It a sadly all-too-familiar path for children in care – troubled beginnings, a sense of isolation and often undiagnosed mental health problems leading to criminality and eventually prison.
But work is taking place in Sheffield in an attempt to break the cycle for youngsters whose hard start in life can ruin their chance of a good adulthood.
Dr Girish Vaidya, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist with Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, is on a mission with other expert professionals in the city to help children in care to reach their potential in life.
Their work has been taking place for years but has come into focus following the launch of a new national review of why so many children in care end up in the criminal justice system.
The independent review was launched last month by the Prison Reform Trust and is being chaired by Lord Laming.
It intends to consider the reasons behind, and find out how best to tackle, the over-representation of looked after children in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Despite fewer than one per cent of all children in England being in care, a third of boys and 61 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 18 in young offenders’ institutions have previously been looked after by their local authority.
Dr Vaidya, who has been working in Sheffield for about 10 years having previously been based in Rotherham, said there are many factors that contribute to children who are or have been in the care system turning to crime. He said one major problem is undiagnosed mental health issues which ‘overshadow everything else’ and mean youngsters who may have conditions such as ADHD go without the proper medication, with consequences for how they behave.
“For many of these children who don’t get diagnosed in time or come from chaotic backgrounds, they end up in the care system,” he said.
“In the care system, they get moved from one placement to another and so on. They end up without knowing where they belong, who they are and what they should do with their lives.
“They end up losing their whole identity.
“Because some can be violent and aggressive, children’s homes are very quick to call the police to get control of situations.
“They then go through into the criminal justice process. As the number of offences against them increases, the time comes when a judge will say ‘enough is enough, you are going to prison’.”
Dr Vaidya said that for some children, being in a young offenders’ institution actually offers them a form of security and routine that has previously been lacking in their lives.
He said that can result in some becoming repeat offenders - committing crime with the direct hope of being sent back to jail.
“Most of us have one or two anchors in our lives - work, home, friends. Many of these young children don’t have anchors at all.
They turn 18 and don’t have any skills and end up committing crimes and then they get locked up. That costs the system a lot of money.”
But Dr Vaidya said that in Sheffield a variety of steps are being taken to prevent this cycle of events – including working to identify skills that each child has that could turn into a future career with the right training.
The trust works with social workers, foster carers, registered children’s homes, birth parents and with the council as well as the family courts to try to ensure the best outcomes for each child.
His team also provides mental health input to Aldine House, a local authority run secure children’s home in Sheffield.
Dr Vaidya said: “In Sheffield we are very, very lucky because for the looked-after children we have got a council that works extremely closely with us. We don’t have any barriers and work in tandem.”
He said he also maintains contact with each individual throughout their time in care, even if they are moved between homes, to provide consistency in their treatment and support system.
Dr Vaidya added he encourages the children he deals with to realise that ‘hard work’ and learning a trade can give them the opportunity to earn a living in later life.
He said part of the work of professionals is to try and identify a skill or interest a child has that can be developed.
“There are 100 things I can’t do and if you ask my life, she will find another 200 things I can’t do! But life is about what you can do – that applies to all of us,” he said. “If you can identify a trade and a skill then you are setting that person up for life.”
Dr Vaidya said he hopes the new national review, which is due to reports its findings early next year, will help provide a better understanding of the challenges facing young children in care.
Lord Laming, chair of the review, said: “We cannot stand by and allow wasted opportunities to result in wasted later lives. We are determined to ensure this review makes practical recommendations to enable key services to work together to help children in care transform their life chances and stay out of trouble.”
Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “There is a depressing route from care to custody which can, and must, be stopped. We need to listen to children in care about how they got drawn into trouble and hear their views on ways to get out of it.”