Double Discrimination: Black care-experienced children in the criminal justice system 

Report exposes systematic failings leading Black care experienced children and young adults on path to criminalisation

A recent study conducted by black-led organisation Listen Up, commissioned by Children’s Charity Barnardo’s, interviewed 22 black care-experienced children, shedding light on their interactions within the care system and their route to and throughout the criminal justice system. Sadly, the research demonstrates that black care-experienced children continue to face dual discrimination leading to their over representation within the criminal justice system. The report made numerous key recommendations following the identification of racial disparities prevalent in black children and young people’s access to care, education, and physical and mental health services.


The report’s key findings are summarised below:

  • Systemic racism underpinned many discriminatory practices surrounding the provision of services to Black care experienced children and young people.
  • Inconsistent support. Professionals had low expectations for Black children and young people. There were limited examples of professionals actively nurturing aspirations. When children and young people did demonstrate a particular interest or ambition they often lacked the appropriate guidance, support and encouragement to pursue these ambitions and interests.
  • Failing to adequately identify and treat mental health issues. The research underscores that currently insufficient attention is being given to the mental well-being of Black care experienced children and young adults.
  • Denial of education perpetuating cycle of vulnerable children entering the criminal justice system. Black care-experienced children are more likely to be excluded from school compared to their white counterparts and are more likely to be diagnosed with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) without receiving appropriate support.
  • Care status not recognised as vulnerability factor when children and young people are in the criminal justice system.


Resettlement issues: The resettlement processes were found to disregard the individual needs of black care-experienced children and young adults. The Report made the following recommendations:

  • The creation and funding of a Black Foster Care Network by the Department of Education. This network would aim to increase the number of high-quality carers in the UK who understand the specific needs of black children in care.
  • Improving access to mental health services.  Efforts should be made to enhance mental health support, particularly for black children in care. It is important to recognise the intersectionality of issues acting as barriers to accessing care.
  • The introduction of a statutory duty on local authorities in conjunction with local protocols that aim to reduce criminalisation of black children in care and care leavers. Rather than resorting to police involvement, efforts should focus on developing appropriate discipline and de-escalation techniques.
  • Extension of corporate parenting principles to the entire public sector. The report underscored a lack of understanding across the public sector (the prisons, courts, healthcare sector) in terms of what it means to be care experienced. Extending the corporate parenting principles to the public sector would increase accountability and lead to the upskilling of key protagonists so that they can better address the specific needs of children in care.
  • Revisiting systemic racism: a renewed emphasis must be placed on implementing reforms aimed at tackling institutionalised racism. The government should publish an updated progress report on the recommendations of the David Lammy report, particularly focusing on improving data collection within the criminal justice system to address systemic racial disparities.


Lawyers representing children and young people who are navigating the criminal justice system play a crucial role in ensuring that the legal rights and entitlements of their clients are protected. Here are some actions that practitioners might want to think about taking if representing black care-experienced children and young adults. Some of them may be obvious, but it is worth repeating:

  • If the police are involved (or it seems likely they will be involved) consider whether it is appropriate to make representations that their involvement is not necessary. Would the matter have been dealt with by the Police had the individual not been care experienced or in care? Should it be dealt with differently? Decisions to arrest should be appropriately challenged. If appropriate, consider communicating with relevant parties so they understand the seriousness of police involvement, and how triggering police involvement can be, especially for black children and young people.
  • Communicate clearly with your child and youth clients and don’t assume they have specific knowledge of the care system or criminal justice system. Often lawyers are introduced to young clients through social workers and so your client may assume that you are an extension of them and therefore know all about their history. Obtain information sensitively from your client. With their consent and if relevant, obtain information from others involved in your client’s care.
  • Signpost and refer your client and those responsible for their care. If, for example, it becomes clear during the course of taking instructions there are undiagnosed mental health or learning difficulties that are relevant, explore these, not just for the criminal case but to ensure the client is getting the support they need. With the client’s consent, discuss these issues with their carer and/or social worker. Follow up having made referrals.
  • Be proactive- a central theme throughout this research suggests that many black children and young people feel as though they are surrounded by adults who are simply processing them. Don’t be another processor. Be proactive. Make sure the police, courts, prisons, youth offending teams, Probation Service etc., are aware that being care experienced makes these individuals inherently vulnerable.  
  • If there are concerns or complaints about the quality of the support and care being provided to your client, by local authorities or their carers, explore these complaints. Refer your client to a community care lawyer if necessary and appropriate. 
  • Believe trauma: all professionals should create a safe space for their clients to share their experiences and, through active listening, gain a deeper understanding of their realities. This understanding is key to effective advocacy for their clients. Recognise trauma. Follow your client’s lead in terms of how much, and when they want to disclose certain information. Try to encourage others within the criminal justice system to understand that many cared for children and young people, even when facing allegations, are victims themselves and need to be treated as such.
  • Finally, actively address racism when you come across it. Consider whether your client is being dealt with in a certain way because of misconceptions and stereotypes. Join Listen Up’s call to action: “we invite you to move beyond the consideration of ‘unconscious bias’ and instead to join us in accepting that racism can be conscious in thought, behaviour and decision-making. This report is a call to action, for individuals, organisations, and institutions to address racism, and to ensure anti-discriminatory practice is resourced and prioritised, not reactively but pro-actively.”

Ella Jefferson, Consultant Solicitor, Bindmans