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The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
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Monday, 8 February 2010

Adulthood: ‘Ready or Not’

Does adulthood arrive when a young person reaches 16, 18 or even 21 years old? No, gradually, most young people between the years 16–25 work their way towards living independently. The State, however, requires lines, boundaries, legal clarity – for entitlements, responsibilities, and so on.

As a result, the journey into adulthood can feel like dropping off a series of steep cliffs, encountered at 16 years, 18 years and sometimes beyond. Very few parents expect their sons or daughters to stand on their own feet at an arbitrary date; most support their children into their early 20s and beyond in some way or another. However, estimates put more than half a million young people aged 16–25 without no immediate family or wider community to help them. Many face a desperate series of no-win situations.

We work with thousands of young people, often trapped in a daunting web of difficulties. We help them as individuals, not just dealing with the ‘label’ with which they are sent to us – homeless, unemployed, care leaver, offender – and so on. Most young people want the same things as everyone else – to find a job they enjoy, somewhere safe to live and to stand on their own feet. Our work can make a lasting difference in young people’s lives, for their families and for the whole community, but this is not made easier by government policies or society.
Childhood and adulthood are not mutually exclusive life-stages. While childhood is considered a formative time, adulthood is seen as a period of attainment ranging over several decades of achievements in career development, family life, economic stability and growth and well-being. Jammed in between is adolescence; a ‘catch-all’ term for the stage of life that is not quite one thing or another and when policy, legislation, social and healthcare provision tend to work around arbitrary age markers.

During this ‘nearly’ time, many of the events that signify adulthood will occur. The fact that these events occur at this time does not mean that young people will always be able to handle their new responsibilities in an ‘adult’ way. This is largely driven by the subjective views of legislators and policy makers on when young people can be allowed adult status.

The arbitrary definition of adulthood based on age does not address the emotional dimension of becoming an adult. Nor, does it consider whether events in a young person’s formative years have secured them the best life-chances or if they have access to supportive networks like family, friends and community.

When asked if becoming a fully independent adult occurs at the age of 18, young people we spoke to overwhelmingly said “No”. When asked to identify the events that indicate becoming an adult, common responses were
• Moving out of your parents or carers home
• Being responsible for your personal health and well being
• Caring for someone else

We know young people between 16 and 25 have distinct and acute support needs, which require tailored interventions. We are particularly concerned about the provision of resettlement services for young offenders.

Catch22 piloted a two-year project called RESET that tested various models of resettlement support for young people. The partnership aimed to make a real difference to the lives of young offenders and develop a resettlement model that could be widely adopted to help cut reoffending levels. It involved more than 50 partners, including the YJB, the prison service and the DCFS. The service provides:
• A dedicated resettlement support worker to provide personal support and
practical help and co-ordination of a package of care,
• Education and/or training, with specialist assistance to access this,
• Specialist family support, mediation where needed,
• Mentoring where appropriate,
• Supported accommodation where needed,
• Help with any substance misuse, as needed, and
• Assistance for young people to take ownership of their resettlement and future.

A cost-benefit analysis of the pilot showed that where a persistent offender is offered an effective resettlement package, the frequency and seriousness of offending is reduced, and the cost to the taxpayer is reduced to £65,707 – a saving of £12,333 per offender against the normal average cost of £78,040 per year.

If this saving is expressed across the total number of young people aged 15-17 who are given DTOs (Detention and Training Orders) in England and Wales (approximately between 6,000 and 6,500) the total saving to the taxpayer is £80 million.

While the limited sample size of the RESET pilot would need to be reinforced by further reconviction studies before concrete conclusions could be drawn, even a conservative assumption shows that good support in resettlement leads to a reduction of 35% in frequency and 10% in seriousness of offending.

It would be wrong to assume that every young person requires specific support during this transitional phase of their life, however, to assume that the need for support will neatly arise at a specific age is nonsense. It would seem that determining policies and legislation based on age criteria helps the legislators and policy makers but does not help those they are intended to support.

The majority of young people we asked agreed that becoming an adult is not a matter of reaching a certain age as people mature at different speeds. We need a system that formally recognises the transition to adulthood and supports those passing through it with policies and legislation that deliver around need and not birthday.

Vulnerable young people; those in tough situations, are often disproportionately affected by the gaps in support created by a ‘single point of entry’ approach to adulthood. As our policy makers and legislators continue to enforce an artificial and one-dimensional view of when becoming an adult occurs; we believe that now is the time for decisive action to overhaul our entire approach to young adulthood. We need to recognise that the period of late teens and mid-20s is a vital period of transition and young people who lack a family and community network to give them emotional and financial support need better coordinated policies.

We must create clear accountability for the achievement of basic outcomes in the lives of young adults. This accountability framework should extend from central government downwards, and should include policies that secure good outcomes: a job, a safe place to live and a stable future, and thereby avoid the damaging impact of negative labels.

Joyce Moseley
Chief Executive
Catch22

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