The findings of a report considering the lives of 80 children in the criminal justice system were announced last week. Hailed as the most wide-ranging contemporary study of its kind, the Punishing Abuse report, forensically examined the evidence around criminal behaviour and early experiences of trauma.

Trauma, discipline and punish

Commissioned by West Midlands Combined Authority and the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, the report revealed substantial levels of abuse, neglect, and adversity. Of the children studied:

  • 90% had potentially been abused.
  • 80% had a suspected health issue.
  • 80% were subject to school exclusion.
  • 70% had suspected experience of domestic abuse.
  • 70% were victims of violence.
  • 70% lived in poverty.
  • 56% have parents with a previous or current substance misuse issue.

Author Dr Alex Chard said that this indicated that early exposure to abuse, vulnerability, and adversity has a profound, long-lasting effect on children. And there may be a recalibration of these early experiences into aggressive behaviours and psychiatric disorders.

Consequentially, Dr Chard argued that the evidence suggests that children in the youth and justice system are being punished because of their early traumatic experiences and broader structural factors such as poverty.

Dr Chard commented: "This report portrays the experiences children in the justice system have suffered, this is profoundly saddening and shocking. I hope that this report will initiate system-wide change to improve the lives of the many children who experience adversity, abuse, loss and trauma, better protecting both those children and importantly their communities."

Key recommendations

As a result of the overwhelming evidence, the report concluded that further investment in early interventions and support are necessary to help children in crisis and to prevent the social and economic cost of failure and criminalisation.

To achieve these aims, a whole range of services from primary health, social services, and schools need to help parents and children develop positive patterns of attachment, provide training, and consider how they approach and take care of these vulnerable children.

Additionally, the report concluded that there needs to a reduction of prosecutions of vulnerable children in public care and an exploration with the Crown Prosecution Service around new ways of dealing with children who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

David Jamieson, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, said: "As Police and Crime Commissioner, I am committed to improving the opportunities that young people have to ensure that they lead fulfilling lives away from crime. This report offers a number of recommendations, and I am committed to working with partners to implement them.”

"This report shows that much more needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable young people in our society, and more needs to be invested to support children and their families who are at risk… Collectively we are failing some of our most vulnerable young people, and we are all paying the price later on. This report needs to be a catalyst for change.”