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  • Author or Editor: Paul Gray x
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Whereas crime more generally has fallen over the last 20 years, levels of serious youth violence remain high. This book presents innovative research into the complex relationship between adverse childhood experiences and serious youth violence. While the implementation of trauma-informed approaches to working with adolescents in the justice system are becoming common practice, there remains a dearth of research into the efficacy of such approaches.

Foregrounding young people’s voices, this book explores the theoretical underpinnings of trauma and the manifestations of childhood adversity. The authors conclude by advocating for a more psychosocial approach to trauma-informed policy and practice within the youth justice system.

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Chapter 1 outlines the background and context to the research. It describes the recent rise in serious youth violence (SYV) and the associated economic and societal cost that has served to increase political and populist concerns around SYV, resulting in a raft of new laws, policies and initiatives to tackle the issue. The growing body of research that has identified the disproportionate prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) among justice-involved young people, particularly those who perpetrate violent offences, is discussed. To investigate the complex relationship between ACEs and SYV, the research adopted an innovative mix of methods, including a bespoke quantitative ACEs assessment tool, qualitative interviews with youth justice workers, narrative life-story interviews with justice-involved young people, and participatory creative workshops with justice-involved young people. The chapter finishes by outlining the structure of the book.

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Chapter 2 starts by looking at the causes and consequences of serious youth violence (SYV), before moving on to outline and critique the political response to SYV in England and Wales. This is followed by a section on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that summarizes the body of research that has followed the original ACEs study by Felitti et al (1998). It analyses the academic literature around the nature and prevalence of ACEs among justice-involved young people, and the wide-ranging impact that such experiences can have on a young person. This leads on to a discussion of the physical and psychological impact of ACEs, and the need for a trauma-informed approach when working with justice-involved young people who have experienced adversity. The final section in this chapter engages with the debates around young people’s rights to participation, and discusses the benefits and challenges of implementing meaningful participation in a youth justice context.

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Chapter 3 introduces the bespoke ACEs assessment tool that was developed for the research, along with a discussion of how it was delivered and why. This is followed by description of how the research team trained a sample of youth justice workers to undertake narrative interviews with the young people on their caseload using the McAdams Life Story Approach. The final section in the chapter details the approach that was adopted to undertake participatory creative workshops with justice-involved young people. The workshops, delivered in partnership with creative therapists and a professional sports coach, used Dent-Brown and Wang’s 6-Part Story Method to elicit data from the young people. The chapter finishes with a visual depiction of the six-part stories that were created during the participatory workshops.

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Chapter 4 starts by describing the nature and prevalence of serious youth violence (SYV) within the case study cohort, before moving on to discuss the reasons for the high levels of SYV across Manchester. These include issues around territoriality and postcode rivalries, the role played by social media in the escalation of serious youth violence and the importance that justice-involved young people place on gaining (and, crucially, on maintaining) status and reputation among their peers and within the wider community. The chapter also looks at the reasons why justice-involved young people might decide to carry a knife, before finishing with a discussion of some detrimental impacts of carrying a knife such as an increased likelihood of being a perpetrator and/or victim of SYV.

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Chapter 5 starts by outlining the high prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) evident in the case study cohort. The most commonly identified ACEs are discussed, in particular the co-morbidity of some (such as, for example, being a victim of physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence). The chapter also contains a discussion of the role of poverty and deprivation in serious youth violence, before finishing with youth justice workers’ views of the assessment tool that was developed to measure the prevalence of ACEs.

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Chapter 6 starts by looking at the psychological impact that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have on a young person, before looking at the role of ACEs in the development of multiple psychological diagnoses. The chapter then moves on to look at the physiological impact of ACEs. The detrimental impact of such experiences on the development and activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus is discussed, along with the lasting damage that prolonged and consistent exposure to the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones can cause to the developing brain. The chapter also discusses the impact that ACEs can have on a young person’s identity formation, such as feelings of low self-worth and an over-reliance on praise and/or acceptance from peers, before finishing with a discussion of the relevance and applicability of attachment theory to an investigation of ACEs and serious youth violence.

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Chapter 7 discusses the challenges and barriers to delivering trauma-informed practice with justice-involved young people. These include, for example, a young person refusing to talk about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), or being unable or unwilling to recognize any relationship between their ACEs and their violent behaviour. Added to this is the sheer time it can take for a youth justice worker to build a relationship with a young person trusted enough that the young person might consider disclosing their ACEs, and how this process is constrained by short criminal justice sentences. The chapter then goes on to highlight the training and support needs of youth justice workers who are expected to work in a more trauma-informed way: not only the skills needed to work more therapeutically, but also the need for clinical supervision to be readily available for workers who might struggle with vicarious trauma. The chapter finishes with a discussion of some of the wider barriers facing the implementation of trauma-informed practice within a youth justice context.

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Chapter 8 brings together the preceding chapters and makes six policy and practice recommendations: deliver training around implementing trauma-informed practice; deliver training across the wider youth justice system; provide psychotherapeutic support to those young people who need it; offer clinical supervision to youth justice workers; support young people to meaningfully participate; and avoid quantifying ACEs as a measure of risk. The chapter also outlines the authors’ vision of the future of trauma-informed practice with justice-involved young people. Finally, the limitations of the research and potential future directions are discussed.

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