Youth offending, trauma and recovery

A large minority of children and young people get into trouble with the law at least once in their lives. For many children, involvement with the Youth Justice System is transient and minor. Others however go on to commit serious offences which bring great damage and distress to their victims. Children who are serious offenders may also grow into hardened criminals whose lives (and those whom they commit offences against) may be seriously blighted.

A large minority of children and young people get into trouble with the law at least once in their lives. For many children, involvement with the Youth Justice System is transient and minor. Others however go on to commit serious offences which bring great damage and distress to their victims. Children who are serious offenders may also grow into hardened criminals whose lives (and those whom they commit offences against) may be seriously blighted.

There is a significant relationship between children who offend and children who have suffered from trauma. The correlation becomes stronger the more serious is the type of offending. For violent and sexual crimes the correlation becomes very high indeed. Many children who have committed serious crimes of this nature will end up in custody. Various studies indicate that between 33-92% of children in custody have been affected by traumatic experience.

The negative consequences of unaddressed trauma are many and serious. They include:

  • Impaired or distorted cognitive ability (often leading to difficulty in school.)
  • Hyper-arousal – overreacting to every stimulus however neutral.
  • Difficulties in making and sustaining trusting nourishing relationships.
  • Failure to develop feelings of empathy.

All these factors are associated with criminal behaviour in young people. In particular the failure to develop empathy enables children to commit acts of cruelty or violence to others without having any empathetic feelings for the suffering and distress they are causing their victims.

What can be done?

IRCT believes that the proper recognition of the role of trauma in the lives of young offenders will yield considerable benefits for those children and their actual or potential victims.

  • There must be a general recognition of the role of trauma in serious offending by children.
  • A formal objective of the youth justice system, set out in legislation should be to assist children recover from trauma.
  • Policy and procedures of YOTs and secure establishments must recognise the key importance of trauma in the lives of many young offenders.
  • Law and regulations should be amended to require that every child who is charged with, or who has committed a serious crime, is systematically assessed for the impact of trauma on their lives.
  • All staff working with young offenders (particularly those working in YOT teams and in custodial establishments) must have training in trauma, its impact and consequences for children, and measures that may be taken to aid recovery.
  • Every youth offending team and secure facility must have access to expert psychological advice that can identify which children may benefit from formal therapy and be able to deliver therapy if appropriate.

We believe that if the role of trauma in youth offending and particularly serious youth offending is properly recognised and systematically addressed there will be considerable benefits for the children who are diverted from a life of serious crime, their potential victims, and society at large.