Blog contributed by Ben Byrne – Head of Youth Support, Surrey County Council
Unfortunately too often our care system can exacerbate the problems in the lives of children and this is most apparent when we respond in heavy-handed and ill thought through ways to the behaviour exhibited by children who have already been harmed by their previous life experiences.
The outcome is that far too many children in care are drawn into the justice system and ultimately this downward spiral results in about a third of all serving prisoners having had experience of the care system.
The fact that children in care get into trouble has often been seen as one of those intractable problems that will always be with us. The experience in Surrey over recent years, however, demonstrates that through a unifying vision, shared commitment, effective partnership action and dogged perseverance a complex and seemingly ‘wicked’ social challenge is amenable to change.
We have now had our seventh consecutive year of reducing numbers of Surrey children in care who come into contact with the formal criminal justice system (now just 13 of the 450 children aged over 10 years old in our care). This achievement has attracted national recognition and featured prominently in the recently published Laming Review – In Care, Out of Trouble.
How has this been possible and what have been the key ingredients to our success?
Ambition – Nothing changes very much when we concentrate our efforts on explaining and justifying a situation. Having gained a good understanding of the problem of over-representation of children in our care in the criminal justice system and been honest with ourselves about the extent of the challenge, we agreed to take collective responsibility through our partnership Corporate Parenting Board. Critically we not only believed that we SHOULD do something about it, but that we COULD do something about it.
Culture, mindset and partnership – So, critical to building on our ambition was to win hearts and minds, change attitudes, inspire belief and confidence in change, build consensus and create momentum, a climate of shared responsibility and obligation to work together in partnership – with a shared vision, clear and common purpose, and critically, a presumption NOT to criminalise children in care wherever this could be avoided.
Strategy, policy and procedures – Embedded in day-to-day practice and more than words on paper! The development of a Reducing Offending by Children in Care Strategy and a Reducing Offending by Children in Care Multi Agency Protocol with governance and oversight provided by the Corporate Parenting Board, a multi agency steering group and a Practitioner Forum were all important in ensuring that all agencies played their part.
This involved reducing the need for criminal justice responses through positive parenting (see below); active system management (where children did come into contact with the police) to ensure diversion from prosecution wherever possible; and rigorous data capture and analysis to track progress and review/amend the strategy where necessary.
Because some of our children live outside of Surrey we also spread our practice to neighbouring authorities and police services agreeing a South East Protocol for reducing the criminalisation of children in care.
Positive parenting – To be the best parents we can be for the children in our care we needed to equip our carers with the understanding and skills to ‘get ahead of the behaviour’ that in the past had led to police call outs.
By building the confidence and competence of our residential and foster carers through restorative practice, social pedagogy and understanding traumas and attachment we have become better parents and created the best environments for our children to live in.
Perseverance – We have played the long game knowing that the transformation of culture and practice takes time. Partnership is easier to say than it is to do and we have had to keep going despite day-to-day difficulties and disagreements, remembering that the overall vision can only be achieved together.
This means learning from mistakes, making necessary adjustments to the strategy when it’s not working, being open to continuous learning and improvement and relentlessly caring about each and every child. Each year brought us more stories of success for children and changes in culture and practice that we celebrated and used to renew our collective endeavour.
While the figures give us great encouragement that we have done a good thing, nothing speaks more clearly than a visit to one of our residential homes and seeing children who are obviously thriving supported by confident, warm, skilled carers. That’s the best way to reduce offending by children in care and we can be proud in Surrey that that is what we have achieved.