Guest blog by Andi Brearley

This guest blog was first published by NIROMP on 5th April 2019. This latest version contains slides from a presentation: Childhood Adversity Resilience – Handout

Guest blog by Andi Brierley, Child Looked After and Care Leaver Specialist within the Leeds Youth Justice Service and Child Friendly Leeds City. Author of: ‘Your Honour Can I Tell You My Story’

My name is Andi Brierley and I am currently a Child Looked After and Care Leaver Specialist within the Leeds Youth Justice Service and Child Friendly Leeds City.

I have been asked by NIROMP’s Chair to write this blog to share some of my knowledge, views and experience of the care and the criminal justice system and by way of preamble to a meeting with NIROMP’s Chair and regional leads later this year.

My background

My role was created due to my successful partnership working with Darren Coyne from the Care Leavers Association which started in 2013. Together, we have completed several Voice and Influence programmes offering a platform to children with experience of both the Care and Youth Justice System in Leeds.

Since we started this work and listening to the voices of these often marginalised young people about their experience of Complex Trauma and their perspective of services, we have made significant strides forward at reducing the numbers of Children Looked After being criminalised. This is also due to the change in how the Youth Justice System diverts young people being criminalised and prevention measures, however we have learnt so much about their perspective.

Policy background and context

In 2016, Lord Laming produced his In Care Out of Trouble report which highlighted the disproportionate overrepresentation of Children Looked After and Care Leavers within all aspects of the Criminal Justice System. In November 2018, the DfE also released their National Protocol to encourage Local Authorities to create their own regional and local protocols to focus on reducing children in care being criminalised.

I hear you ask; why would we need protocols and reports to help Local Authorities make every effort to protect young people in their care being criminalised? When I first came into my current role, I asked myself this very same question. I have since come to the conclusion that the reason is far more complex than professionals wanting to criminalise children. I know through local research and national documents that children in residential care are more likely than those in foster care to come into contact with the Youth Justice System (Howard League 2016).

Children Looked After often find themselves living in residential settings due to their Local Authority not being able to find foster care placements for various reasons or the child not wanting to live in a foster family setting. It seems likely that this particular group of young people will have experienced more Complex Trauma than their comparative peers that respond better to the separation of their parents. MP Anne Coffee has recently found that the use of out of area placements has increased by two thirds since 2012 (CYP 2018). 61% of this number are children living in residential settings.

Making a difference – the IRO and professional challenge

In my role as a Child Looked After and Care Leaver Specialist, I have seen various Children Looked After from Local Authorities all over the country arrive in Leeds in residential settings. These young people often respond negatively to the transition to not only being placed in care but also miles away from home with strangers and their Social Worker not being on hand to support. They are often placed with other children that have also experienced Complex Trauma and separation. Spending 24 hours within a small setting with Traumatised children requires highly trained, highly skilled and highly qualified practitioners that understand Complex Trauma.  Children need skilful care available to them closer to their home and the people who are familiar to them such as their social worker.

Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO’s) are central to ensuring children that face these experiences are receiving the service that they deserve. Young people in care often speak about the trust they have in their IRO’s to challenge poor practice when they speak to them. I believe IRO’s can go one step further in challenging the decisions to move children out of their Local Authority. However, when it is inevitable that they are moved due to lack of placements, the child should have some say in how far they are moved from their home area. IRO’s are in the perfect position as independent service providers to not only listen but to be brave enough to ask the question ‘would this be good enough for my child?’

Knowledge acquired from my own care experience

I was in care as a child and my care experience overall was positive. However due to the Complex Trauma I experienced at home, I made some poor choices in my early teenage years which led to substance misuse problems and eventually prison. When I was first sent to Brinsford YOI, I felt lonely, sad and isolated. I made decisions that led me into the Criminal Justice System, so I accept some of this was a consequence.

However, children are often moved miles away from home – leaving them lonely and isolated, struggling to find new friends and a new sense of community. This can also lead to any reparative work to encourage the child’s sense of self-worth and positivite identity, taking a lot longer. Children with a negative self-identity because of Complex Trauma, are likely to gravitate to negative peer group relationships and become even more vulnerable. Therefore, I believe we should make every effort to care for children close to their home area.

IRO’s shaping approaches to restorative care planning and review

The Criminal Age of Responsibility in England and Wales is currently set at age 10 years. We should expect that a child who has experienced Complex Trauma will not have the same capacity for self-control by age 10. Children who have experienced this type of trauma need a different response, they need help to understand what may have triggered their behaviour. They may not be making conscious choices but lack capacity to control themselves or to empathise. These children need a trauma informed, restorative approach to care planning and review.

Let’s think about what life as a child in a residential home looks like. They are more likely to have substance misuse issues, more likely to have YOT involvement, more likely to have an Education Health and Care Plan, and they are more likely to have risk assessments and Therapeutic input. All these individual services will have their own assessment, plan, intervention and supervision processes. IRO’s may be the best placed professionals to bring all these plans together and to ask, is this something a traumatised child can adhere to? There should only ever be one plan in my view so that it can be regulated by one individual, otherwise we can’t know if the expectations on that traumatised child are too much.

I work for the Youth Justice System and we are highly skilled at assessing and intervening with young people that commit crime and need support to desist from further offending. However, traumatised children don’t need a police car or a court room to heal, unless their crimes simply have no alternative because of their serious nature. They may kick out, they may become abusive, but we intervened in their family lives and sanctioned arguably the biggest trauma of all, which is to take that child into care. They need a system that is empathetic to their experiences. What all children need is love, care and attention as well as patience. Children with experience of Complex Trauma need all of that and some more.

Any final suggestions I hear you ask?

IRO’s SW’s, YOT Workers, Foster Carers and Residential staff, we are the parents, let’s be the empathy we wish to see in these children. A wise man once told me, “A picture paints a thousand words”.

Download: Childhood Adversity Resilience – Handout

My book, Your Honour Can I Tell You My Story which is released on the 17th April 2019 explores the link between Complex Trauma, substance misuse and Offending. Also, how early contact with the Criminal Justice System can impact negatively on our overall aim which is to reduce offending and improve good life outcomes.