The transition from out-of-home care and offending behaviours

September 21st, 2017

Young people leaving out-of-home care are one of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of young Australians. In addition to difficult experiences of abuse and neglect, they face a sudden transition to independence at their 18thbirthday when state and territory governments cease to have responsibility for their care and protection.

While the majority of children in care do not offend, young people involved with child protection and out-of-home care systems are over-represented in youth justice systems(link is external). While few Australian studies have looked specifically at offending among care leavers during late adolescence and early adulthood (between 16 to 21 years), we know that care leavers are at a higher risk of offending and having contact with the youth justice system for a number of reasons. These include:

  • Adolescence is the peak risk time for offending behaviour(link is external) from a life course perspective. At a population level, the amount of crime committed increases with age until around 16 to 20 years, and then decreases throughout adulthood. The same is true for an individual young person, who after early adulthood is most likely to commit less crime as he or she gets older.
  • Harmful childhood events such as the abusive and neglectful experiences of many care leavers increase this risk of offending throughout adolescence.
  • Placement in residential care, which generally only occurs in mid to late adolescence, carries an increased risk(link is external) of criminal justice system involvement. Although placement in residential care can be a sign of pre-existing behavioural difficulties among these young people, residential care environments also contribute to young people offending and coming into contact with the criminal justice system because of:
    • the co-location of groups of similarly-vulnerable young people who may expose one another to new offending behaviours (known as cross-pollination); and
    • the adoption of criminal justice system responses to challenging behaviours in residential care units (known as criminalisation).  For example, a young person may damage a wall in the unit when upset, and police, who are contacted by unit staff, then charge the young person with criminal damage.
  • Lastly, the early and forced transition to independence for this group of young people expose them to additional pressures not experienced by young people who are not in care.  Many young people leave care to unsuitable situations such as homelessness or return to families previously deemed unable to provide appropriate care.

What can be done to reduce the risk of offending and youth justice system involvement?

This question is the subject of ongoing debate and research but studies suggest a number of promising strategies that might help divert care leavers from ongoing involvement in the criminal justice system. These include:

  • Developing state-wide interagency agreements to reduce the contact of young people in residential care with police and the criminal justice system1
  • Increasing the availability of therapeutic environments for this group of young people,particularly in the out-of-home care and youth justice systems
  • Enhancing supports for care leavers, and increasing the age of leaving care – international findings from the US have found the risk of offending is lowered for youth who receive ongoing support(link is external).

In 2017, these issues and approaches are gaining increasing research, advocacy and policy attention. Examples include the increasing number of therapeutic out-of-home care placements nationally, national Home Stretch Campaign(link is external) to increase the age of leaving out-of-home care from 18 to 21 years, and the establishment of the New South Wales joint protocol(link is external) to reduce the contact of young people in residential out-of-home-care with the criminal justice system.