Double discrimination – Barnardo’s calls for change as report highlights young Black people who have been in care experience racism, exclusion and isolation

Published on
21 September 2023

A new report by children’s charity Barnardo’s has highlighted the discrimination faced by many young Black people who have been in the care system, the negative impact this has on their lives and is calling for urgent change.   

The 'Double Discrimination' report highlights examples of racism, wider forms of discrimination, exclusion, and isolation experienced by young Black people in residential settings, foster care placements, education, mental health provision and prison. These include being ignored when reporting racial abuse, care staff involving the police as a tool of discipline in non-criminal matters.  

There has previously been limited research on how being both Black and care-experienced shapes a young person’s interactions with the criminal justice system. Barnardo’s commissioned social research agency Listen Up to lead this new research, which included in-depth interviews with 22 young Black care-experienced people aged 18-25 who are currently serving custodial sentences in England. 

The young people reported that professionals often held low expectations for them, and support was often irregular - 15 out of the 22 young people interviewed reported inconsistent support from their social workers. 

One young person said: “Within the three years I’ve had about five different social workers, whether they’ve left, whether they’ve quit the job, gone to do something in a new department, and right now I’ve even got someone new that I’ve only known for like a month. It’s just like I don’t feel comfortable talking to him, because like you’re just going to [go] one day, and I’m just going to do all this all over again." 

Twenty out of 22 young people disclosed experiences of racism or differential treatment based on their race and ethnicity: in care settings, throughout their education and/or in the criminal justice system. They believed that care staff often involved the police unnecessarily as a disciplinary measure. They were also moved during their time in care to less diverse communities, exacerbating their feelings of isolation and increasing the likelihood of facing racism. 

One young person shared how he felt unsafe and did not feel supported by his carers when he shared racial abuse he experienced from members of the local community: “They basically threatened me, and they said, ‘oh like if we see you in here again, we’re going to deal with you’ [...] they were pointing to a tree over there, they were saying look, ‘there’s a tree over there mate, that’s going to be you up there’.” 

Despite having previously experienced trauma, just four out of 22 participants were offered, or accessed, mental health support. This was in spite of most participants sharing experiences of direct traumatic experiences throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. 

The young people’s care status was rarely considered something which increased their vulnerability, particularly when navigating the criminal justice system. This was particularly evident during the court process and in prisons.  

Barnardo’s has also been working with Manchester Metropolitan University and Lancaster University which carried out related research demonstrating that young Black care-experienced people are statistically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. 

Manchester Metropolitan University found* that while 33% of care-experienced children received a youth justice caution or conviction between the ages of 10 and 17, the figure was higher for Black Caribbean care-experienced children (39%), Mixed (White and Black African) care-experienced children (38%) and Mixed (White and Black Caribbean) care-experienced children (42%). 

The University found that while 5% of all care-experienced children received a custodial sentence, the figure was nearly double for both Black care-experienced children and Mixed ethnicity care-experienced children (9%).  

Barnardo’s is recommending changes to better support young people throughout their lives, including the introduction of a Black Foster Care Network, access to timely mental health support, and full implementation of the Lammy Review to reduce the over-criminalisation of children in the care system. 

Lynn Perry, Barnardo’s CEO, said:   

“Children who can’t live with their birth parents need love, support and opportunities so they can achieve their ambitions as adults. Sadly the young Black people who took part in our research told us that they have faced discrimination on two fronts, because of their cultural heritage and the fact that they have been in care. 

“We know that Black children are over-represented in the care system, and Black young people are far more likely to be in the criminal justice system. Too often Black children are also adultified and denied the support they need to address their trauma. Barnardo’s is calling for decision makers and those working in the care and criminal justice sectors to work with us to help reduce the criminalisation of children in the care system, tackle institutional racism and improve access to mental health support to give these children a brighter future.” 

Dr Katie Hunter, Lecturer in Criminology, Manchester Metropolitan University, said: 

“As a result of this analysis, we now know the shocking extent of criminalisation among care-experienced children in England. It also reveals what individuals working in the field have long suspected - that racially minoritised care-experienced children are especially vulnerable to youth justice involvement and imprisonment.  

“Clearly, we need urgent action from government to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care and care leavers which takes account of the specific needs of minoritised groups.” 

Notes to editors  

* Care Experience, Ethnicity and Youth Justice Involvement: Key Trends and Policy Implications. Dr Katie Hunter, Lecturer in Criminology, Manchester Metropolitan University. 2023. Link here.