Leaving care of the children's home -- for prison?

March 22, 2020

The world expects some teenagers to become criminals. These "troublemakers" are taken away from everything and everyone they know. The State places them in children's homes, often far from family and friends.

"Care-leavers from children's homes live with more layers of vulnerability. They can be more vulnerable than youth growing up in poor families", says Prof Adrian van Breda. He is a researcher at the Department of Social Work, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

He authored the study Patterns of criminal activity among residential care-leavers in South Africa.

"For most, the children's home is the very 'last stop'. Their grandmothers are not providing foster care, they are not placed in foster care with other families, and not adopted. Some are moved from one foster placement to the next. Often, behavioural issues contributed to them being placed in a children's home."

Fragile statistics

In Australia, for example, 27% of care-leavers reported contact with police and 11% had been found guilty of a crime since turning 18 (Note 1). And in Sweden, 37% of male care-leavers went on to serious crime, compared to 5% of the general population (Note 2).

"Often, youth in children's homes lack healthy family connections. This may make them more vulnerable than poor teenagers. A poor teenager can still have healthy relationships with their parents, siblings and extended family. Family connections are a potent form of 'social capital'," adds Van Breda.

"The young person who grows up in care in this study, entered care on average at age 12. Most of them do have family, but their relationships with family became fragmented and thin. Sometimes, they were moved into care to protect them from their family.

"When care-leavers move out of a children's home, they often do not have the networks and skills to help them navigate into employment. A child who grows up in a poor community with their family may have far more social capital," he says.

Kieren, year 1 after leaving the children's home

Kieren (not his real name) lives with his parents. He got caught with drugs and had a fight with his mom. She called the police. After spending a few days in jail, he stopped dealing cannabis. He says that he "can just be triggered", "like a ticking timebomb". He agrees that he never learnt to deal with his anger at the children's home.

Kieren was interviewed five times during the study, at yearly intervals.

Unusual results from South Africa

Contrary to what we might expect, the majority of care-leavers in Van Breda's South African study do not engage in criminal activities. Instead, about three quarters (73%) say that they didn't engage in any criminal activities. They each took part in two or more annual interviews up to 5 years after leaving a children's home.

This encouraging result is despite a sudden stop in State support when the care-leaver turns 18. To them, this means no further housing and no further support for training and education. It is also despite a 55.2% unemployment rate among 15-24 year olds in 2019, according to Statistics SA.

The small study engaged with 100 young people leaving the children's homes in three South African provinces. They represent the racial diversity of the country.

They were recruited into the study just before leaving the children's home, between 2012 and 2016. By the end of 2018, 51 young people had given two or more in-depth annual interviews to research field workers. In total the study included 163 interviews with these 51 care-leavers.

The hungry, sleepy 10%

The second group in the study is the 10% who say that they engaged in one minor incident of crime after leaving care. This group stays out of serious trouble with the law.

"Some of these incidents were people who were hungry and stole food. Or they stole money to buy food. Others did not have a place to live. They would go to sleep at a vacant site or house because they needed shelter. They would be found and arrested for trespassing. These incidents of criminal activity are often survival-driven," says Van Breda.

Kieren, year 2 after leaving the children's home

Kieren spent nine months in juvenile prison after the previous interview. In prison, he saw a gang member "trying to hit on this guy. I know this guy from a long time. And I could not let him down like that."

So he stabbed the gang member in the neck. The gang member was in hospital for about a week. The police beat Kieren up "very badly".

The more violent 17%

The third group is the 17% who self-report more serious incidents of criminal activity in two or more years after leaving care.

These incidents are more frequent and more violent than the second group. They are more likely than the second group to come into conflict with the law and to spend at least one day in jail.

It is this third group that Kieren (not his real name) belongs to in the study. He is an unusual interviewee in the study, because he is the only one to serve a long prison sentence.

"This group told us about significantly more incidents of violence. They were usually unarmed, though, and the victims seldom needed medical care. The violent incidents decrease slightly over time," says Van Breda.

"They were holding and selling stolen goods and doing it more frequently as time went on. Most said that they dealt in drugs and used every year. Some stole, but a bit less frequently over time, and the monetary value was usually low."

Kieren, Year 3

Kieren is still living with his caregivers. He got into an argument and reflects "because I have a short temper I just switched." He went to prison for assault and was released two months later. He is still smoking cigarettes and cannabis, but not drinking, not stealing. He is holding and dealing stolen electronics and drugs.

Kieren, Year 4

The research field worker interviews Kieren in prison where he on trial for murder. He lived with a relative, until he assaulted a man and was charged with attempted murder.

Kieren, Year 5

The research field worker interviews Kieren in jail through a glass screen via a phone. He is serving a life sentence for the murder of the relative he had lived with.

What happens to care-leavers in Africa?

Globally, little research exists about crime committed by care-leavers. In Africa, little research has been done about care-leavers in general, says Van Breda.

"Statistics about crime committed by care-leavers in the global north exists. But often we don't know what is actually happening. What criminal activities do the care leavers engage in? How often do these happen? Is it a once-off exploratory thing that any young person might do, or is it continuous over time and increasing in frequency or severity? This study offers more insight on what is going on in this area, by collecting both numerical and narrative data.

"We think is it important to understand how to help care-leavers find their way successfully into young adulthood. Understanding this very vulnerable group can teach us how to better support other vulnerable young people transitioning into adulthood," says Van Breda.

Van Breda is a founding member of the Africa Network of Care-Leaving Researchers (ANCR). The researchers in ANCR collaborate online to research how young people in Africa transition out of alternative care.

Vulnerability across generations

"It is now more than 20 years after democracy in South Africa, a developing country that was colonised by the global north. Vulnerability and trauma in families continues to run along race and gender lines. This includes access to quality health care and education, access to social security, opportunities to learn a trade and find jobs.

"Black African youth and women are significantly more vulnerable than other young people. Existing State interventions do not fully address these vulnerable groups."

Van Breda concludes: "Young people under 30 is a fast-growing section of the South African population. Because of this, we need to understand how to better support care-leavers from children's homes and foster care. Juveniles need that support before they have to make their own way into the world."
For phone, radio or TV interviews, contact Ms Therese van Wyk at Theresevw@uj.ac.za or +27 71 139 8407 (mobile) or +27 11 559 6332 (office) in Johannesburg, UTC + 2.

For email questions, contact Prof Adrian van Breda at avanbreda@uj.ac.za.

The research was funded by the Anglo American Chairman's Fund Trust, for the 'Growth Beyond the Town' study, in collaboration with Girls and Boys Town South Africa.

Note 1: Purtell, Muir, Carroll, 2019
Note 2: Berlin, Vinnerljung, Hjern, 2011

University of Johannesburg

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