What can we learn from research about the pathways between care and custody for girls and women? Our team considered this question in a recent review of the literature to inform our ‘Disrupting the Routes between Care and Custody’ project. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, our project is led by Lancaster University in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Bristol.

There is nothing inevitable about care-experienced girls and women coming into contact with the criminal justice system. We know many children in care do very well. Yet there is a serious need to challenge negative stereotypes that routinely link children in care with trouble, whilst considering how those with care experience in conflict with the law might be far better supported.

Despite a surge of interest recently in the over-representation of those with care experience in criminal justice settings, this interest has not been applied equally to all groups. There has been a lack of focus on the experiences of girls and women, with the interplay between gender and ethnicity also neglected. There are clear knowledge gaps in relation to what we can say with confidence, based on the limited official data available. Improvements in data collection and recording are urgently needed if we are to gain a fuller understanding of the key issues.

Our targeted and interdisciplinary review of literature, based on firm inclusion and exclusion criteria, reveals a sparse amount of research evidence that is directly focused on care experienced girls and women in justice systems. Based on searches of five key databases across the last 20 years, in combination with a consideration of the ‘grey’ literature in other databases, and relevant policy documents and reports, we identified just 12 pieces of ‘very relevant’ literature specifically focused on our topic of interest. All were based on research conducted outside of the UK. This inevitably led us to draw on wider categories of literature, including research on the care-crime connection that involved both boys and girls.

Our review highlights the overlapping biographies shared by those involved in systems of care and systems of justice, with many individuals experiencing early trauma and adversity in their lives. Yet we also stress that pre-care factors only tell us part of the story in understanding the care-crime connection and it is crucial that we also attend to what happens in the care system itself. Research shows that the best types of care-experience can protect against offending behaviour, particularly those characterised by a quality relationship with carers. However, there is also compelling evidence that other types of care experience, such as those characterised by traumatising instability and disruption, may exacerbate existing difficulties and contribute directly to youth justice system involvement.

Behaviour management in residential placements is a particular issue of concern which can lead to girls being unnecessarily criminalised. This may go some way to explaining why girls in care have a particularly elevated risk of justice system involvement compared to those who are not looked after. For those in the justice system, research highlights how the stigma attached to being in care and negative stereotypes associated with care experience may play out in very particular ways for girls and women, and is often linked to concerns around sexual behaviour and gender deviance. Such stigma needs to be addressed, not least because of its potential impact on institutional responses to girls’ challenging behaviour.

Amongst those in custody, the numbers of care experienced girls locked up at any one time may be small, but there is evidence to suggest that there may be many more care experienced women in adult prisons. However, we found very little specific recent research on this topic. Furthermore, with no national data collection on what happens to the children of women in prison (including how many of these children go into the care system themselves), it is not possible to understand the extent of how the pathways between care and custody may or may not be reproduced across the generations.

Based on the evidence to emerge from our review, we conclude that it is particularly important that the voices of those with first-hand experience of state care and control systems are prioritised in future research. The next stage of our project includes interviews with care-experienced women in prison and girls currently in care with youth justice involvement, which we hope will go some way to filling some of the knowledge gaps identified.

Our full literature review and a shorter summary document can be downloaded for free on our project website – http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/care-custody/resources/

Follow the project on twitter @CareCustody