Is there a Pram to Prison Pipeline?

Is there a Pram to Prison Pipeline?

By Kerrie Gottliebsen

The ‘Crossover Kids’ report, authored and published by the Sentencing Advisory Council looks at the backgrounds of children who are under the care of child protection and have received a sentence or diversion in the Children’s Court of Victoria in 2016 or 2017.

There were 5,063 children in the study group, comprised of children who offended between the ages of 10 and 17 and who had received a sentence or diversion in the Victorian Children’s Court in the 2016 or 2017 calendar year.

The report assesses the prevalence of sentenced and diverted children who were known to child protection and discusses the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children among children known to both the youth justice and the child protection systems.

On any given day, the Criminal Division of the Children’s Court is likely to sentence children who are known to the Victorian child protection service due to their experience of trauma, abuse, harm, neglect, parental death or incapacitation or the risk of harm.

Research has established that a child’s experience of abuse and trauma can disrupt healthy brain development and can cause children to remain ‘hyper-vigilant’ and reactive to perceived threats and triggers. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, scientists now know that chronic, unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by extreme poverty, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression, for example, can be toxic to the developing brain.

Years before entering Out Of Home Care or the Justice system, the children in this report may have been referred to a Tweddle Early Parenting Program as an at risk baby or toddler, along with their vulnerable parents with child-protection involvement. Tweddle’s ten-day Parenting Assessment and Skills Development Program and 8 Week in-home HoPES program are two such programs.

For these child protection system babies and toddlers, their unrelieved stressful environments can lead to lifelong health issues and incarceration as documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study[1].

The ground-breaking ACEs study research by Dr. Vince Felitti and Dr. Bob Anda asked 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to what they called “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs.  Those include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence.

The evidence points to adverse childhood experiences or ACES impacting not only brain structure and function but the immune system, developing hormonal systems, DNA, and a range of adult health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity, and some forms of cancer.

Childhood adversity also comes at a high social cost. Experts say there’s increasing evidence that childhood trauma is a problem for the criminal justice system as well as a public health problem. According to figures from the US National Institute of Justice, abuse or neglect in childhood raised the chances of juvenile arrest by 59 percent. The likelihood of criminal behaviour in adulthood increased by 28 percent and violent crime by 30 percent, according to another study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Empirical research associated with the Kaiser Permanente and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has demonstrated that childhood adversity is associated with adult criminality. They suggest that to decrease criminal recidivism, treatment interventions must focus on the effects of early life experiences.

For adults who have experienced compacting adversity since childhood, the additional weight of current adversity may overload their ability to provide the stable, responsive relationships children need. This is when therapeutic early parenting intervention support and education is needed.

Section 362 of the CYF Act includes the need to strengthen the relationship between the child and the child’s family and the desirability of allowing the child to live at home. However, there is no requirement in section 362 for the court to take into account the child’s experience of abuse, trauma, neglect, parental death, loss, removal from family or experience of out-of-home care and how these circumstances relate to the child’s offending

The Harvard Centre on The Developing Child highlight a set of principles that policymakers and practitioners in many different sectors, including the Victorian justice system, can use to improve outcomes for children and families. They recommend that policies and services should support responsive relationships for children and adults, strengthen core life skills and reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

The Council’s 2016 youth reoffending study found that the younger children are at their first sentence, the more likely they are to reoffend generally, reoffend violently and receive a sentence of adult imprisonment before their 22nd birthday.

The findings of this report may assist with identifying earlier (pre-sentence) opportunities for intervention and identifying initiatives for preventing the criminalisation of children in care.

Tweddle’s High Risk programs provide opportunities for the development and strengthening of parent-child relationships, parenting skills delivered by highly skilled clinicians. Tweddle concur with the following Harvard Center on the Developing Child’s recommendations to improve outcomes for child-protection families:

  • Ensure that workers in service programs have adequate compensation, professional development, and supervision in order to reduce the high level of turnover in these positions that disrupts relationships between staff and clients.
  • Offer services through trusted organisations and individuals in the community that have already built strong relationships with community members.
  • Coach adult caregivers on serve-and-return interaction with children in a wide range of settings, including early parenting organisations like Tweddle, paediatrics, home visiting, and even employment training programs.
  • Provide workers in service programs with enough time to develop relationships with the people they are expected to help, as reflected by caseload/class sizes, as well as allow for interactions of sufficient duration, frequency, and consistency, and reduce documentation requirements that can cause staff to spend too much time with forms and too little with their clients.

The second part of the ‘Crossover Kids’ study, due to be published in 2020, will examine in more detail the children’s child protection backgrounds, prior offences, current offending and sentence outcome. This will include examining associations between child protection and youth justice factors.

Tweddle recommend that the association between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and incarceration is included in the report and in future recommendations, in order to bring about long term change for individuals, for families, for communities and our criminal justice system.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html

Crossover Kids Report – Crossover Kids in the Youth Justice System


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