Less than 1% of all children in England and 2% of all children in Wales are in care, and yet they account for half of the children in custody today. These are the findings of In Care, Out of Trouble, the Prison Reform Trust’s review of care leavers in the criminal justice system.

This initial report is directed at policy makers and practitioners, but many of the recommendations chime with good practice across the third sector. One in particular caught my attention:

Children need clarity around what they will expect from the care system and they should be involved in the decision-making about their lives.

Championing beneficiary voice

At NPC, we’ve been thinking a lot about user voice in the voluntary sector, and what it means to involve beneficiaries in ‘decision-making about their lives’. As my colleague Andrew pointed out recently, it’s not always easy to get right. So what does it look like when user involvement is truly empowering, rather than a tokenistic display to potential funders?

Often, getting it right means disrupting the power balance between ‘management’ and ‘user’. For the youth mental health charity MAC-UK, for example, this means adopting an ‘integrate’ model, which consults beneficiaries about their programme at every stage of the decision making process. They work on the principle that withholding any information from users upholds an implicit imbalance of power, which is counter intuitive to empowering the young people concerned.

Setting an example for Westminster

For its review, the Prison Reform Trust brought together a panel that included over 10 young people from across the country aged between 13 and 22, all of whom have experience of care and of custody. At the launch of the review a couple of weeks ago, a young care leaver with experience of knife crime—who had also finished her degree that morning—spoke to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Reform in a committee room at the House of Lords. But she was not being paraded at the last hurdle; she had been consulted and listened to—along with the nine other young members of the panel—at every review meeting over the past year.

The report has landed at a crunch point for this sector: Charlie Taylor is currently in the middle of a radical review into the youth justice system, Sir Martin Narey is reviewing child residential care, and a new Childcare Bill is going through the cogs of Westminster. There was some pretty forthright support on this matter in the Queen’s speech too, and the Prime Minister has promise ‘zero tolerance’ on state failure around child social care. But what does all this really mean unless children and adults who have experienced the matters debated in Westminster are consulted throughout?

It’s great to see the Prison Reform Trust recommending that children are involved more in the decision making about their lives—and that they are leading by example. Westminster would do well to learn from the charity sector on how to do the same.

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