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Trauma-Informed Practice within the Youth Justice System: How is it working and what needs to change?

Insights Report


Sophie Davies, Research Director | Jess Hull, Strategy and Insight Manager | Isabella Ross, Analyst | Fernanda Reynoso-Serna, Analyst

Thursday 9 May 2024


Trauma-informed practice has become an increasingly used term across public services. The intention behind it is to increase awareness of the negative impact of trauma, while also preventing re-traumatisation and ultimately reducing offending. 

While its use is increasing, the practice itself lacks evidence -  both in terms of its effectiveness and the way in which it is understood and applied. Crest Insights was generously funded by the Hadley Trust to take a closer look at the way in which trauma-informed practices are implemented in the youth justice sector, from the perspectives of experts, youth justice practitioners, and crucially, children and young people.

Our latest report, Trauma-Informed Practice within the Youth Justice System: How is it working and what needs to change, contributes to the evidence base for trauma-informed practice, examining how the practice is understood and applied in youth justice services. We hope our findings can provide youth justice services with learnings to improve ways of working with young people who have been, or could be, involved in serious violence.

After building our understanding of the youth justice landscape and different approaches to prevent and reduce serious youth violence, we undertook deep dives with two youth justice services in England - where we conducted interviews with youth justice practitioners and young people aged 13-18. We also held a roundtable with academics, policy-makers and practitioners to gather their views on the implementation of trauma-informed practice in youth justice and test our findings.

Our findings

Youth justice service practitioners have a clear and consistent understanding of trauma-informed practice, but clarity is needed around the overlap with other practice frameworks: those we spoke to broadly agreed that trauma-informed practice is a cross-cutting way of working, underpinned by a set of principles, that builds on best practice. Practitioners identified similar principles: being aware of the impact of trauma on a child’s behaviour, building trust and safety, involving the child in decision-making and preventing re-traumatisation. However, our research identified a risk of confusion around the overlap and alignment of trauma-informed practice with other practice frameworks (Child First, AMBIT, systemic working). 

The application of trauma-informed practice is well-understood among youth justice practitioners but there are challenges to implementation, including a lack of consistency across partners: Practitioners had a clear understanding of what working in a trauma-informed way meant, from assessment through to the delivery of interventions. They emphasised the importance of taking time to build a relationship with the child, giving the child choice and agency where possible. However, there were challenges to the application of trauma-informed working, including a lack of consistency across partners who work with children who have offended, balancing trauma-informed practice with risk management, and creating an enabling environment for trauma-informed working.  

There's a mixed picture when it comes to measuring and scaling trauma-informed practice: practitioners felt confident that trauma-informed practice positively impacted children and young people’s outcomes, but ‘softer’ outcomes indicating progress towards desistance - such as improved engagement and behavioural changes - are difficult to capture under current service monitoring frameworks. Service data primarily focuses on reoffending as an outcome measure, and systems are not set up to measure how trauma-informed practice is embedded and applied in a service. Without this evidence base, it is hard to know what is working, where gaps are and how improvements can be made. 

We need to centre the voices of children and young people in our understanding of trauma-informed practice: Collaboration with children is one of the central principles of applying trauma-informed practice in youth justice. Yet there is very little evidence on what this means to children, nor on gathering their views of what works best. Our research has found that young people value having things clearly explained to them, knowing what to expect, and having consistent and reliable engagement. Our interviews with young people emphasised the importance of receiving support and guidance from someone who had similar lived experience to feeling understood. Importantly, all of the young people we spoke to said that the work they had done at the youth justice service - underpinned by the principles of trauma-informed practice - had impacted their outcomes; including developing skills, accessing employment and education, reducing risk and improving mental wellbeing.

Our recommendations

For the Youth Justice Board to:

  1. Update guidance on how trauma-informed practice aligns with youth justice practice frameworks (Child First, systemic practice etc.) and consult on a definition of trauma-informed practice for youth justice to provide consistency and clarity to practitioners. 

  2. Collate examples of best practice for embedding and applying trauma-informed practice, as well as case study examples of what trauma-informed practice looks like in different contexts (e.g. with children and young people in custody). 

  3. Develop a sector-wide theory of change and monitoring framework to support services to evaluate the implementation and impact of trauma-informed practice (building on existing resources, such as the Youth Endowment Fund’s Outcomes Framework and Measures Database). 

  4. Develop guidance to support services to effectively balance embedding trauma-informed practice with managing risks (to the community and the young person)

For youth justice services to:

  1. Review the local training offer around trauma-informed practice (building on existing capabilities and identifying gaps), commissioning and end-to-end opportunities for implementation (informed by best practice examples - see recommendation 2). 

  2. Explore opportunities in local contexts for meaningful multi-agency working to engage, and ensure alignment with, partners in trauma-informed practice (e.g. critical reflection spaces, embedded or co-located police / probation in youth justice teams).

  3. Create an enabling environment that is conducive to trauma-informed ways of working - e.g. ensuring that caseloads and time allow practitioners to build relationships with young people.

  4. Develop a service-level theory of change and monitoring framework to evaluate implementation and impact of trauma-informed practice, informed by YJB guidance (see recommendation 3). Services should collect regular feedback from young people as part of their monitoring of trauma-informed practice.

  5. Ensure that the support young people receive is consistent and reliable, and co-designed with young people where possible (within the parameters of their order) 

  1. The link between the less well-evidenced ‘softer’ outcomes associated with trauma-informed practice (such as improved engagement and behaviour) and desistance

  2. How trauma-informed practice is experienced by different cohorts of young people, including girls and young people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds

  3. The extent to which interventions aimed at justice-involved children and young people (e.g. mentoring or behavioural programmes) incorporate trauma-informed principles

  4. The application of trauma-informed practice within the youth custodial estate 

In the next phase of this project, we will build on the recommendations in this report by developing tools to support services to implement, monitor and evaluate the impact of trauma-informed practice, and collate best practice across the sector.


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