Care experienced girls and young women still at risk of unnecessary criminalisation

Girls and women who have been through the care system should be diverted away from custodial sentences into community alternatives wherever possible, says a new report

Girls and women who have been through the care system should be diverted away from custodial sentences into community alternatives wherever possible, says a new report published today (Weds 4 May 2022).

And the study adds that moves to prevent the criminalisation of girls in care need to be high on the agenda for change.

‘Disrupting the Routes between Care and Custody for Girls and Women’ is a hard-hitting report co-authored by Dr Julie Shaw from the School of Justice Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, alongside lead author Dr Claire Fitzpatrick and Dr Katie Hunter, from the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University, and Dr Jo Staines, of the University of Bristol.

Dr Shaw said: “Too many women have been let down by the care system, which has in turn impacted upon their criminal justice involvement. Our research has highlighted the need to listen to criminalised women and girls in order to learn lessons from their experiences and break the link between care and custody.”

Needs overlooked and unnecessary criminalisation

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation the research explores the neglected experiences of imprisoned women from care, as well as those of care-experienced girls and young women in the community with youth justice system contact. As a minority within the justice system, girls and women are particularly likely to have their needs overlooked.

This study reveals how girls in care may experience ‘over-scrutiny’ in some care settings, leading to their unnecessary criminalisation, which contrasts directly to the lack of support they may face in relation to experiences of victimisation, leaving care support and imprisonment.

Highlighting evidence of the ‘immense harm’ that can come from imprisonment, the report states: “Prison must cease to be a default option when the lack of support in care and the community essentially helps to reproduce the well-trodden routes between care and custody”.

It also urges ‘far greater recognition’ of the profound impact of imprisonment across the generations, particularly on care-experienced mothers.

Calls for society to renew commitment to supporting children in care

The research team call on local authorities, including Directors of Children’s Services, as well as Chief Constables, to renew their commitment to procedures aimed at preventing unnecessary criminalisation of children in care.

Despite increased recognition of this problem, and ongoing efforts to prevent it, police call-outs for minor incidents in some care homes remains a risk for some children.

As 18-year old study interviewee ‘Ellie’ said: “There’s still this stigma within the care system of you are in care, therefore every minor accident you have…is clearly intentional… let’s get you arrested.”  

The study found that girls in care who are in conflict with the law may be stigmatised not just because of their care status but also because of negative judgements relating to their gender or ethnicity.

There is also a serious need to recognise the limits of official files which could lead to negative perceptions of individuals. Girls and women felt strongly that they wanted workers to look beyond their official histories, avoid over-reliance on their files, and take time to get to know them and the context of their lives. 

The study

Interviews were undertaken with 37 care-experienced women from across three prisons in England and 17 care-experienced girls and young women in the community across England who had also had youth justice involvement.

Many participants described backgrounds of abuse, serious violence and trauma, and had multiple experiences of victimisation throughout their lives. Violence and abuse at home was the most common reason reported for entering the care system. 

Over a third of care-experienced participants reported their first justice system contact occurred whilst in care. Of these, 11 were in children’s homes at the time of this contact, and over-criminalisation for minor offences in children’s homes was a common theme.

An escalation in offence seriousness was a feature of many women’s lives. For some, offending behaviour worsened after the ‘cliff edge’ of support after leaving care.

The research also includes interviews with 40 professionals who work with care-experienced women and girls, with expertise stemming from across a range of professional spheres.

These interviews highlighted a commitment to diverting children from the youth justice system, and a recognition that this needed to involve far more than just avoiding prosecution.

Meanwhile, care-experienced girls and women reported that trusted relationships were key for providing and receiving support. Promoting such relationships requires going beyond the basics of providing accommodation, to being trauma responsive, supporting staff and raising aspirations.


Lead author Dr Fitzpatrick said: “Too many women in prison today were the girls in care of yesterday, and systemic failings in the wider society perpetuate this problem. We must do more to prevent this, and listening to, and learning from, the stories of criminalised girls and women is a vital starting point.”

The Director of Justice at the Nuffield Foundation, Rob Street, said: "There is a persistent over-representation of care-experienced girls and women in the youth and criminal justice systems. Encouragingly, this study presents clear recommendations which could improve the lives of these girls and women by breaking the link between care and custody which can impact care leavers throughout their lives.”

Report recommendations

  • Placing a statutory duty on local authorities to prevent unnecessary criminalisation of children in care
  • Recognising the limits of official care files and moving beyond them
  • Promoting trusted and consistent relationships and challenging stigma
  • Diverting girls and women from custody wherever possible
  • Confronting the intergenerational harms that imprisonment creates

The study is officially launched on 4 May at an online end of project event called 'Disrupting the Routes between Care and Custody for Girls and Women'.

All names in the project report have been changed to protect the identity of the participants.


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