Black care-experienced young people in the criminal justice system

Type Policy and research document

Published on
21 September 2023

Black children are over-represented in both the care and criminal justice systems, and many face inequalities in their interactions with support services.  

Our report brings these inequalities to light by talking to young care-experienced Black people about their lived experiences.  

Black care experienced children are facing double discrimination 

There is currently limited research that specifically explores the intersections of being Black and having experiences of being in care, and how this shapes interactions with the criminal justice system and resettlement processes. 

Our new research interviewed 22 Black care-experienced young people who are currently serving prison sentences in England, to find out their experiences of interacting with the criminal justice system. Using this evidence, the report makes a range of recommendations on the changes needed to address inequalities experienced by children and young people across the care, education, health, and criminal justice systems.  

We commissioned Listen up, a Black-led organisation whose work highlights the lived experience of marginalised children, with the aim to understand the lived experience of Black children who have been in care and the criminal justice system. 

While young people with an experience of care are more likely to serve a custodial sentence, this is even more true for looked-after children who are Black. 

Nearly one in ten Black care-experienced individuals receive a custodial sentence before the age of 18.*

* Data from the Care Experience, Ethnicity and Youth Justice Involvement: Key Trends and Policy Implications policy briefing, Dr Katie Hunter, Lecturer in Criminology, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2023. 

Our research highlights that this ‘double discrimination’, being faced by children who are both Black and have a history of care, means children experience racism, wider forms of discrimination, exclusion, adultification (treating children as adults), over-policing, and inadequate access to appropriate mental health and wellbeing support.   

For children and young people to reach their maximum potential we need individuals, organisations and institutions to identify, acknowledge and continuously challenge the bias, racism and wider forms of discrimination impacting these groups.  

The report makes five policy recommendations aimed at improving outcomes for this marginalised group of young people. 

Our recommendations 

To improve the life chances of young people, it is vital that change is introduced across the system.  

Change should be aimed at better supporting Black children throughout their time in the care system, as well as ensuring that those who come into contact with the Criminal Justice System are treated fairly, and do not face double discrimination based on being both Black and having a history of being in care. 

Our report calls for the following five key recommendations to be implemented: 

1. Improve the experience of Black children in foster care  

To improve outcomes for care-experienced Black children in custody, we must begin with improving their overall care experience, ensuring that Black children who cannot live with their birth parents receive loving care which respects and affirms their identity.  

To help achieve this the Department for Education should develop and fund a Black Foster Care Network, with an aim to increase the number of high-quality carers within the UK who understand how to meet the needs of Black children. 

2. Improve access to mental health support for Black children in care 

Significant past trauma and the lack of support to help recover from these experiences was a significant contributing factor to the challenges faced by the young people we interviewed.  

The Department for Education and the Department for Health should therefore work together to improve mental health support for all children in and leaving care. This should include a specific emphasis on how the support can be delivered in a culturally sensitive way. 

3. Take action to reduce the over-criminalisation of children in the care system 

Greater focus needs to be given by Government and its agencies to reduce the over-criminalisation of children in care in the criminal justice system.  

This should involve placing a statutory duty on local authorities to work with partners to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care and care leavers, including a requirement to develop local protocols to help achieve this. 

4. Improve understanding of the needs of children in care and care-experienced young people, whilst providing training on how to better do this 

Our research highlighted that agencies (including those within the Criminal Justice System) often lack understanding of what it means to be care-experienced, and rarely take into account the specific challenges these young people face. 

To help develop better understanding across Government, the Department for Education should extend the current corporate parenting principles listed in legislation to agencies involved in the criminal justice system including police, courts, and prisons.  

This should include providing professionals with specialised training to improve understanding of this group and how services should be delivered in a way which better meets their needs. 

5. There must be a renewed emphasis on implementing reform aimed at tackling institutional racism within the criminal justice system 

Given the evidence that young Black people involved in the criminal justice system still face significant challenges with institutional racism in the system, and in light of the comprehensive report by David Lammy published in 2017, we are concerned that insufficient progress in implementing the recommendations have been made. 

We are calling on the Government to publish an updated progress report on how far it has implemented the recommendations of David Lammy’s independent Review. This should include a clear action plan on how it intends to take forward the recommendations in that report which have yet to be progressed. 

Further research 

We’re also working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) who have carried out related research that also demonstrates that Black care-experienced young people are statistically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. You can read MMU's full report here.

  • Our policy work  

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  • Support for young people leaving care 

    Learn how we support young people leaving care by campaigning for care leavers, offering guidance and advice and access to accommodation. 

  • What needs to change in the care system according to young people

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