Trauma-informed work key to protecting the public. Do YOTs protect the public?

Russell Webster on how the public can be better protected from dangerous and violent young offenders if adults working with them are trained to understand the often extreme trauma in their childhoods.

That’s the headline finding from a new report published by HMI Probation today (26 October 2017): Addressing childhood trauma of young offenders and understanding social media use in crimes can reduce offending.

At first glance it seems slightly odd that an inspection report addresses two such distinct issues: trauma-informed desistance work and the use of social media. However, it transpires that the inspection was actually an examination of the work done by Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) with young people convicted of violent and other serious offences and that these were the two key issues which emerged.

Overall findings

Overall, inspectors found  YOTs doing a good job with this group of serious offenders. They found that almost all the staff they interviewed in six different YOTs were competent and committed. YOTs were found to be using new assessment and planning materials effectively, although they could do more to incorporate the views of young people in their plans, and to develop robust intervention plans.

YOTs were also found to be working well to protect victims, if necessary by setting exclusion or curfew conditions, and taking enforcement action when needed to keep people safe.

Traumatic pasts

Inspectors examined the case files of 115 young people who had committed violent, sexual and/or other offences where there were potential public protection issues. Where information was available, they found that more than three in four had experienced emotional trauma or other deeply distressing or disturbing things in their lives.

Research tells us that these experiences will affect a young person’s current behaviour, making it more likely that they will offend and reducing their ability to work with adults trying to help them.

The spectrum of experiences was remarkably wide (and are described in an Appendix to the report) and included separation and estrangement from parents, the death of a parent or main carer, sexual abuse, severe physical chastisement, serial domestic abuse and parental substance misuse.

For some young people their experiences of trauma were both multiple and severe. Domestic abuse was prevalent: one-third had grown up in a household where there was a formal record of domestic abuse. Almost half of our sample were in local authority care, often placed some way from home.

Inspectors recommend that all YOTs should be able to identify and respond effectively to emotional trauma and other adverse events in young people’s lives, and apply the strategies available for tailoring services to take account of trauma. There is evidence, for example, that the young person’s relationship with the case manager is important and also that interventions should be kept as simple as possible.

Inspectors found YOT staff accounting for some of these issues in their work with young people, but doing so intuitively rather than within a clear policy or practice framework. We found that the models of youth justice intervention that respond to trauma have been implemented in only a handful of YOTs.

Social media and its relationship with offending

In one in four of the cases inspected, the young person’s use of social media was directly related to the offence they had committed. It had been the catalyst for some of the most serious and violent offences committed, and inspectors found offence scenarios that would have been unthinkable just ten years ago with social media used to both incite and plan crime.” Cases included:

  • Arguments and personal abuse starting on social media leading to physical assaults in the street or on public transport.
  • Young people being blackmailed online, using indecent images that they had previously been pressured to upload.
  • Gangs posting video material to appeal for members, to stake their territory and to issue challenges to other gangs.

In many more cases, social media was having an impact on the young person’s life.

This is new behaviour. Not surprisingly, inspectors found that practice is lagging behind and has not kept abreast of the strong influence social media has on young people who commit serious offences, or with the wide range of social media they use and how they use it. Many strategic managers had a very limited understanding of social media and its impact on young people. As with trauma, inspectorse found that staff were often acting intuitively.

With limited national or local guidance on effective strategies and interventions, case managers generally acted on their own initiative to find relevant material.

YOTs monitor young people and respond to changes in behaviour, attitude or associates. Young people’s social media output offers clues as to what is happening in their lives. However, local policy frameworks for monitoring online activity are often undeveloped. Staff need up to date practice guidance and policy, consistent with current surveillance legislation and guidance, if they are to make good quality assessments based on a wide range of sources, including young people’s social media activity.

Inspectors found youth offenders teams in London, where gang crime was more prevalent, were “more in tune” with the social media element of offending. The report contains a glossary of social media ‘codes’ compiled by a police officer in the YOT in Waltham Forest, north London.


HMI Probation helpfully summarised the findings of this report in the infographic below:


This comment piece and infographics were first published on 26 October 2017 by Russell Webster.

Russell Webster