Three in four teenagers in care will have criminal conviction by age 22

More than three-quarters of children who are in residential care by their 16th birthday will have a criminal conviction by the age of 22, according to damning new figures.

Research has found that 77% will have a conviction and 31% will have spent time in prison.

The figures come from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a research project following 4300 young people since 1998. They also show that 80% of young people who were in jail by the age of 18 will have a further criminal conviction by 22.

The prognosis for children in care has traditionally been poor, with lower-than-average educational attainment and high levels of mental health problems. But this is the first time the stark link between care and crime has been calculated in this way.

Professor Lesley McAra, of Edinburgh University, said the data suggested residential care should be avoided if necessary.

Childcare experts are agreed that children’s offending behaviour and wellbeing is adversely affected by a lack of stability in their care, and the aim is for children to have three or fewer placements. The Herald has learned, however, that at least 1500 children in care have had more than three different placements. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that some vulnerable young people have had as many as 18.

Across the country, some 84 children have had 10 or more placements. The highest number was in the Highland area but other local authorities, including Glasgow, had children in care who had undergone 13 changes in placement.

In one case, a child had more than four placements by the age of four and was later repeatedly referred to the Children’s Rep-orter for offending behaviour.
Children are sometimes moved for their own safety, but the Social Work Inspection

Agency has voiced fears about a lack of planning by councils which can result in some being moved too frequently or given unsuitable placements.

Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, said: “Placing a child in care disrupts their lives, so we need to ensure that it results in stability rather than further disruption. We know from research that multiple moves for children in care negatively impact on their mental health, their educational outcomes and their capacity to make and sustain relationships.”

Fred McBride, convener of the children and families committee for the Association of Directors of Social Work, said: “I would not deny that there is an issue about children moving too often. We need to do more in terms of placement stability.”

A new report from the Social Work Inspection Agency shows there has been a significant increase in children looked after in Scotland in the past five years – a 28% rise for those looked after at home and a 27% rise in those away from home. There has been a particularly marked increase in those under four.

Alexis Jay, head of the agency, said: “Many looked-after children feel their parents have rejected them. Any subsequent loss of significant adults can further undermine their self-esteem, and this will be made worse by being moved frequently.”

The Herald revealed earlier this year that, in a Glasgow pilot, parents who fail to look after their children will be given just months to improve or their child will be adopted. The scheme is already in place in the US, and there is evidence that children who are fast-tracked for adoption are more settled and suffer fewer problems.

Case Studies

‘I told them but no-one listened’

Michael Kerrigan, 18, was about two months old when he went into care. He says he has had more than 30 different foster placements.

Kerrigan, pictured above, has also spent time in at least two different children’s units, plus kinship care and a homeless unit. He admits he has been convicted for a long list of offences.

“I have done a lot of moving and I guess sometimes it makes it hard to build up trust with people,” he says. “Social work don’t seem to spend enough time working out how certain foster carers will cope or whether we’ll be compatible. They don’t cope and then we get moved on.

“You get moved around all the time unless you get adopted. At school I had no confidence and really struggled. I remember being sent to foster care and then back to my mum over and over. I told them I didn’t want to go back to my mum’s but no-one listened.

“I’ve been a regular visitor to children’s hearings and I’ve been in a lot of trouble with the police for a lot of different offences. Nothing has really helped.

“With help from the organisation Who Cares? Scotland I’ve got the confidence to speak to college students and student teachers about care, and I’ve helped with workshops. I’m also a board member with Who Cares?”

Ashley Walker, 21, was between three and five years old when she first went into care. She suffers from a genetic disorder that means she has to eat a very specific diet, and her mother struggled to care for her.

“I spent time in at least two different units and the rest was with foster carers and respite carers,” she says.

“At primary school my grades were great and in the first year at secondary they got even better. But then they moved me.

“I spent a year at another school and did OK but they moved me again and my grades went right down. I didn’t want to keep moving but the social work department sent me to different carers.

“You settle in one place, then they move you and you try to settle, and then they move you again and you just give up trying to settle in.

“Sometimes it was my own fault I got moved but they’ve got to find a way of improving the system.”

Urgent call for fostering

    *  Scotland is short of 2000 foster carers, according to the charity Barnardo’s.
    *  Fostering can involve caring for a child for anything from a few day to many years.
    *  Carers must be at least 21. They must have experience, be able to provide full-time care and have a spare room.
    *  Fosterers receive an allowance that covers the cost of food, clothing, household expenses and other costs.
    *  For more information visit, or contact your  local council.

‘They deserve every chance to reach their full potential’

Comment: Pauline Boyce

Young people who come into care may have experienced adverse life circumstances and it may not immediately be clear whether their placement in care is long or short term.
However, young people who are looked after away from home deserve the same opportunities as other children to reach their potential.

They have the same need for a warm and caring place to live, access to and continuity of education and relationships with family and friends. Therefore we need to ensure that we make the right choice of placement for young people and enhance their potential.
At Who Cares? Scotland, we know that some young people experience multiple placements which can be inappropriate.

This year, concern about their placement was one of the top reasons young people asked for our help. They often felt it was not a good match for them or too far from family and familiar surroundings.

It can be the case that when a young person comes into care their placement is made in an emergency and matching may be difficult, meaning that future changes of placements are likely. This is one of the challenges facing residential childcare and needs to be addressed. There is recognition that periods of transition can impact on existing mental health issues for young people.

Where there is scope to plan placements, factors that may need to be taken into account include young people being placed with siblings; being placed near their home area or sometimes more appropriately at a distance; and the need for young people to continue at the same school.

Effective commissioning of services to meet needs so that the right services are provided when and where needed is essential and, in line with legal requirements, young people should be fully involved in planning their placement.

Their views should be taken seriously and any choice of placement should take account of the young person’s needs to achieve identified outcomes in line with wellbeing indicators including safe, healthy, active, nurtured, achieving, respected and involved.

Pauline Boyce is depute chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland