The case for treating children and young people differently from adults

There are several reasons why diversion and liaison activity for children requires a different approach to that used for adults:

  • The law, policy context and approach are different for children, with much more activity at the pre-court stage.

  • Brain development during adolescence can result in impulsive behaviour and risk taking and can also affect children’s ability to read social situations accurately (Johnson S et al, 2009). These changes can increase the chances of poor decision making and risky behaviour and this, in turn, can increase the chances of contact with the police.

  • Children are less likely than adults to present in crisis with health problems. Rather, they are more likely to have high risk factors for poor health, to be establishing unhealthy habits, or to have emerging problems.

    For example, children in the youth justice system tend to present with higher levels of alcohol and cannabis use, whilst adults in the criminal justice system are more likely to have more established reliance on higher-class drugs. Children also have more subtle signs of emerging mental illness, rather than the mental health crisis experienced by adults in the criminal justice system. It is important for professionals to guard against overlooking these manifestations of need in children and young people, especially if they are more used to working with an adult population.

  • For children and young people, there is much more focus in the evidence base on the importance of interventions with families, and with the networks and systems surrounding the child, including peers and schools.

Evidence and best practice guidance tell us that responses to children should focus on the early detection of risk and prevention, rather than waiting for difficulties to reach crisis point. They should aim to strengthen resilience, improve life chances, promote healthy habits and reduce health inequalities.

There is also evidence that picking up the subtle signs of mental illness in children and young people at an early stage – for example, childhood conduct disorder and the early stages of psychosis – can both improve the future quality of life of those young people and save costs (Knapp et al, 2011).

This is why point of arrest and triage services are important, to help us divert those who have early contact with the police and to target resources more effectively towards those who are most at risk of poor life outcomes and/or are likely to create problems for their local community.

Point of arrest diversion should not be seen as the starting point for diversionary activity with children. Instead, it should build on a solid foundation of very early intervention to improve outcomes for all children, including those at risk of multiple adverse outcomes. Point of arrest work then becomes the mechanism by which - at an early stage, and before a pattern of offending behaviour and other unhealthy habits set in - we can help prevent vulnerable young people from slipping through the network of support services and entering the youth justice system.

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