Tearing down the verbal barrier in youth justice
Police stations and courtrooms, with their intimidating cells and men and women in wigs, are surely enough to frighten even the most confident child. But the 60 per cent of young children and teenagers in the youth justice system who are estimated to have difficulties with speech, language or communication have other, much bigger problems to contend with.
For them the lexicon of the police, magistrates or judges can be akin to a foreign language, which makes it difficult to express themselves and answer questions. Campaigners say problems can be so extreme they can result in unfair trials.
Only last month the case of Melissa Jones hit the headlines. The Merseyside 17-year-old was charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour by the police and she spent the night in a cell. Melissa is autistic but the officers mistakenly believed her to be drunk. It was only after she appealed against a fixed penalty notice that the case was dropped.
Spurred on by such stories, the Youth Justice Board is preparing to launch training for police officers and barristers. The government-funded organisation, which is in charge of the justice system for children, says this work will make the process fairer and could possibly bring down reoffending rates.
The project is an extension of other work previously carried out with the board's staff who work in youth offending teams, and with magistrates and court workers.
"We have the chance of making major moves forward in this area," the board's chair Frances Done said. "We need to do a lot more work with solicitors, barristers and the police so they don't see this as just some children behaving badly."
Research suggests that poor communication skills are exacerbated by exclusion, truancy and unsuccessful school interventions. A quarter of children in the youth justice system have special educational needs, according to a 2011 report by the Children's Commissioner.
Almost nine out of 10 young people in the youth justice system have been excluded from school at some point, and more than a third were younger than 14 when they last attended mainstream school, the report added.
The Communication Trust, a coalition of nearly 50 voluntary and community organisations with expertise in speech, is one of the bodies that has been delivering the training. It is likely to remain involved as the scheme is rolled out more widely.
Trust director Anne Fox said the training given to youth offending staff so far showed that speech, language and communication needs were "poorly understood".
"Some children might have been masking their difficulties for their whole life, so instead the focus is on their challenging behaviour," she said. "Speech and language difficulties means children can find it hard to make eye contact and have difficulty understanding instructions. This creates real challenges when it comes to them being sentenced, convicted or making statements."
Researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Exeter have found that young offenders are four times more likely to have a specific reading difficulty than their peers: 43-57 per cent have a reading difficulty, compared with 10 per cent of the wider population. Many were found to have a reading age below that of the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10 in England and Wales.
Helen Clarke, a speech therapist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Whittington NHS Trust, has run training for youth justice workers. "It is an issue of equality for the child, if they can't take part in their trial, ask questions, put forward their own story, answer questions or present themselves adequately," she said.
Tips given to youth justice staff to help children with speech and language difficulties:
- Ask children if they understand and ask them to repeat what you have said to them.
- Discuss with their family how best to communicate with them.
- Keep language simple: don't use jargon.
- Break instructions and information down into manageable chunks so it is easier for them to understand.
- Speak more slowly than you would usually.
- Allow them time to speak and to finish what they want to say.
It is an issue of equality for the child, if they can't take part in their trial, ask questions, put forward their own story.