We spoke to Michael O’Connor, Swindon’s Youth and Community Transformation Lead, about their Child First approach to Youth Justice and identity development for desistance model.


In 2021, Swindon had some of the highest youth custody rates in the country per head of population, this was 8-10 children in custody. In order to address this, the Swindon Youth Justice Service (YJS), led by Michael O’Connor, set out to shift their practice to align with the evidence base. This shift also had to account for changes in children involved in the criminal justice system; due to better prevention and diversion, this cohort was much smaller, but simultaneously was more complex, including many children who’ve experienced abuse, trauma, neglect, discrimination and other harmful experiences. Swindon focused on adopting principles around child first practice and an identity development for desistance model, allowing children to develop a pro-social identity. 


Swindon YJS drew on research by Professor Neil Hazel to develop this model and their Child First Practice. This focuses on giving children 'fresh AIR' (Activities, Interactions and Roles) to support identity development. Michael focused on the latter, with the activity acting as a vehicle to allow for positive interactions and roles. 

The approach also uses the ‘5Cs’ of support - taken from the identity development framework, that support must be Constructive, Co-created, Customised, Consistent & Coordinated. Central to the approach is co-production; both in individualised support for each child in that they are co-creating their own support plans, but also on a wider scale. Michael and the YJS spent a lot of time co-producing with children who’d been involved in the criminal justice system. At the start of Michael’s post in 2021, they sat with children and explained that they aimed to help children to develop positive perceptions of themselves and the world around them. They asked them how best to do this, and what kinds of interventions would help them. This was a powerful tool used; Swindon YJS as agents of the criminal justice system approaching children, giving them power over the budget and asking for their views, insight and advice. This initial coproduction was an identity shifting intervention in its own right and set the scene for Swindon YJS to incorporate the new model. A visualisation of the model can be seen here.

Case Formulation Model for Assessment

In order to develop an assessment model that is psychologically informed and seeks to understand what is driving the child’s behaviours, rather than defining children by their behaviours, Swindon adopted a case formulation model. This is a multi-agency assessment developed by a sentence planning panel, using the Five P’s framework. This is a psychologically informed approach to thinking about a child’s situation, focusing on Predisposing factors, Precipitating factors, Perpetuating factors and Protective factors as opposed to just the presenting behaviours. Agencies involved are FCAMHS, Children’s Social Care, Health, CAMHS, Speech and Language team, substance misuse team, police, Probation and education services. Following the multi-agency assessment, the children and their families are asked what they think solutions to the challenges they are facing could be; so that there is a bigger focus on facilitating their own safety planning as opposed to the YJS planning.


Since implementing these models and shifting to a Child First approach, Swindon’s youth custody rates have gone from one of the highest in the country to one of the lowest. Swindon has seen their custody rates per 1000 children drop from 0.42 to 0.00 for the first time ever in April 2023. Swindons YJS were also rated as ‘Outstanding’ in their most recent inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation in January 2023. In May 2023, the Swindon Children’s Partnership achieved Youth Justice SEND Quality Lead Status with a Child First Commendation.

Moving Forwards

In the future, Swindon YJS are aiming to become a Centre of Excellence for Child First Practice and incorporate evidence-based approaches such as Family Group Conferencing into their approach. Further, they are hoping to extend their current model across diversion and prevention to broader groups of adolescents, and out into communities, with the hope that these could be in place by 2024. 

Case study

To learn more about how Swindon YJS use this model please visit this page, which includes a case study. 

For more information, please contact MOconnor@swindon.gov.uk


Case study by Miranda Paris, 2023. 

This project is part of our map of innovation, which charts innovative projects happening across the UK’s justice systems. You can search and filter the projects to find things that are most interesting to you.