"A youth justice service that cares"

Steph Roberts-Bibby, the CEO of the Youth Justice Board, reflects on her visit to Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly Youth Offending Service

The allotment project at Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly Youth Offending Service.

I recently visited the Youth Offending Service at Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly to see what’s happening locally as part of our increased oversight and focus on the performance of youth justice services. It was great to see how they were putting Child First evidence into practice.

The service is integrated with children’s social services and brings staff together from a wide range of organisations including children’s social care, education, police, probation, health, third sector and a great group of volunteers. By working together, sharing knowledge, skills and experience, the service helps reduce offending by children and supports them to go on to lead fulfilling lives. It’s a well-resourced service which collaborates with partners on early intervention, prevention, and diversion.

In May 2022, the service received an overall rating of ‘Good’ following their inspection by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation. From April 2022 to November 2023, the service had no children in custody, with no custody occurrence since 2019.

Strong leadership

Since 2012, the service has been led by Michaela Rogers whose experience and expertise are matched by her leadership and passion for supporting children and staff alike.

Michaela explains: “We have a good training and working ethos, it is important to look after staff because then the children have better outcomes. We focus on training and upskilling staff and are strict on caseloads being manageable – 15 as a maximum, but ideally under 10.” Lower caseloads also mean more meaningful time for staff to work with children.

Evidence-based practice

An important element of Child First practice is ensuring that children can build a pro-social identity – building on their strengths and positive relationships in order for them to fulfil their potential and make a positive contribution to society.

During my visit, I saw this in spades. Consistent and trusting relationships with staff and long-serving volunteers make this possible. One volunteer reflected: “I’m starting to see the children I once supported around locally with jobs and their own children, that’s the most rewarding part.”

Every child in the youth justice system has their own individual set of circumstances and needs. Evidence shows that tailoring support measures specifically to each child creates positive outcomes and this was clearly visible at the service. They have introduced a directory of interventions in partnership with local agencies that can be personalised to support children to explore their identity and increase positive self-esteem, while developing their knowledge, skills and understanding of risk-taking behaviour. Michaela stated:

“Our funding allows us to incorporate many child-friendly initiatives that really work for children. We are constantly trying new things. Not all of our children are physical, but they are creative. So, we introduced programmes like ‘Sown and Grown’ and ‘The Bike Shed’ which are better suited to their needs so that they engage.”

Sown and grown – promoting wellbeing

‘Sown and Grown’ is an allotment wellbeing project open to children referred to the service. Being outside, and physically busy, practitioners find children are more likely to talk openly – allowing them to better understand their needs and provide support. The children have great pride in taking produce home to show their families and in donating food to the local foodbank and flowers to their local church.

One child said: “The allotment project has helped me because it gives me something to do other than sitting inside. I can be outdoors with my friends while learning new skills.”

The Bike Shed – skills for life

At The Bike Shed, children gain skills in woodwork, creative arts and building or repairing bikes. They are able to give back to their communities by making bird boxes for local and national parks. There is also an option for children to be rewarded by allowing them to fix a bike for them to take home. By combining this hands-on training with keywork sessions, building skills and reducing screen-time, children are flourishing.

Be Me – building self-esteem

The ‘Be Me’ project provides children the opportunity to focus on confidence and self-esteem building through the use of beauty treatments and tutorials. In 2020, the project was recognised for its innovative practice with the Hwb Doeth Award.

The scheme also offers an opportunity to learn new skills and receive career advice. I was told a particular success story which stuck with me:

“One girl wasn’t engaging and after digging deeper we established she was a victim of domestic abuse. She started on the ‘Be Me’ programme and as a result, grew her confidence to the point where she had the courage to leave the house. A big factor was the incentive to get her nails done and have her own agency. Through these gradual positive changes, she opened up, leading to a PTSD diagnosis and greater support with her mental health. The programme has a great success rate.”

Collaboration with children

It’s also important that children are meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect them and can see how their activity is positively supporting them – that was palpable when talking to children at the allotment project. One child said: “I love getting the experience from the allotment project. I’m learning new skills and I like knowing I’m helping my community by giving what we grow to the food bank.”

Michaela echoed the importance of giving the children the opportunity to have their say in matters that affect them, and told me a few ways in which they incorporate this:

“We offer children self-assessments, we tailor our questions in a way that does not re-traumatise them and for our ‘Be Me’ project the children chose the logo and created the design of the leaflet.”

A service that cares

Engaging children can always be a challenge, but the service is innovative in its practice and is “constantly trying new things to encourage children to attend.”

The heart-warming constant in every youth justice service is how much they care for the children and families they work with. In Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly, the staff take pride in their role of supporting and protecting the local community, inside and outside of work. There is an impressive learning culture and staff are continuously seeking to improve the services they provide. This, along with a strong Board, is delivering a great service to children and the communities of Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly.

When I asked what advice Michaela would give to other services she said: “Maintain a good strong leadership that is sustained over time. If you are consistent for both staff and children, you get better results. I would also say to not waste time being concerned about how much budget you have. Instead, focus on what you can do with it - think outside the box and think about who you can approach to get other grants.”

It is evident that play and trauma-informed practice underpin the way this service works with children, and this is a quality of the leadership Michaela provides, which is why it continues to be a well-resourced service.

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Youth Justice Board for England and Wales