create a more balanced, personalised and appropriate response to crime, which will keep us safe and cost less money, I have learned that we must fight the social inequalities and marginalisation faced by the vast majority of children who offend.