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The impact of the justice system on children with special needs

Recent Government statistics reveal that 80% of cautioned or sentenced children had received a diagnosis of some level of Special Educational Need.

A new briefing from the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) highlights the damaging impact on children with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) who come in contact with the criminal justice system. Recent Government statistics reveal that 80% of cautioned or sentenced children had received a diagnosis of some level of Special Educational Need. Therefore every part of the justice system and every practitioner working within it should have  the appropriate skills and resources to help these children.

The briefing is written in response to the Government’s Green Paper, ‘SEND Review: Right support, Right place, Right time’ and makes three major recommendations.

Recognising impact

In addition to being overrepresented in youth justice statistics, contact with youth justice system has a knock on effect on the education and social care outcomes of children with SEND. For this reason, CJI argues strongly that the justice system is included in the scope of cross governmental work such as this green paper.

There are both short term and long term consequences from these children’s involvement in the justice system. We know that the disruption caused by an arrest, court attendance or even custodial sentence brings to a child’s attendance at school is particularly acute for children that rely on vital support structures accessed through their education such as Education Care And Health Plans and specialist provision.

In the long term, the harmful consequences that a criminal record has on a child’s future labour market opportunities are likely to be even more severe for individuals already suffering from the challenges of having special educational needs and disabilities

Keeping justice services separate from education settings

CJI is critical of the government’s plan to collocate Youth Justice Service in alternative provision settings in schools as part of a multidisciplinary team because they say this is likely to draw even more children with SEND into the justice system. Expanding the presence of justice services into a space where children with SEND are highly represented is likely to inadvertently increase contact with justice system via the phenomenon known as “net widening”.

The negative impact that overextending the reach of the justice system has on the lives of children is well documented. It is strongly linked with increased reoffending, as it can interrupt the natural trajectory most children experience, who grow out of committing crime. Labelling theory holds this is caused by exposure to peers and institutions that create and strengthen a ‘criminal’ identity.

The briefing points out that while the justice system has a responsibility to engage with children with SEND already in contact with the police and Youth Offending Teams (YOT), it is important to ensure that it does not substitute welfare responses to children with additional needs, and only intervenes following an offence.

Effective information sharing between youth justice and education

CJI argue that although co-location would run the risk of involving more children with SEND In the justice system to their detriment, effective information sharing between YOTs and school is essential. The briefing says that frequent and formalised information sharing between education providers and the YOT would help build up an accurate picture of the child’s needs at the earliest point of contact. CJI point out that facilitating this engagement can be particularly challenging considering the complexity of the language used in the youth justice system, and the prevalence of speech, language and communication amongst the cohort of children in the system. More than seven out of ten (71%) of children in the justice system have been found to need some sort of speech, language and communication needs support.

CJI says that YOTs can begin to overcome these barriers by conducting assessments that draw on the wealth of information held by the “ecosystem” of actors who have been responsible for the care of the child – particularly education professionals.

The briefing concludes by pointing out that children with SEND are particularly vulnerable to being excluded from school, a key factor associated with getting into trouble with the criminal justice system.

The Government is currently analysing the feedback to its SEND Green Paper and will be publishing its strategy in the near future.

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