Children have a special place in society and deserve special treatment due to their lack of maturity, their relative powerlessness in decision-making processes and the need for adults to provide them with support and protection.

However, when children enter the Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales, it seems that their treatment becomes ‘special’ in the sense of discriminatory, negative, controlling and punitive.

Children who commit crime, it seems, are held responsible for their perceived psychological and social ‘failings’ and ‘deficits’, which are seen to contribute to offending behaviour and to the failure of any formal interventions aiming to prevent future offending.

This unpalatable, grossly unfair situation has to change. Consequently, we have formulated a principled and progressive model of ‘positive youth justice’ that is fit for purpose and fit for our time.

Children First

Children First, Offenders Second (CFOS) is a positive approach to youth justice that is built on a set of policy and practice principles, the key to which is to treat children in child-friendly and child-appropriate ways.

Simply put, when children enter the YJS, we should treat them as ‘children first’, not ‘offenders first’ and treat their offending behaviour as a normal part of growing up.

“CFOS is a reaction to controlling, punitive and harmful interventions”

The philosophy of children first will help youth justice professionals to understand why they come into work every day and provide them with a touchstone against which they can measure their daily practice.

CFOS enables staff to understand what they do, why they do it in the way they do it and how they can reflect on the appropriateness and effectiveness of their work. It is a guiding philosophy for practice that gives clear objectives for practice and gives practitioners a sense of purpose to frame and animate their knowledge and skills.

Without this coherent and explicit philosophy, policies and practices are information and understanding without knowledge; skills are abilities and techniques without foundation or application.

CFOS is simultaneously reactionary and progressive. It is a reaction against the ways in which youth justice policies and practices subject children to (possibly well-meaning) interventions that are ultimately controlling, punitive and harmful. It is progressive in its philosophical, principled position and in its policy-practice focus.

We believe that for youth justice policies to be implemented effectively in practice, they must have clear, overarching objectives and be targeted on three key practice areas along a continuum of youth justice:

The Three Principles

Prevention (Positive Promotion): We advocate for the promotion of positive behaviours, outcomes, services and opportunities for all children, within and outside of the YJS.

The approach can be animated by adult service providers designing and delivering services in partnership with children; services that prioritise children’s consultation, participation and engagement in all decisions that affect them.

We evidenced this effectiveness in our national evaluation of the Welsh youth inclusion strategy ‘Extending Entitlement’ (Case et al 2005) in terms of improved positive outcomes and reduced negative outcomes (for children in the YJS) as well as improved perceptions of access to entitlements and ability to participate in services (for all children).

Diversion: We support a progressive diversion approach based on diverting children out of the formal YJS and into positive, promotional interventions.  The effectiveness of progressive diversion has been evidenced by
the Bureau model (now rolled out across Wales), which prioritises systems management (child-focused decision-making at all stages of the youth justice process) and partnership between practitioners (e.g. police, youth justice staff, teachers), children and families during assessment (prolonged, holistic assessment process consulting with all relevant parties), decision-making/sentencing and intervention planning – which are shared processes pursued by emphasising consultation, agreement and legitimacy (fair, moral, justified treatment of children).

Intervention: All intervention in the formal YJS should be child-friendly and child-appropriate. This means that policy-makers and practitioners should prioritise children’s participation and engagement in the design, delivery and evaluation of services.

The YJS should embed a systems management approach to intervention planning that is evidence-based (not pre-judged, pre-formed, ‘off the shelf’ interventions) and achieved through partnership between children, practitioners, policy-makers and researchers.

Such consultative and inclusionary ways of working with children in the YJS have been found to be effective internationally in relation to promoting positive outcomes (e.g. children’s perceptions of the increased legitimacy of their treatment, increased access to their entitlements) and decreases in the negative outcomes targeted by interventions (e.g. offending, reoffending, antisocial behaviour).

The new AssetPlus framework for assessment and intervention in England and Wales has the makings of such an approach to the extent that it promises more consultation with children in the YJS, more practitioner discretion, a more holistic understanding of children’s lives and more appropriate, effective interventions as a result.

“What CFOS requires to make it work is a change of attitude and practice…”

A CFOS approach to youth justice founded on positive promotion, diversion and intervention can be achieved within current legislation in England and Wales (along with other countries internationally). It does not require seismic policy shifts or huge injections of money in the short-term. What CFOS requires to make it work is a change of attitude and a change of practice.

A Children-First model for our time

CFOS is not a buffet from which to select some elements, whilst others can be ignored. The model is a whole child, holistic, coherent approach. Every component should be executed as assiduously and effectively as any other. CFOS and the interventions it delivers are child-friendly and child-appropriate, working to the central principles that prevention is better than cure and that children are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“CFOS is a new way of framing and understanding the lives of these children”

As academics, we are often criticised (notably by politicians and frustrated policy makers) for being so critical, for pointing out what is wrong with the system, for highlighting its flaws and failings, for being against everything, but for offering nothing by way of an alternative. Through CFOS positive youth justice, we are engaging pro-actively in the debate about how we should respond to children in the YJS.

CFOS is our attempt to structure the answers to the question concerning the nature, intensity and timing of intervention in the YJS and a new (principled, progressive, pragmatic, positive) way of framing and understanding the lives of these children. With a new UK Government and a new Justice Minister inevitably looking for potential areas of youth justice reform, we offer a solution: CFOS.

This blog was authored by Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case and was originally posted on the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice Website.  The original post can be viewed here.

July 1st, 2015

Posted In: Youth Justice


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