‘Survivor mentality’ developed by children in care, new research shows

By Nuffield Foundation

Children in the care system are estimated to be seven times more likely to be subject to imprisonment during childhood than those who are not in care.

This is according to new Nuffield-funded research from the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime at the University of Bedfordshire.

A research team led by Dr Tim Bateman, investigated how children in care are disproportionately represented in the youth justice system, and in child prisons in particular.

The researchers studied a mixed group of children sentenced to custody from South and West Yorkshire, half of whom were in the care system. The team explored their journeys into, through and out of custody, and found that the children’s behaviours can often be understood as strategies that disadvantaged and vulnerable children develop in order to survive hostile environments.

While all those sentenced to custody shared characteristics (including extremely troubled backgrounds and problems at home and school), there were differences depending on whether or not children were in care. The additional challenges encountered by these children, especially those placed in care a long way from their home community, heightened the risk that they would become entangled in the youth justice system. If sentenced to custody they were also more likely to have negative experiences within the custodial estate and return to an unsettled lifestyle upon release.

Dr Tim Bateman, Co-Director of the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, said:

“We found that imprisoned children from outside the care system were able to look to their families for adequate help and support, so they managed to keep their heads down whilst inside and make plans for what they would do upon their release. In contrast, children in care felt an absence of such support and faced uncertainty of where they would live once released. This sense that they had to be self-reliant meant they were at greater risk of getting involved in fights to maintain status and avoid victimisation whilst in custody – and made it more likely that they would return to a ‘street lifestyle’ when they returned to the community.

“From this, we were able to conclude that children in care didn’t just do what they considered necessary to survive, they also came to see themselves as survivors. This ‘survivor mentality’ often became an integral part of their identity and, as a consequence, they tended to focus on getting by from one day to the next instead of planning for the future, making it more challenging for them to leave their offending lifestyles behind them.”

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