Prisoners and looked after children - a common cause?

Roger Grimshaw
Monday, 16 February 2015

In August 2014, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a set of Findings as part of its work to build an evidence base for an anti-poverty strategies in the UK. A follow up roundtable event held at the Centre in November 2014 provided an opportunity to examine our particular contribution to those Findings, to discuss how complex needs can be addressed by social policy change, and to influence ongoing policy initiatives. The roundtable made it possible to engage with organisations working directly with service users and to give expression to their perspectives on social policy. There were 25 attendees mainly drawn from from voluntary sector organisations and the research world.

According to our international literature review, both children looked after by local authorities and prisoners are vulnerable to harms associated with being placed in institutions:  impoverished backgrounds prior to entering an institution; risks of deprivation while in an institution; and greater prospects of poverty after leaving one.  The review, like the roundtable, was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of its strategic work on poverty prevention.

Though complex, the needs of the two groups call for a similar social policy approach. Though specific interventions are necessary, both groups would benefit from increased support to families and individuals, the provision of lifelong education for all, and full employment in the most disadvantaged communities.

In my presentation I argued the case for a ‘common cause’ based on social justice. State funding and placement can imply dependence and control but it should entail responsibility, care and partnership. If we accept the idea that the state and its citizens have a responsibility to redress the damage of longstanding and intense harm then the social justice implications are profound. The aim of a social justice policy is therefore reparation, rather than simply an acceptable standard of care. This is the context for anti-poverty proposals which apply to prisoners and young people being looked after, who share backgrounds of social and individual harm.

Christopher Stacey, Director of Services at UNLOCK, drew attention to the employment problems encountered by the full range of people with convictions, which put many of them at risk of poverty. Policy tends to focus on preventing their resumption of offending, while underplaying the importance of a full social rehabilitation. While looked after children and prisoners share characteristics, prisoners had made choices in a way that children had not.

David Graham, National Director of the Careleavers Association, emphasised how the Association is in touch with young people who graphically testify to the challenges of managing personal budgets with little scope for error. It is all too easy to fall through the thin mesh of personal support typically provided for them. Educational outcomes for careleavers remain problematic, hindering access to better jobs. Despite the sums of money spent on care there was a shortfall at the stage of leaving it. While there is a proportion of careleavers who become caught up in criminal justice, and need services similar to prisoners’, there are issues specific to careleavers which policy should address.

There was a wide-ranging discussion which touched on the impact of current policies and raised questions about how change could best be initiated and for whose benefit exactly. The language of ‘shirkers’ as opposed to ‘strivers’ was regressive and contradicted the principle that ‘Every Child Matters’. It was argued that the state should promote care and attachment because people were not just economic ‘units’. Countering racism and addressing the needs of minority ethnic groups were important considerations. There was a case for a national strategy that reduced the risk of disadvantage to the poorest members of society.

Articles based on the presentations and comments are due to be published in a themed edition of Criminal Justice Matters in March 2015.