Punishing Abuse – New report demonstrates the need for radical change if we are to address the disproportionate numbers of abused children in the youth justice system

Punishing Abuse: Children in the West Midlands Criminal Justice System

A comprehensive report commissioned jointly by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (WMPCC), launched on 12 March 2021, provides ground-breaking insight into the early abuse, adversity and loss suffered by a very high proportion of the children who go on to enter into the criminal justice system. The purpose of the project was to explore the extent of abuse and adversity suffered by a range of children known to the Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) in the West Midlands with the aim of informing regional reform of the youth justice system. However, the analysis conducted has identified systemic failures to meet the needs of children across all public services.


The report draws on a range of studies that show that early childhood abuse and trauma causes changes to the structure of the developing brain, which powerfully suggests that abused children need help to recover rather than being punished for behaviours which emanate from their abuse.

The data gathered by the report evidences that the study group of eighty children have each suffered significant levels of abuse and adversity, and consequently have very high levels of vulnerability. For at least half of the children, these issues were apparent at an early age but were insufficiently addressed by the range of public services with which they came into contact (including mental and physical health services, education and social care services, and the criminal justice system). The report suggests that the current youth justice system operates to punish the children for the abuse and disadvantage they have previously suffered, and as such is an inadequate response to their offending.

An analysis of the data showed that for the majority of the children, their life history is more likely than not to have included:

  • Child abuse and neglect, which has often taken place over many years (nine out of ten children were known or suspected to have been abused);
  • Being known to social care because of levels of needs or abuse (nine out of ten children);
  • Having lost their father, (for eight out of every ten children their father was absent);
  • Poor physical or mental health, neurodivergence or learning disability (eight in ten children were known or suspected to have a health issue);
  • School exclusion and attendance at multiple schools (eight out of ten had attended two or more secondary schools);
  • Living with domestic violence, some of which has been extreme in nature (seven in every ten children were known or suspected to have lived with domestic violence);
  • To have been a victim of violence in the community (seven out of every ten children were known or suspected to be a victim);
  • Living in poverty or debt or entitled to free school meals (seven in every ten children);
  • Living in a deprived area (six in every ten children);
  • Living with a family member with criminal behaviour (six in every ten children);
  • Carrying an offensive weapon (six out of every ten children were known or suspected to have possessed a weapon);
  • Regular substance abuse (six out of ten children);
  • Having a parent with a current or previous substance misuse issue (more than five out of every ten children); and
  • Having a parent with a current or previous mental health issue (more than five out of every ten children).

The report also breaks down the data to further consider the particular needs and circumstances of: (i) girls; (ii) children in custody; (iii) gang-involved children; and (iv) migrant children. These micro-studies strongly indicated potential discrimination and areas of inequality including the fact that a high proportion of Black and migrant children were involved in gangs or received custodial sentences. Collectively, the girls in the study suffered the highest levels of adversity, abuse and exploitation.

The overarching theme of the report is that, as a society, we are perpetuating cycles of abuse, deprivation and crime and punishing abused and deprived children who are trapped within those cycles; failing to address the underlying issues or healing the harm caused to them. When considering this finding alongside any potential reform to the youth justice system, the report considers that such reform will have limited impact if the underlying factors which pre-dispose children to crime are not also addressed. This would include:

  • Reducing unemployment, poverty and deprivation;
  • Addressing systemic failures to meet the needs of vulnerable children at an early stage, be that in physical and mental health services, education or social care;
  • Tackling abuse and domestic violence;
  • Tackling the exploitation of children, be it sexual exploitation or criminal exploitation (for example in County Lines cases);
  • Addressing educational needs,  including social and emotional issues, mental health issues and neurodiversity, and reducing school exclusion to prevent disenfranchisement from the education system; and
  • Working with families to address intergenerational issues (such as attitudes to violence, crime and education).

In order to achieve change in these areas, the report sets out 43 actions towards reform. The report acknowledges that the first step to reform is to recognise the complexity of the lives of the children and the complex network of agencies that they are involved with. In particular, the report suggests that better efforts need to be made to target resources to the families most in need, including in areas like training and employment support, primary health and social care services, and tailored parenting support for the early years of a child’s life (e.g. Sure Start programmes) in order to better develop positive patterns of attachment.

The report identifies the promotion of education and social inclusion for children at risk of involvement in crime as the biggest single strategic issue to be addressed. Reducing school exclusions is central to this approach, coupled with greater recognition of mental health, neurodivergence and other educational needs by the social care services children are engaged with. The report questions the public interest in prosecuting children with neurodiversity or mental health issues that prevent them from engaging meaningfully with the process, and recommends that all children should be screened for mental health and neurodiversity when entering into the criminal justice system. Finally, in order to divert children away from the criminal justice system, the report recommends that the Crown Prosecution Service considers its own guidelines on prosecuting looked after children, and ensures that these guidelines are applied with rigour. The decriminalisation of vulnerable children is a central tenet of the proposals for reform.

The report also points to the limited interaction that local YOTs have with each other, and recommends the implementation of a regional ‘Safer Youth and Justice Board’ to manage proposed youth justice reforms at a regional level and monitor the effectiveness of the reforms on an ongoing basis. The report recommends that YOTs should be retained but should be re-developed within a regionally agreed strategic model which re-imagines youth justice in the region to take full account of abuse and loss.


Although many of the findings made in this report will come as no surprise to youth justice practitioners, the report nevertheless serves to identify a clear link between children who have suffered from abuse, violence and poverty and who go on to commit criminal offences. The report recognises that the challenges faced by such children are complex, as is the multi-agency engagement tasked with addressing those challenges, and accordingly the suggested responses to the issues highlighted need to reflect that complexity. 

Ultimately, the report calls for more ambitious investment in support and intervention services that help children in crisis and notes that the social and economic consequences of inaction are high. Investing and developing the youth justice system now will prevent the costs of failing these children in the future. Again, these conclusions will be familiar to youth justice practitioners, but only time will tell whether the recommended actions for reform will be successfully deployed to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the most vulnerable children.   


Written by
Alison Morris, Associate, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP