We spoke with Sarah Limb, Criminal Justice Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Traveller Movement, a charity which works with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people, about how the youth justice system can improve outcomes for GRT children.
Tell us about the Traveller Movement?
The Traveller Movement is a charity that advocates for the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people to tackle discrimination and promote equality. We are a small charity with different roles, we have a policy team that focuses on criminal justice and education policy, an operations and partnerships team that looks into women’s rights and domestic violence and how to improve outcomes for women. We have a caseworker who works directly with GRT people who call up and ask for advice and support regarding discrimination.
What are some of the main issues affecting GRT children in the Youth Justice System (YJS)?
There are two main issues we are looking at within policy, the first being ethnicity monitoring. We know there is a huge overrepresentation of GRT youth in the YJS. They most recent figures from the 2019-2020 Children in Custody report, showed that nearly 10% of the children across at Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Youth Offending Institutions (YOIs) identified as being from GRT backgrounds. 10% is a huge proportion considering that the official census statistics from 2011(which is probably an underestimation) show that GRT people represent about 0.1% of the UK population.
Nearly 10% of children in custody identifying as GRT is likely to be an underestimation because levels of self-reporting tend to be quite low. This could be due to feelings of mistrust, facing discrimination if people reveal their ethnicity and also it is an issue to do with data monitoring. In most prisons, the way that ethnicity is monitored is similar to the England and Wales census, where there are 5 categories that are sorted into sub-categories for example; a person can choose White as their ethnicity and then have the option of choosing from the sub-categories of White British, White Irish, White Gypsy/Traveller and White other. This aggregates both Gypsy and Traveller into one group which is not accurate because these are two separate ethnic minorities.
Another issue is that Roma is not included as a separate category on its own, which means that some Roma people may tick White other or Asian other, which means that their ethnicity is not recorded properly. There is a huge issue of data reporting and data collecting for GRT people in general, however in terms of Roma children in the YJS, the statistics are not likely to be accurate. The Traveller Movement and other organisations are advocating for the 18 plus one ethnic monitoring system – this refers to the 18 ethnicities that they currently have on the forms and plus one, adding Roma as a separate category. This would be a fairly simple policy practice to implement that would enable accurate statistics and further our awareness of the overrepresentation of GRT children and the specific experiences/needs they have while in the prison system. In the 2021 census, Roma was included as a separate category for the first time, so we are hopeful that other systems will start implementing this 18 plus one system.
The second is issue is Pre-sentence reports (PSRs), we have found is that recent moves to fast delivery or oral PSRs can be quite damaging to GRT children because magistrates might be unfamiliar with children with GRT backgrounds and might not understand the specific needs of children involved. If the standard PSRs could be used instead of the quick delivery or oral, then you get a better idea of the specific individualised circumstances of the GRT child, which means they can be diverted away from going to prison. What we see over and over is GRT people tend to be given custodial rather that community sentences, we feel that if PSRs could be fully informed and fully individualised then this could further children being diverted away from prison.
What are common trends that you see affecting GRT children in particular?
In our soon to be published report, Overlooked and Overrepresented we found a number of emerging trends, most which were a little concerning and some that were positive that staff in prisons and people across the YJS should to be aware of. The report found that, 58% of GRT children in YOIs reported any health problems, including mental health difficulties, compared to 32% of non-GRT children. 43% considered themselves disabled in comparison to 24% of non-GRT. The statistics are quite stark, we already know that many people struggle to speak up for themselves and admit that they have a disability or issues with their mental health as there’s certain stigmas about that. Also, GRT children are significantly more likely than non-GRT youth to report feeling unsafe, instances of assault, and theft of canteen/property, so this gives an idea of the conditions that GRT children face in within YOI.
On a positive note, although GRT children are more likely to enter the prison estate with very few or any qualifications because there is a high level of exclusion or self-exclusion from school, we find that GRT children are more willing or more likely to be involved in education or vocational training while inside a YOI. This means that when they are released, they are more likely to feel that the education and skills they have gained will help them after release to secure employment opportunities, which in turns helps to break the cycle of reoffending.
The Government education statistics found that in 2019-20, 30% of Irish Traveller pupils and 27% of Gypsy/Roma pupils in schools had identified SEND, compared to 15% of the general school population. Only 4% of Traveller and 5% of Gypsy/Roma children with SEND had an Education and Health Care plan in place. We feel it is important that students have an individualised learning plan and prison officers work directly with GRT children to set realistic goals while they are inside the estate, that will enable them to find employment upon release.
What should practitioners be aware of when working with GRT children?
The feeling of alienation from both practitioners (such as YOT staff, police officers, YOI staff) and GRT children and their families. Often practitioners might not be aware of GRT culture, history or lifestyles especially if the GRT children are living a nomadic lifestyle. Additionally, there is a long history of mistrust of authority figures within GRT communities especially with police, probation etc. There are ways to improve their relationships such as liaison officers having a more advocacy role, where GRT children and adults feel comfortable to approach an officer and discuss their experiences. Also, having good representation of GRT staff so people within their communities feel that there is someone that really understands them and can relate to them.
The effect the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has had on GRT children and their families. In regards to GRT children in YOIs who previously relied on in person visits, having to rely on video calls has highlighted the inequalities that these communities face. For some GRT families that are not digitally literate or are not digitally literate enough to set up video calling or in some cases have issues with resources - they might not have Wi-Fi or a laptop with a camera, this can further exacerbate feelings of loneliness and alienation, so it is something to be aware of.
Can you tell us about any upcoming work we should look out for?
We have two publications coming out this year, Overlooked and Overrepresented which is actually a 5-year update of the report we did before, looking at GRT children in custody and how the picture has changed or stayed the same since 2016. We have a report on The school to prison pipeline that looks at the high levels of exclusion for GRT children and the link between the overrepresentation in exclusion and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. This report analyses why there is such a strong link between the two and how can we interrupt the link with a strong focus on diversion and alternatives to sentencing.
There is a briefing coming out soon, that discusses the term GRT and other terms that should be used when referring to GRT issues. At the end of last year we published a Shaming report which looks into the culture of shaming (specially women) within GRT communities and how this negatively impacts GRT women.