Girls in care frequently experience discrimination with the law, as they are overpoliced and overlooked by the system

Discussing the ‘unnecessary criminalisation’ of girls in care, a report finds that girls, being a minority within the justice system, are more likely to have their needs overlooked, be overpoliced, and be charged unfairly by the justice system.

While the report moves to prevent the criminalisation of girls in care, research demonstrates the neglect of imprisoned women from care, as well as those of care-experienced girls and young women in the community with youth justice system contact.

“There’s still this stigma within the care system of you are in care, therefore every minor accident you have…is clearly intentional… let’s get you arrested.”

It urges care systems to take on a ‘far greater recognition’ of the profound impact of imprisonment across the generations – especially for care-experienced mothers.

Additional research also notes that girls in care with involvement with the law may be stigmatised not only due to their care status but also because of negative judgements relating to their gender or ethnicity.

Girls in care may experience ‘over-scrutiny’ of behaviour

Interviews were undertaken with 37 care-experienced women from across three prisons in England, as well as 17 care-experienced girls and young women in the community across England who had also had involvement with youth justice and the law.

Frequently, participants had backgrounds of abuse, serious violence, and trauma, and had multiple experiences of victimisation throughout their lives. Violence and abuse at home was the most common reason reported for entering the care system.

In some care settings, many girls reported feeling over-scrutinised by their care systems and the police.

Out of the participants, 11 were in children’s homes at the time of this contact, and had stated that over-criminalisation for minor offences in children’s homes was a common theme.

Police involvement frequently leads to minor cases of misbehaviour to unnecessary criminalisation of girls in care – even after there has been a wider recognition of this problem, with ongoing efforts to prevent it, police callouts for minor incidents in some care homes remain a risk for too many children.

As 18-year-old study interviewee ‘Ellie’ said: “There’s still this stigma within the care system of you are in care, therefore every minor accident you have…is clearly intentional… let’s get you arrested.”

A third of care-experienced participants reported their first justice system contact occurred whilst in care

An escalation in offence seriousness was a common trend amongst those interviewed – where offending behaviour often worsened after leaving care.

Lead author Dr Fitzpatrick said: “Too many women in prison today were the girls in care of yesterday, and systemic failings in the wider society perpetuate this problem. We must do more to prevent this, and listening to, and learning from, the stories of criminalised girls and women is a vital starting point.”

The Director of Justice at the Nuffield Foundation, Rob Street, added: “There is a persistent over-representation of care-experienced girls and women in the youth and criminal justice systems.

“Encouragingly, this study presents clear recommendations which could improve the lives of these girls and women by breaking the link between care and custody which can impact care leavers throughout their lives.”

The interviews demonstrated a commitment to diverting children from the youth justice system, and a recognition that this needed to involve far more than just avoiding prosecution.

girls in care, criminalisation

What are the recommendations for improving the situation for girls in care?

As stated, ‘immense harm’ can come from imprisonment for many girls, as they do not have the support to help them through prison or even just being in care.

The report highlights: “Prison must cease to be a default option when the lack of support in care and the community essentially helps to reproduce the well-trodden routes between care and custody”.

Girls in care should be diverted from custodial sentences into community alternatives wherever possible.

  • Placing a statutory duty on local authorities to prevent unnecessary criminalisation of children in care
  • Recognising the limits of official care files and moving beyond them
  • Promoting trusted and consistent relationships and challenging stigma
  • Diverting girls and women from custody wherever possible
  • Confronting the intergenerational harms that imprisonment creates

Many girls and women in care felt quite strongly that they wanted workers to look beyond their official histories, avoid over-reliance on their files, and take time to get to know them and the context of their lives – outside of the stigma being in care can carry.

Care-experienced girls and women reported that trusted relationships were key for providing and receiving support. Promoting such relationships requires going beyond the basics of providing accommodation, to being trauma responsive, supporting staff and raising aspirations.


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