Engaging Marginalised Children: Improving Preventative Intervention in Youth Justice

Realist research funded by the Nuffield Foundation has highlighted the importance of ‘child first’ environments and intervention design for achieving positive outcomes, particularly for marginalised children who are given community sentences in the Youth Justice System. The project was conducted by a multi-disciplinary team, led by Professor Steve Case, with Dr Mark Monaghan and Dr Charlie Sutton from Loughborough University, Professor Joanne Greenhalgh and Judy Wright from the University of Leeds.

The project used the Realist Synthesis method to search, select and examine research relating to ‘effective’ preventative interventions in youth justice in England and Wales. This involved using a mixed methodology of policy review, expert interviews and systematic reviews of effectiveness literature. This approach uses programme theories as the basis for considering the effectiveness of intervention programmes and, in the policy review phase, it was noted that the Risk Need Responsivity theory had particular influence on approaches to intervention from 1996, with Relationship-based approaches becoming more influential from 2010. By conducting a series of interviews with experts from Policy and Practice in Youth Justice, the project found that the dominance of these programmes was also evident in experiences of working in Youth Justice. As both of these programmes were typified, to different degrees, in the design and implementation of Referral Orders and Intensive Supervision and Surveillance (ISS) programmes, these interventions became the focus of the research. In particular the research examined the relationships between the contexts in which the interventions were delivered, the mechanisms which influenced change in children’s attitudes and behaviour and the intervention outcomes. It was hoped that looking at interventions in this way could extend understandings of intervention effectiveness in the youth justice evidence-base.

Marginalised children are overrepresented in the Youth Justice System, with large percentages of children with multiple-complex needs and those with care experience forming a significant part of cohorts exposed to preventative intervention programmes. This research identified that the increasing use of child-centric, relationship-based ‘programme theories’ to shape how interventions should work, directly challenged traditional adult-centric approaches which relied on risk-based intervention designs.

Child First contexts (e.g. child-friendly designs, prioritising positive relationships, continuity, collaboration and inclusion) were seen to encourage a range of multiple child-focused mechanisms of change (e.g. increases in internal motivation, self-esteem, trust, confidence, mutual respect, feeling valued, skills development). In contrast, the use of risk-based design features and implementation approaches could counter-act the mechanism triggers, particularly for children who had previously been let down by other organisations (e.g. education, health and social care) and for those affected by experience of trauma. The overly prescriptive approaches which featured overt assessment and measures of risk were seen to restrict the opportunities available to these marginalised children. It was found that this approach often resulted in either an instrumental compliance, or a lack of motivation to comply. In contrast, these mechanisms occurred more naturally within approaches which used relationships as the foundation for the implementation of interventions. These mechanisms encouraged a range of positive outcomes, including, but not limited to the binary reoffending outcome measure that dominates evaluations of ‘effective’ practice.

This project made a series of recommendations for improving evidence-based understandings of youth justice intervention effectiveness. The use of ‘realist’ evaluation was helpful in identifying context-mechanisms-outcomes relationships, which would complement the quantitative, experimental research which dominates the evidence-base for effectiveness. Other recommendations included: 

  • promoting ‘Child First’ contexts for intervention development, delivery and evaluation
  • identifying explicit programme theories (how interventions are intended to work) and mechanisms of change in the design and implementation of interventions
  • evaluating effectiveness using a range of softer, positive outcomes to complement hard reoffending measures. 

Findings and recommendations were discussed in a series of in-person and online Knowledge Exchange events last month. The policy makers, practitioners and researchers who were in attendance responded positively to these recommendations, as shown in these comments:

We talked about doing work with young people, not to young people. So that collaboration is important for getting them on board, rather than just making them feel like a number … analysing some of your language and being non-judgmental, reducing your rules and boundaries to be creative … not fitting into rigid boxes of “this is the risk management and strategies that we have seen that have been done before”, but how can we individualize this work and just think how that’s outside the box? What can connect with this person?’

‘I found the literature on developmental trauma, family systems theory and modern attachment theory really useful in helping to develop rehab for violent and/or substance using offenders. Some of the key findings in my academic work were the offenders/perpetrators being able to develop and understand trusting (healthier) relationships to help in their rehabilitation.’

I worked [in a place] where there was no windows and they were posters everywhere of knives. As soon as young people come in, the environment itself, that they’re being forced to be in, isn’t trauma-informed. And, actually, trauma-informed isn’t just about micro-interactions, it’s thinking about what’s happening in society. What are the narratives that these young people are hearing about themselves in school or on the TV about? You know, politicians talking about poor neighbourhoods? You know trauma-informed isn’t it just ‘I speak to you nicely so you don’t feel upset.’

Impact activities with groups of policymakers and practitioners will continue over the next few months, to try to use the findings of this research as a catalyst to evolving policy and practice requirement in line with recommendations. The executive summary and detailed reports from the project are available at Loughborough University’s dedicated Child First evidence webpage: www.lboro.ac.uk/ssh/child-first-justice

Dr. Charlie Sutton, Professor Steve Case and Dr. Mark Monaghan are all academics at Loughborough University.

Current Projects

Understanding the Criminogenic Influences on Youth Offending https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/understanding-criminogenic-influences-on-youth-offending

Parliamentary Knowledge Exchange Around the World https://post.parliament.uk/parliament-research-knowledge-exchange-mechanisms-around-the-world/

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