COVID-19 Children and Families Collective Leadership Group - short-life group on under-18s in custody: report

The Covid-19 Children and Families Collective Leadership Group (CLG) set up a short-life group to deliver improvements in the experience and reduce the number of under-18s in custody. This is the sub-group's report and recommendations.

Background Context – Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Justice System

ACEs and traumatic life experiences (in young personhood or adulthood) increase the risk of poorer physical and mental health and poorer social, educational and criminal justice outcomes. In particular, adversity and trauma in young personhood have been found to be linked to increasing likelihood to commit crime, be a victim of crime and spend time in prison. We also know that Covid-19 is likely to have led to an increase in ACEs and trauma.

ACEs[10] can create harmful levels of stress which impact on healthy brain and emotional development. This can result in long-term, negative effects on behaviour such as poorer decision making and emotional regulation and poorer life outcomes, including anti-social and criminal behaviour. It is not pre-determined that ACEs will cause these negative outcomes, but without effective support, people with ACEs are at increased risk. Public Health Wales have found that people with 4 or more ACEs (compared to those with no ACEs) are:

  • 15 times more likely to have committed violence;
  • 14 times more likely to have been victim of violence in the last 12 months; and
  • 20 times more likely to have been incarcerated at any point in their life.

As a result, many young people who come into contact with the justice system do so because of the impact of ACEs and trauma experienced in young personhood and they need our help and support not punishment.

Trauma Informed Practice

There is a need for organisations and the workforce involved in the justice system to be trauma-informed at every stage including, in communities, on arrest and initial custody, in the courts/sentencing process, imprisonment, rehabilitation and release from prison, etc. As part of this, we are working with SPS to support its recent drive to become a trauma informed organisation.

Being 'Trauma Informed' means being able to recognise when someone may be affected by trauma (including ACEs) and responding in ways that supports recovery, does no harm and supports people's resilience. Trauma informed services are ones which are built on safe, trusted relationships which offer choice, empowerment and compassion and active power sharing with people with lived experience.

A key part of a trauma-informed approach is supporting staff wellbeing, which is particularly critical in the context of the Covid pandemic and in the justice sector where many members of the workforce will experience trauma and be in contact with people affected by trauma as part of their day-to-day roles.

The development of trauma-informed workforces and services (across all sectors) in Scotland is being supported by the National Trauma Training Programme (NTTP), which is underpinned by the NHS Education for Scotland (2017) Knowledge and Skills Framework for Psychological Trauma. As part of the NTTP specific work is underway to develop a knowledge and skills framework for justice services (led by NES) as part of the work of the Victims and Witnesses Taskforce.

Wider Evidence Sources

The most useful summary of the links between ACEs and Justice is in the SG paper Understanding Childhood Adversity, Resilience and Crime (

  • The wider evidence base is summarised on our webpages here Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Trauma - ( including the most recent findings from the Scottish Health Survey 2019. This provided data about the proportion of adults who report experiencing adversity in their young personhood and how this relates to their current health. It found that substantial proportions of the Scottish adult population suffered some form of abuse, neglect or other adverse experiences during their young personhood, with 71% reporting having experienced at least one ACE and 15% experiencing four or more ACEs. As with other ACE surveys, the results highlight the risks of early life adversity for poorer outcome in adulthood.
  • We know that people who offend are more likely to have experienced traumatic young personhoods than the general population. Prison surveys in the UK and in Scotland report high rates of young personhood abuse, family violence, experience of being in care and school exclusion in people in prison. The 2017 Scottish Prison Survey asked people in prison a series of questions regarding their young personhood and found that significant proportions reported adverse and traumatic experiences. Research in Wales[11] found a high prevalence of ACEs within the offender population and that multiple ACEs can increase the risk of being charged with a violent offence, serving a sentence in a young offender institute and becoming a prolific offender.



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