The Pains and Gains of COVID-19 – Challenges to Child First Justice in the Pandemic

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Youth Justice
2023, Vol. 23(1) 76 –96
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14732254221075209
The Pains and Gains of
COVID-19 – Challenges to Child
First Justice in the Pandemic
Kathy Hampson , Stephen Case
and Ross Little
The global COVID-19 pandemic has particularly affected justice-involved children. Youth justice policy
changes and innovations have assisted communication and engagement with these vulnerable children during
unprecedented times, while attempting to limit risks of contagion and criminalisation – all central tenets of
the ‘Child First’ guiding principle for the Youth Justice System of England and Wales. While some changes
have enhanced the experiences of some justice-involved children (gains), others have disproportionately
disadvantaged justice-involved children in court, community and custody contexts (pains), increasing
criminalisation, disengagement and anxiety. These pains of COVID-19 have effectively eroded the rights of
this already-vulnerable group of children.
Child First Youth Justice, children’s rights, COVID-19, engagement, England and Wales, solitary
confinement, youth criminalisation, youth justice, Youth Justice Board, Youth Offending Teams
Just over a century since the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918, which claimed at least 40
million lives (Pitt, 2018), the world is challenged by another global pandemic – COVID-
19. The United Kingdom has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has, up to
December 2021 seen over 10 million people test positive, almost 600,000 resultant hospi-
tal admissions and towards 168,000 deaths (with COVID-19 on the death certificate; UK
Government, 2021). Across all policy areas, significant changes have been made for pub-
lic safety and youth justice is no exception. Children in the Youth Justice System (YJS)
are already among the most vulnerable in society, likely to have experienced significant
adverse childhood experiences like abuse and neglect, on top of structural disadvantages
like child poverty (Yates, 2010). Research has shown that they are doubly disadvantaged
Corresponding author:
Kathy Hampson, Department of Law and Criminology, Aberystwyth University, Hugh Owen Building, Penglais,
Aberystwyth SY23 3DY, UK.
1075209YJJ0010.1177/14732254221075209Youth JusticeHampson et al.
Original Article
Hampson et al. 77
by becoming enmeshed in an iatrogenic inherently damaging system, adding criminalisa-
tion to their already-significant difficulties (McAra and McVie, 2007; Haines and Case,
2015). Recent policy directives in England and Wales from the Youth Justice Board1
(YJB) have emphasised that children should be treated as children first, privileging their
child status over any offender-related identity (a defining aspect of the ‘Child First’ justice
paradigm, hereafter referred to as ‘Child First’; YJB, 2021a). Central to Child First justice
is a series of underlying evidence-based practice principles (Case and Browning, 2021)
which have been significantly challenged by COVID-19: seeing children as children,
developing a prosocial identity for positive child outcomes, collaborating with children,
promoting diversion (YJB, 2021a). The Child First paradigm is underpinned by the ‘Child
Friendly Justice’ recommendations of several prominent international children’s rights
instruments, focusing primarily on protection, provision and participation for children in
youth justice systems (Goldson, 2014; see also Case, 2021).
The Committee on the Rights of the Child (The Committee) foresaw that both COVID-
19 and measures put in place to mitigate its effects would create new safeguarding risks
and exacerbate already existent ones (United Nations (UN), 2020). This acknowledges
that all children will have been adversely affected – vulnerable for their child status.
Global action included widespread school closures and ‘stay at home’ orders which
severely hampered their right to leisure and play possibilities, especially for those without
outside space. Children reported serious difficulties in maintaining friendships during
lockdown, vital for social development (Lundy et al., 2021). The Committee emphasised
that ‘all decisions and actions concerning children must be guided by the principle of the
best interests of the child, and children’s rights to life, survival, and development, and to
be heard’ (UN, 2020: 2). UNICEF research has shown that the pandemic has caused major
disruption to youth justice processes worldwide, severely affecting some children’s access
to justice (UNICEF, 2021). However, the same research also highlighted innovations
which have improved the plight of children involved the justice system, including that
11,600 children across 37 countries have been released from custody directly through
pandemic-mitigating policies (UNICEF, 2021). Our contention is that children involved
in the justice system in England and Wales (in common with elsewhere, cf. Lynch and
Kilkelly, 2021) are additionally damaged above normally vulnerable children through ill-
thought-out responses (both general- and justice-related) to the COVID-19 pandemic cre-
ating triple disadvantage and effectively foregrounding their offender status, in clear
conflict with Child First justice.
This article explores policy and legislative developments concerning the COVID-19
pandemic in the YJS of England and Wales within a Child First context, analysing pains
and gains of COVID-19. In what ways have children involved in the justice system ben-
efitted from innovative thinking borne of necessity (gains of COVID-19); and how,
through their triple disadvantage, have they been disproportionately disadvantaged, fos-
tering disengagement from support processes and exacerbating potential harm (pains of
COVID-19)? We identify erosions or negations of children’s rights as detailed in the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which the United
Kingdom is a signatory State, considering those arising from the pandemic itself (some of
which are common to all children), but particularly concentrating on those caused (or

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