Children in conflict with the law: Moving from predicting reconviction to preventing harm
The majority of children who find themselves in conflict with the law tend to do so because of antisocial behaviour or minor offending behaviour. They also tend to naturally grow out of this type of behaviour as they mature (McAra & McVie, 2010) and little, if any, formal intervention is required. However, there remain a number of children who will require some form of intervention and support to help them not engage in offending behaviour. In Scotland, since 2002, the national standards for youth justice have specified that every young person referred to a hearing on offence grounds must have a comprehensive assessment completed using ASSET/YLS-CMI assessment tools (Scottish Executive, 2002). These standards are currently being reviewed and updated to reflect changes in best practice – specifically the shift from actuarial assessment tools to the proportionate use of structured professional judgment tools.
So what is best practice?
For a long time it has been known that children who engage in more serious or persistent offending behaviour have a wide range of needs and vulnerabilities, including those linked to their family and wider community. They also often face a range of adverse outcomes, wider than just offending behaviour. Although frequently omitted from ‘risk focused’ assessment tools, they also have a wide range of strengths within themselves, their families and communities. For this reason best practice assessments are systemic, holistic and balanced.
The Short Term Assessment of Risk and Treatability: Adolescent Version (START:AV)
The framework provided by START:AV provides a good basis for such an assessment as it guides the individualised assessment of both the vulnerabilities that contribute to adverse outcomes and the strengths that help to protect against them (Viljoen, Nicholls, Cruise et al., 2014). It is developmentally appropriate for use with 12-18 year olds and considers the range of adverse outcomes frequently of concern for children who find themselves in conflict with the law: violence, non-violent offences, substance abuse, unauthorised absences such as running away and school drop-out, suicide, non-suicidal self-injury, victimisation and health neglect.
One of the benefits of START:AV over other tools is that it recognises reassessment should occur frequently (every 3 months) because of the rapid rate of changes that occur during adolescence and in their circumstances. This timeframe also assists with tighter monitoring of change and whether the inbuilt intervention planning is working to reduce harm as intended. The principles of START:AV demonstrate a clear shift from ‘predicting’ reconviction to ‘preventing’ harm from occurring.
Implementation of START:AV in Scotland
The decision to move towards the use of START:AV in Scotland was supported by the Scottish Government who, in 2018, provided the initial funding for one of the START:AV authors to train 100 practitioners. They additionally funded 6 practitioners to become trainers. Over the course of 2019-20 a further 16 training events were hosted, in 15 different local authority areas, bringing the total number trained to 440. This includes practitioners across 31 local authorities, 3 secure care centres, 6 third sector organisations, the NHS and the Risk Management Authority. Amazingly, all the training was provided at no cost to trainees thanks to the local authority areas who were able to provide suitable venues and the trainers who gave their time to deliver the training on top of their day jobs.
Feedback from those attending the training indicated that it had a positive impact on their knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence in relation to four areas of risk practice: structured professional judgment, risk formulation, risk management planning and the START:AV itself. Additionally, they have consistently said that they welcome the focus on strengths and intervention planning and they regularly say that it will lead to better and more holistic assessments and reports.
Although the impact on outcomes for children remains undetermined, the introduction of START:AV will hopefully go some way to meeting Standard 37 of the Secure Care Pathway and Standards Scotland that:
“I am confident that any decisions, reports and plans made and shared about me focus on my hopes, strengths, achievements and goals, as well as on my needs and risks”.
For further details about START:AV training, other training opportunities or related queries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
McAra, L., & McVie, S. (2010). Youth crime and justice in Scotland. In H. Croall, G. Mooney, & M. Munro, Criminal Justice in Scotland. Oxon: Willan Publishing.