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Coventry: Taking a whole-family approach to youth justice

The publication of the Punishing Abuse report in the West Midlands sparked Coventry Youth Justice Service to think about how to take a whole family approach to supporting young people involved in the criminal justice system, in recognition of the fact that families and wider networks are a key factor in reducing reoffending and meeting young people’s underlying needs.

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The challenge

‘Punishing Abuse’ was a West Midlands action research project which sought to understand the extent of adversity facing the children known to Youth Justice Services (YJS) across the West Midlands. This research, originally conducted to inform regional reform of the youth justice system, highlighted significant familial need amongst the West Midlands Youth Justice cohort of children, ranging from parental mental and physical health needs, to parental criminality and family violence.

Coventry sought to address the gap in parental support for parents and carers who were managing the complexities of having a child who is involved in the criminal justice system.

An example of this is L, the grandmother of a young person in the care system working with the Youth Justice Service. L disclosed feeling frightened of her grandson. She did not have a support network of her own to assist her in coping with the current circumstances her family faced and did not trust professionals. As a result, she did not accept that there were any issues to be addressed and the relationship with her grandson was at risk of breaking down.

The solution

Over the past three years Coventry YJS has been exploring different parenting support pathways, refining and expanding their offer to ensure that support is available to all parents in a way that meets their needs and is empathic and non-judgemental.

Coventry YJS houses a specialist parent worker whose role is to support the parents and carers of young people receiving an intervention from the YJS. The parent worker completes a full self-assessment with the parent or carer of every child in the service. This assessment acts as a screening tool to assess needs and plan any required support.

The parent worker is responsive to the needs of the family. One-to-one parenting sessions can include topics such as confidence building, cognitive behavioural therapy strategies and support with other household issues. The parent worker can also work jointly with a parent and a child who are seeking to restore and strengthen family relationships, including holding family meetings, negotiating behavioural contracts, and supporting mediation sessions. They are also able to provide support where the parent or carer’s own needs are affecting the parent/child relationship, such as in the case of unaddressed mental or physical health difficulties.

Parents and carers have access to the wider suite of family support in Coventry through functions such as the early help offer, family group conferencing and the area’s eight ‘Family Hubs’, which the parent worker can assist parents and carers in navigating. Parents are also supported to access a monthly parent support group run by the YJS, the ‘Friendship Group’ which has been developed into a peer support space for parents across Coventry. In addition, they are encouraged to access the wider West Midlands offer, Kitchen Table Talks.

The Kitchen Table Talks project (KTT) operates across the West Midlands police force area to address issues of serious youth violence and support parents from a black and minority ethnic background in particular. It does this through what is described as a ‘culturally competent, psychologically informed, peer to peer outreach, engagement, and support programme’, which works closely with parents to bridge the gap between YJS's and families. The service assists parents and carers to navigate the youth justice system and communicate with the YJS. The KTT offer has increased Coventry’s ability to match parents with mentors who are able to meet their specific cultural needs.

The impact

An example of the direct impact of the parent intervention can be seen in L. The Parenting Officer began some one-to-one sessions with L, initially focussed on supporting her to understand her grandson’s diagnosis of autism. The parenting officer also linked L with the Coventry YJS's emotional health practitioner who helped her to understand brain function and how the diagnosis would be impacting on her grandson’s behaviour. The parenting officer tried to complete a behaviour contract between grandma and child, but the relationship had become so fractured that this was not possible. Further 1:1 sessions therefore focused on supporting L’s decision-making, enabling her to grow in confidence. After building a relationship of trust with the parenting officer, L agreed to be referred to a third sector parenting support agency and to attend 'The Friendship Group'. L continues to attend the group, and now advocates for new parents whose children are entering the YJS, encouraging them to participate and accept support.

L now has regular telephone contact with her grandson and feels better equipped to manage when he presents with challenging behaviour, she says that she feels that she can retain her position as a parent in a positive yet assertive way and that the confidence she has gained has translated into a renewed relationship of respect between her and her grandson. The support has enabled them to sustain and build their relationship, which may otherwise have broken down.

In the period 2022 – 2023, Coventry YJS has undertaken direct work with 49 parents. Approximately 10 per cent of the children being supported by Coventry YJS at any one time have a parent or carer who is engaged in support. 

For the wider Kitchen Table Talks (KTT) project, since the project began, Coventry has referred a total of 36 parents with 23 either themselves being from an ethnic background or their child being from an ethnic minority background. Across the West Midlands, quantitative findings show that there was a significant increase in parents’ well being and perceived confidence with parenting as a result of the KTT intervention and this increase was more evident the longer participants were engaged in the intervention. In 2022, a full evaluation report of Kitchen Table Talks was completed.

How the approach being sustained

The parenting officer meets every parent during the child’s initial home visit which is undertaken jointly with the allocated YJS officer and 100 per cent of parents and carers are now seen at the start, review and end points of a child’s youth justice intervention.

Engagement is encouraged by ensuring that parents and carers who are new to the service can hear the voices of those who have benefitted from the support, for example through an animation about the service which was produced and voiced by a parent working with the service.

Funding for the wider KTT project ended in March 2023 and Coventry YJS are currently exploring alternative options to ensure that all parents are able to access support which is tailored to their needs.

Lessons learned

An ongoing area of development for the parent/carer offer in Coventry YJS is the provision of culturally competent parenting support that meets the needs of all families. This has been a challenge with only one parenting officer supporting parents and carers with a variety of cultural needs in a multicultural city.