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Surge of young people could be drawn into youth justice system following pandemic

There is a significant risk of a surge in the number of children drawn into the youth justice system following the pandemic, a report by the Alliance for Youth Justice has found.

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The briefing finds:

  • Exacerbated vulnerabilities and inequalities: the impact of COVID-19 on children is devastating, as not only have pre-existing vulnerabilities been exacerbated and safeguarding concerns heightened, but many more children and families are now exposed to new and increased challenges.

  • Services under severe strain making access to services difficulties: the pressure on statutory and voluntary sector services as a result of COVID-19 should be seen in the context of systems already struggling to meet children’s needs before the pre-pandemic.

  • A complex and challenging policy context: the pandemic has exposed a lack of national strategy for children, meaning there is real danger of children  falling through the gaps, and punitive measures risk widening the net of children within the realm of enforcement and criminalisation.

The briefing highlights a ‘perfect storm’ for children at risk, as a result of the exacerbation of children’s vulnerabilities, support services being under severe strain, and the complex and challenging policy context.

“The wide-ranging impacts on children’s social, emotional and mental health needs are yet to be fully realised, and are widely projected to be profound,” said the report. “Children are living in an unstable world, experiencing lengthy periods of isolation, disruption and uncertainty. They are increasingly disenfranchised, disengaged and dealing with trauma as a result of their experiences during the pandemic.”

“Poverty, inequality and housing instability were increasing pre-pandemic and are worsening,2 with significant psychological and behavioural implications on children, 3 and research emphasising the link between poverty and offending,” the report added.

The research goes on to highlight:

  • Mental health and wellbeing crisis - with the children’s mental health and wellbeing crisis being greatly exacerbated by COVID-19.
  • Challenges in education – with the pandemic drastically disrupting children’s education, highlighted existing disparities in provision and exacerbated inequalities.
  • Exposure to abuse, exploitation and violence – with reports throughout the pandemic of increases in safeguarding risks to children, with growing concerns among national stakeholders about their exposure to various forms of abuse, exploitation and violence.
  • Children’s interactions with police – with many children being arrested and detained by police, even overnight during the pandemic which have exacerbated existing tensions.
  • Children in contact with the justice system - children in the youth justice system are particularly vulnerable and often face multiple disadvantage, making them likely to be some of the worst affected by the pandemic.
  • Deepening racial inequalities - with the pandemic’s harms disproportionately felt by racially minoritised children and the health and economic impacts on their communities, disparities at the front end of the justice system are likely to increase.
  • Pressures on services adapting to COVID-19 - the pandemic has changed how services work with children and with each other, and it is currently unclear what the longer-term impact of new ways of working will be.
  • Children’s social care failing to meet needs - the child safeguarding system was already in crisis pre-pandemic and there is a huge risk that the growing number of children at risk of harm due to the pandemic are not receiving the support they need and will end up caught up in the criminal justice system in the future.
  • Mental health services not matching demand - in light of growing need due to the pandemic, practitioners are seriously concerned about the capacity of mental health services to meet a future increase in numbers of referrals, 51 amid rising thresholds of need for accessing support.
  • Youth services struggling to survive - the pandemic has greatly exacerbated existent funding pressures, with concerns that many youth services have to reduce provision, make redundancies, and even permanently close.
  • Specialist services and support - there are also concerns about the availability of specialist services that are designed with specific groups of children in mind, for example girls or racially minoritised children, who can fail to have their needs met by generic services, or feel they are not for them.

“We argue that strong leadership and co-ordinated action are required to address the impacts of the pandemic and prevent an influx of children into the youth justice system. We call for vulnerable children to be at the heart of policy and practice, and concerted efforts to maximise diversion of children to positive pathways outside of the justice system. We make a number of recommendations for policymakers and commissioners,” the briefing concludes.

A perfect storm for children at risk

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