In 2005, Andi Brierley was released from HMP Lindholme with nothing but a bag full of toiletries and £46. It was the start of a new chapter in his life after various adverse challenges, including intergenerational trauma, prison, addiction, time in care and school exclusion.
Andi is now a specialist in youth justice and has played an instrumental role in helping Children Looked After in Leeds to avoid contact with the youth justice system. He delivers training to professionals working with children to prevent criminalisation, and he is a teacher at Leeds Trinity University. He has published two books on youth justice.
Here, Andi shares his experience with the Commission on Young Lives.
Why do we need drivers of social change like Anne Longfield's Commission on Young Lives initiative? I will address this question through both a 'Lived Experience' and 'Professional perspective'.
It is quite simple, really. We live in a great country in England and should be very grateful for the privilege of wealth and prosperity. We have principles that seek to protect children from harm and ensure everyone's rights and freedoms are upheld. We have a robust child protection system and criminal justice system that seeks both criminal and social justice when harms have been inflicted upon every member of our great country.
We would be naive if we fell into the trap of not reflecting on the impact of inequality, marginalisation, and social exclusion. This is taking place under the very noses of our child protection services and effects our most vulnerable children, placing them at risk of violence, criminality, and youth custody. Various reports exploring the relationship between the care experience and youth custody highlight that 45 percent of children we place in youth custody have experienced care (Bateman, 2018). We can see from the recent 2021 inspection report that 79 percent of children in HMYOI Cookham Wood are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (HMIP, 2021).
Data that simply directs us to acknowledging significant limitations in protecting every child from environments that increase the likelihood of them falling victim to crime and violence. Children are shaped by their environment and as a result these outcomes shame us all, not just the vulnerable communities these children reside in.
My name is Andi Brierley. I was in fact one of those care experienced young people sent to a young offender's institution aged just 17. At that time, I was raised by a care experienced mother who was just 16 herself when she fell pregnant with me. In part due to mum's need for love and attachment, mum had 5 children by the age of 24 to four different men, which was devastating for our development as children. With little support from any of our fathers, mum relied on support from members of our community. They brought issues such as drug use, criminality, and violence into the house.
After several incidents of abuse and neglect, me and my siblings were ourselves placed in care. The so-called intergenerational trauma we often hear about. Mum loved us. However, she couldn't protect us from the volatile and chaotic environment we developed in. Mainly due to capacity issues, mum exposed us to adults that had their own issues of dealing with childhood trauma which manifested into drug use, criminality, and violence.
Mum fought for us back by hiding the issues from services and eventually we returned home through a staggered process. This approach left mum once again unprotected from members of our community who harmed us children through default of their own lack of healing. As developing children, experiencing such abuse within the home on a constant basis impacted us all negatively.
My two sisters have had substance misuse issues and social care interventions with their children and my both myself and my two brothers have been excluded from school, been in custody several times and we have all been addicted to heroin. We know children that grow up in households like mine are far more likely to have poor outcomes, including crime, drug use and both criminal and sexual exploitation. The issues are complex from my person experience. Believe it or not, I now have extensive professional experiences of working in Youth Justice for 15 years. This unusual duel experience has shaped my perspective that although the answers are complex, it lies within one word, community.
Take a moment to understand that relationships are biology. We have known this for many decades as we know that if babies are not nurtured, cared for, loved, and kept safe, they simply will not develop the way they should. This is through the connection between baby and parent. These connections simply do not stop. In fact, during adolescence, we reach out to human connections in our communities to seek a sense of belonging. I was exploited into drug dealing by adults and placed in youth custody with children given names that represented gangs in various parts of the country. I now know what I was experiencing is a biological need to belong, not just children making poor choices. For many like me, a rational reaching out to humans to find a sense of self as well as safety as strange as that may seem. Although developing into problematic behaviour, the process was often constructed way before the point of exploitation taking place.
Having had all these personal experiences and having as much understanding about safeguarding as anyone other professional, I do have a concern. I worry about the likely negative impact of the current narratives of protecting children from their biological relationships and attempts at fitting in to their community. It would be much easier for me to blame the adults that exploited me into crime, before I was sent to prison. My first book, Your Honour Can I Tell You My Story explained in detail how I was groomed into crime as a heroin addicted teenager excluded from school. I can however see the negative impact of demonising vulnerable communities with language such as 'protected children from thugs, groomers and criminals.' It derives from a place of good intention. However, it also derives from a position of privilege.
Although understandable, narratives such as this lack understanding of community cohesion and complex biological relationships. The answer to complex issues is about reducing stigma towards these communities. It lies in making life better for vulnerable adults and inclusive approaches that empower communities to have the resources to improve outcomes for everyone on an equal playing field.
This is what levelling up means to me. It means getting our hands dirty and being in the communities and understanding them, not pointing the judgement finger from afar. Implementing sports programmes and activities in their own communities run by people they relate to because they understand their communities. Placing youth centres and clubs back after decreasing them due to austerity and Covid-19 decimating already disadvantaged families.
I know so many people that turned their lives around in a similar way to me. Few would claim prison, child protection services or the state itself saved them. Most would say it was about a relationship. We know it is about relationships. Let's create policies that build communities to provide safe relationships children need, instead of demonising communities that are struggling to fight poverty, alienation, and social harm.
The most effective way to protect children is to protect the adults around them.
Report on an unannounced inspection of HMYOI Cookham Wood by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (9-13 August 2021)
Bateman, T., Day, A. M., & Pitts, J. (2018). Looked after children and custody: a brief review of the relationship between care status and child incarceration and the implications for service provision.