The disproportionate representation of children in care in the youth justice system remains a significant challenge to academics and policy makers. Despite this, there is an absence of research and literature concerning the relationship between care experiences and the onset of offending behaviour that focuses on the perceptions of children in care themselves. This is the first study to focus solely on the perceptions of children in care whilst they are still in care and subject to youth justice supervision. The findings are based on semi-structured interviews with 19 children in care attending various Youth Offending Teams in the North West of England.
This thesis approaches the research problem by bracketing the dominant risk paradigm and adult-framed theories during project design and analysis in order to allow the voices of the children to be heard. Adopting a broadly interpretivist methodological approach, thematic analysis of the data is grounded in the children’s own perceptions of their pathways into the justice system.
The themes presented by the children are understood in terms of an interaction between the children’s existing personal narrative and their care context. The interactions are constantly taking place whilst in care and the children negotiate their identities as a way of making sense of who they are whilst in care. How their identity is negotiated impacts on the child’s response and subsequent behaviours. Some of these behaviours are challenging, and are later constructed as offending by carers and professionals.
The identity focused model, derived from the perceptions of children in care themselves, challenges the dominant explanations in the adult debate established by the risk factor paradigm. However, it related to both the concepts of identity disruption in the care literature and identity shift in the criminological literature. As such, examining the perspectives of children in care offers a previously unrecognised insight into why this group is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and potentially why that disproportionality continues into adulthood. The thesis concludes by examining the implications of these findings for policy and practice and makes a number of recommendations.