In 2014, research with 33 young men in Polmont Young Offenders Institute identified that 91% had been bereaved. While this in itself was concerningly high given the age of the participants, the research took on a new dimension when it showed that over three quarters of these were traumatic bereavements, such as murder, suicide or overdose, while two thirds had suffered more than four bereavements.
At the time of this particular research, The Robertson Trust had already supported Criminal Justice projects for close to ten years with a focus on preventing reoffending. These figures, however, were striking, not least because our own learning was consistently highlighting the issues in young people’s lives which were leading them to offending behaviour in the first place.
The Robertson Trust’s Innovation and Learning team, previously known as the Development Team, seeks to identify and test approaches which address complex issues and help us gain evidence about what works, what doesn’t and why, in areas of particular interest. In relation to trauma, loss and bereavement, we, along with the Scottish Prison Service, have been supporting HMYOI Polmont with a partnership award to create Here and Now, a programme which aims to support the young men through these issues. The three-pronged approach includes:
- Awareness-raising training for all staff in the establishment, regardless of their role and responsibilities, delivered by Barnardo’s
- A small pilot service, providing specialist assessment and direct intervention to young men affected by trauma, bereavement and loss, also provided by Barnardo’s
- Efforts to create a more coherent, coordinated and ‘trauma-informed’ response across the organisation
Encouragingly, an external evaluation of this project by the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice has shown signs that the activities are beginning to make a positive impact on the life of young people in Polmont. The pilot service, for example, received 167 referrals in its first 12 months, with all bar one of participants interviewed (95%) reducing their overall score on the checklist used to measure symptoms.
These childhood experiences clearly had a significant impact on young men’s well-being and day-to-day functioning. Substantial numbers of young men (approximately two-thirds or more) reported regularly experiencing symptoms such as dissociation; worrying about things, having trouble concentrating and feeling angry. The Here & Now service also identified an abundance of avoidant coping strategies, with almost all young men attempting to block out sad, unwelcome or intrusive thoughts. The most frequent means to do so was by the use of substances, but also through expressions of anger, violence and offending behaviour. Therefore the very fact that many participants identified gains in the ability to concentrate, feel emotion again and argue less, is not only a positive outcome, but also a clear indicator of the complexity of the issue and the need to build the evidence base further.
As a member of the Innovation and Learning team, my motivation is to promote and support evidence informed policy and practice. While we don’t expect our funded projects to always be picked up in their entirety, we consider the mainstreaming of learning to be a success and it is my hope that studies like this will highlight the importance of recognising trauma, loss and bereavement as a factor in offending behaviour and contribute to the development of effective and scalable early interventions.
Although it was our work within Criminal Justice that highlighted this issue to us, we are now moving away from reducing reoffending to focus on how we prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. You can find out more about our Innovation and Learning approach here and if you are interested in keeping up to date with our programmes going forward, I would encourage you to follow us on Twitter.
In the meantime, Our Lives with Others: An evaluation of trauma, bereavement and loss developments at HMYOI Polmont can be downloaded here.