Surviving incarceration: The pathways of looked after and non-looked after children into, through and out of custody





It is well documented that children in care – those looked-after by the local authority – are over-represented in the youth justice system. 

In recent years, the relationship between care and crime has begun to receive increasing academic and policy attention, culminating, in 2018, in the government publishing a national protocol to reduce unnecessary criminalisation of children in care and improve the criminal justice responses when they do enter the youth justice system.
The use of child imprisonment has fallen dramatically over the past decade, but the experiences of children confined in the secure estate have worsened, leading to widespread acknowledgement that the incarceration of children is damaging and counterproductive and that existing provision is not fit for purpose.
Looked-after children who come into contact with the justice system are seven times more likely to be detained than their non-care equivalents, but little is known about the factors leading to such over-representation or the differential experiences of children in care while in detention.
This report bridges that evidence gap by considering the relationship between care and imprisonment. The research on which it draws, across the nine local authorities in the South and West Yorkshire Resettlement Consortium (SWYC) area, explored the pathways of looked-after children into, through and out of the custodial estate.
A comparative approach allowed the identification of the extent to which those pathways differ for children in care and those who are not.


Reference:  Day, A M., Bateman, T., and Pitts, J. (2020). Surviving incarceration: The pathways of looked after and non-looked after children into, through and out of custody. Luton: University of Bedfordshire




Findings from this study confirm, and further illuminate, an existing body of evidence in relation to the incarceration of children in England and Wales.

In summary:

 The majority of children sentenced to custody have unsettled backgrounds, characterised by disadvantage, and exhibit high levels of welfare needs.

 Looked-after children are over-represented in the children’s custodial estate.

 For the majority of children placed in YOIs and STCs, the experience of custody is largely negative, a lost period with little rehabilitative value that serves to further sever already attenuated links with home, education and community. Children’s treatment within those parts of the secure estate is characterised by high levels of restraint and extensive use of isolation.

 Albeit that numbers in the current study were small, children placed in secure children’s homes tend to report more positively about their experiences, describing a caring environment, consistent with the philosophy of those organisations

 During the period of detention, maintaining contact with the outside world is extremely important for children, both as a source of support and as a prerequisite of being able to plan for the future once released into the community.

 There are considerable challenges for providers of resettlement services. Children tend to regard the transition from custody to community as a window of opportunity but this window can close rapidly where work in custody has not focused on preparation for release, appropriate support in the community is not available, and post-custody interventions do not build on any progress made in the secure estate.

 Along the pathways into, through and out of custody, how children see themselves – how they construct their identities – is a powerful influence, albeit mediated by external and systemic factors, for determining future outcomes.



Note that grey literature publications should be referenced in the normal (Author, date) convention. Grey literature is any information that is not produced by commercial publishers. It includes research reports, working papers, conference proceedings, theses, preprints, white papers, and reports produced by government departments, academics, business and industry, although here at we collate academic research (social research that has a particular theoretical framework) separately from research that is survey-based (designed to identifying so-called 'social facts').


Crown copyright material is reproduced here under the Open Government Licence for public sector information. All other copyrights are recognised and this material is included on the site for educational purposes only.

Download this file (surviving-incarceration-final-report.pdf)surviving-incarceration-final-report.pdf[Day, A M., Bateman, T., and Pitts, J. (2020). Surviving incarceration: The pathways of looked after and non-looked after children into, through and out of custody. Luton: University of Bedfordshire]1209 kB

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