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Children in care from BME backgrounds face ‘double whammy’ of disadvantage

Inequalities in the youth justice system regarding ethnic minority children and children in care has intensified with minoritised children in care likely to bear the brunt, according to research from Lancaster University.

Children in care who come from an ethnic minority background can experience a 'double whammy' of disadvantage when it comes to youth justice involvement, the research warns. As a result, ethnic minority children in care face ‘institutionalised criminalisation’ contending with both the stigma of their ethnicity and of being care-experienced.

Dr Katie Hunter said: “Significant issues must be addressed to reduce the overrepresentation of ethnic minority looked after children in the youth justice system and the juvenile secure estate.”

The research highlights that:

  • Ethnic minority children are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the youth justice system through stop and search, with Black individuals nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white individuals.
  • Ethnic minority children are also increasingly over-represented in arrest figures.
  • Black children aged 10 to 17 comprise roughly 4.4 per cent of the general population, yet accounted for 15.7 per cent of arrests in 2018/19 - an increase of 7.6 per cent since 2008/2009.
  • Experts interviewed overwhelmingly felt policing of Black children and communities was excessive and driven by highly problematic, racialised assumptions about the types of individuals who engaged in criminal behaviour.

Dr Hunter cited research which suggests minoritised individuals, particularly those who identify as Black, were likely to receive harsher sentences than white individuals. However, more research is needed to determine the precise nature of court interactions.

Black children are more likely to be punished, and to be punished more severely at all stages of the youth justice process, official data shows.

Interviewees said ethnic minority children, particularly those who are Black, must contend with racialised assumptions penetrating all aspects of the system.

The disproportionality is driven by two key processes, placement instability and criminalisation in care settings.

There is a shortage of placements for children with ethnic minority foster carers which exacerbates problems with placement stability.  As a result, young people from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to be housed in residential placements, where they are more likely to receive a formal youth justice sanction than in other placement types.

The view that children’s homes are seen as a ‘last resort’ among local authorities amplifies problems faced by ethnic minority young people, with one former magistrate describing children’s homes as a ‘dumping ground’.

The lack of provision in inner city areas, which, typically, have larger ethnic minority populations, more heavily impacts upon ethnic minority children in care since they tend to be placed further from home than their white counterparts.

Black children could also ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ when housed in largely white, working class areas, in which their ethnicity and care status intersect to produce the ‘double whammy’ of disadvantage.

Children in care are also subjected to increased scrutiny and surveillance, which can result in their criminalisation. Interviewees gave numerous examples of carers, particularly staff in private children’s homes, calling the police for behaviour that would not usually result in youth justice intervention.

One interviewee felt calling the police to help manage behaviour was damaging because it led to children being on the ‘police radar’ which was a ‘slippery slope’ to formal youth justice sanctions, leading to labelling and stigmatisation, resulting in further criminalisation.

Many interviewees also felt that looked after children were disadvantaged in the youth justice system because they were not perceived as having ‘supportive’ backgrounds. Several interviewees highlighted that a lack of advocacy could result in looked after children receiving harsher sanctions, in particular custodial sentences.

“Both groups of children are subjected to increased scrutiny and surveillance, ultimately amounting to institutionalised criminalisation,” Dr Hunter concluded.

Research available here

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