13th July 2020

By Ross Gibson

As a youth justice social worker in Glasgow I worked with children within, or on the fringes of, secure care. They experienced such a high risk of harm that their lives, or lives of those around them, were frequently in danger. This often included acts of violence, absconding, drug abuse and other myriad, multifaceted factors that negatively affected their wellbeing and safety. As a practitioner looking in, it sometimes seemed clear to me why these risks were occurring. My views were not always shared by the children, who often told me exactly how wrong I was, and how I just didn’t ‘get it’.

On moving to work at the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice three years ago, this experience came in useful, having been tasked with looking at which services or resources were required to support children and young people within the community, rather than unnecessarily depriving them of their liberty. To do that, I reckoned we needed a clearer picture of exactly what the needs, vulnerabilities and risks of that populations was to begin with.

By using a census to capture organisational records, my research measured the scale of various life experiences, including things like the distance each child is from home, exposure to child sexual exploitation, presence of mental ill-health and the nature of offending behaviour. The first report to come from this project – “ACEs, Places and Status: Results from the 2018 Scottish Secure Care Census” – outlines the demographics of children placed within secure care, before using these features as lenses through which to examine Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  I’m biased of course, but I think there are some interesting findings, including the rising age of those in secure care, increased use of secure care for girls, large numbers of cross-border placements and statistically significant findings regarding exposure to ACEs. In itself, I think it asks questions about the services provided both in the community and in the secure estate, whilst reflecting some hard truths about the levels of abuse and harm some children within our society encounter.

But what my report lacks is the personal. It highlights the prevalence and aggregated exposure to ACEs, but doesn’t explain how they affected the child personally. It talks about the gender makeup of secure care, but doesn’t look deeper to consider how gender played a role in the circumstances which led to admission into secure care. It measures the scale of poverty amongst this population, but doesn’t explain how that makes the children feel. In fact, it makes an assumption that the issues of socio-economic disadvantage, gender and adversity may be reasons why children enter secure in the first place.

That is perhaps illustrative of my own views and professional experience but – as if often the case – the voice of the child is missing. Blind acceptance of quantitative data fails to understand the complexities of children’s lives that are particularly convoluted. Whilst adoption of a practitioner-directed census was a deliberate, methodological choice during this piece of research for various reasons, this absence has influenced how my PhD will be carried out over the coming years. As we have seen in The Promise – the primary product of Scotland’s Independent Care Review – the voice and views of people with lived experience must be given due weight and prominence and adds a depth to discussion that we professionals often lack. The process of being involved in the Justice and Care Working Group of the Independent Care Review and in the Youth Justice Voices project have underlined the need to proactively seek out, amplify and take heed of those who have walked the path that I am hoping to understand. How can I truly understand the lives of children within secure, without speaking directly with them and listening to their lived wisdom?

So, since October I’ve been thinking how to create something that will attempt to articulate and understand – from the child’s perspective – the reasons, events, factors or incidents that resulted in them being admitted into secure care. I suspect that practitioner perception of risk will feature heavily in that discussion. I suspect that many kids will say that their social worker ‘didn’t get it’.

As Scotland moves towards UNCRC compliance the need to respect their voice, their views and their lives becomes more necessary than ever. A better understanding of how and why a child lives the life that they do in the months prior to a decision being made to utilise secure care can help us avoid that negative outcome (despite the wealth of support that is available there) and can help to prevent the harm that the child and those around them encounter. The setting of secure care is important too; it is – by proxy – an indicator of the shared concern and risk that surrounds the children there, with admissions made due to self-harm, child sexual exploitation, violence and other critical concerns. If social work is to be more than an arm of state control, it should aim to create communities that are free from ACEs, poverty, abuse and the million other things that blight children’s lives. Hearing from the children themselves feels like and crucial part of that process.

It’s early days yet, but adoption of the LEGO® Serious Play® approach is something I am considering in order to undertake meaningful conversations in a way that is non-invasive and child friendly whilst literally and metaphorically ceding power into the hands of the child. Quite literally getting on the floor with the kids as they build a representation of their lives and allow me to see things from their point of view. By doing so, I might be able to engage in conversations about the things that mattered to them and to understand why their lives are the way they are. Maybe this change of perspective is perhaps that is one way that I will finally be able to ‘get it’?

Ross is a PhD student based at the University of Strathclyde. His thesis is titled, ‘Young People’s Perceptions of their Routes Into Secure Care’ and he also works at the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) as a Practice Development Advisor.

Images c/o Pixabay and Pexels

Young People and Youth Justice