Children who end up in custody are three times more likely to have mental health problems than those who do not. We also know they are very likely to have more than one mental health problem, to have a learning disability, to be dependent on drugs and alcohol and to have experienced a range of other challenges. Many of these needs go unrecognised and unmet.

Liaison and diversion

At the point of arrest, there is an opportunity to identify these needs early on, to link young people and their families with the support they need and to reduce the chance of people going in and out of the youth justice system.

In 2007, alongside the Department of Health and the Youth Justice Board, we funded a major national programme of six pilot Youth Justice liaison and diversion schemes for young people with mental health, learning, communication difficulties or other vulnerabilities affecting their physical and emotional well being. The pilot schemes were designed to ensure that children and young people with mental health and other problems get the help they need as soon as they enter the youth justice system.

An independent evaluation found that young people involved in YJLD intervention took longer to reoffend and had significant improvements in depression and self-harming. Data collected from these sites provided useful information on the range and multiplicity of needs of young people entering the Youth Justice System. This data formed the basis of our analysis on what leads girls to join gangs.

NHS England and the Department of Health have built on this model to establish the current all-age diversion model and the Centre currently provides youth expertise to support all age diversion. 

Mental health service models

In 2007, we were commissioned by the Department of Health to explore models of mental health service provision in the Youth Justice System. This included:

  1. The role of the health practitioner in the Youth Offending Team models of health provision in the young people’s secure estate (Local Authority secure children's homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions).
  2. The appropriateness of health liaison and diversion models for children and young people.

We conducted interviews with a range of health and mental health practitioners, youth justice practitioners, managers, commissioners and Directors/governors of secure settings. We also made contact with families and young people involved in the youth justice system.

This work fed into the former Government’s health strategy for young people who offend Healthy Children, Safer Communities. Some of the finalized documents are available below.

You just get on and do it: healthcare provision in Youth Offending Teams (1.3 MB)

Reaching out, reaching in: Promoting mental health and emotional well-being in secure settings (1.3 MB)

Checklist for identifying vulnerabilities in young people

Most adults with poor mental health first present with symptoms during their teenage years so early intervention is critical to promote children's life chances and reduce multi-sector costs. Children with poor mental health are more likely to present with unclear symptoms (such as persistent behavioural difficulties) at this early stage in their lives making vulnerability less easy to identify for non-clinicians.

The document below helps those working in the youth justice system identify young people who might benefit from further in-depth screening for mental health, hidden disability or other safeguarding needs potentially compromising their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Download the case identification checklist for young people (125 KB)

What you can do - in practice

Follow the service specification for liaison and diversion services and the operating model.