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If a child commits an offence while in the care of the state, questions should be asked about the quality of care and supervision being provided. Shutterstock

Does our child protection system cause young people to commit crimes? The evidence suggests so

Removing a child from their home for their own protection should be an absolute last resort. Before we remove a child, we should be sure that we can offer them a safer, more nurturing alternative – their new home should improve their current circumstances and their life chances.

Yet, for a significant proportion of children who end up in out of home care, this is not happening. Many children are being charged with criminal offences while they are in the “care” of the state.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recently reported that 50% of young people under youth justice supervision in Australia have also received child protection services.

The link is even more prevalent in Queensland – the Independent Review into Youth Detention reported in 2017 that 76% of children in the youth justice system are known to the child safety department.

The Northern Territory Royal Commission also found children on child protection orders are five times more likely to commit an offence than other children.

And my research has found the chain of causation goes in one direction in these matters: children come into the child protection system first and then commit offences, not the other way around.

Read more: Nothing to see here? The abuse and neglect of children in care is a century-old story in Australia

Does out of home care lead to offending?

If a child commits an offence while in the care of the state, questions should be asked about the quality of care and supervision being provided. Is the care environment somehow causing the criminal behaviour? Or is the association just coincidental?

It could be coincidental, in the sense that young people who interact with both the child protection and youth justice systems share certain characteristics.

Many suffer from mental health or behavioural conditions, are homeless or have experienced trauma or abuse. Indigenous children are also more likely to be known to child protection services, and more likely to appear before the criminal courts.

Yet, international research suggests the nature of a child’s placement influences their chances of offending. Research from the US has also found that children who are known to child protection services but remain at home are less likely to offend than those who are placed in out of home care.

Read more: The problem with child protection isn't the money, it's the system itself

It is all too easy to conclude these kids are just “troubled” or even “bad”. We might assume since they come from difficult homes, and they have psycho-social problems, this trajectory is inevitable.

But my research suggests there is more to this story. I interviewed 24 Brisbane-based lawyers and youth workers who deal with children who “cross over” between child protection and youth justice.

They overwhelmingly agreed the child protection system itself is leading many children to commit offences.

Charges for minor offences

The criminal charges these children receive appear to be unnecessary and avoidable. According to my interview subjects, many children who commit offences are driven by necessity.

For example, many children are charged with public transport fare evasion. Others are charged with shoplifting. These offences arise directly out of material disadvantage, but this is happening while they are supposed to be being in the care of the state. Why don’t they have transport cards? Why do they feel the need to steal food or clothing?

My participants said other charges result from the trauma or mental health conditions these children are dealing with. They described situations where their young clients had been charged with wilful damage for punching a wall, or assault for lashing out at a carer.

As one lawyer said,

This doesn’t happen in an ordinary family home – you don’t call the police because there’s a hole in the wall.

Other types of offending involved trivial incidents that really just amounted to “kids being kids”.

My participants described situations where children were charged with theft for taking food out of the fridge, assault for whacking each other with tea towels, wilful damage for knocking down a locked bathroom door to use the toilet, break and enter for “breaking into” their own house, and trespass for bringing in a friend.

Read more: How resilience can break the link between a 'bad' childhood and the youth justice system

Importantly, the lawyers and social workers I interviewed emphasised that most often, the children who are charged with offences are living in residential care settings, rather than foster care situations.

Residential care is a placement option where children live in share houses in the community that are staffed by youth workers around the clock. These units house some of Australia’s most vulnerable children. Yet, the youth workers who staff them are often young themselves, and under-skilled.

What these kids most often need is a nurturing, home-like environment, but the youth workers may lack the life experience necessary to provide this. Calling police becomes a fall-back option to deal with difficult situations.

Better environments for troubled children

These children have fallen through all the cracks of the systems that should have supported them: family, education and child protection. Often, every adult in their lives has let them down.

As the UK criminologist Claire Taylor has said, we need to be “ambitious” on behalf of these children. They need, and have a legal right to, the best possible start the community can give them.

If we remove them from an “unsafe” environment, we must ensure we are placing them into a safe one – one where they will not be vulnerable to offending or criminal charges but rather will be nurtured and supported.

As one youth worker told me,

it sounds a bit corny, but I reckon it all comes back to love – the offending and stuff is just a symptom.

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