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Keywords:

  • Child;
  • adolescent;
  • forensic;
  • mental health;
  • incarceration;
  • need

Background:  The mental health of child offenders who are detained in secure settings is a matter of great public and professional concern but there has been little systematic longitudinal research on the outcomes of these problems once the young person has returned to the community. The aims of the present study were to describe the psychosocial outcomes of boys in secure care and to establish if these outcomes were correlated with criminal outcomes.

Method:  Prospective cohort study of 97 boys whose average age was 14 years when they were admitted to secure units in the North West of England. The boys were followed up on average 2 years later, when outcome data were obtained on 81/97 (83%) cases. The main outcome measure was a standardised assessment of mental health, social and educational needs obtained by interview with the young person and corroborated in most cases by information from informants. All data were then reviewed by experienced clinicians who made best-estimate ratings of need ‘blind’ to the findings from the first phase of the study.

Results:  The average number of needs requiring an intervention at follow-up (mean = 3.4, sd = 3.0) was much lower than before admission to secure care (mean = 8.2, sd = 2.5) (mean difference 4.9 needs, 95% CI 4.0 to 5.7). Educational and occupational needs were particularly well dealt with. However, many mental health problems persisted or worsened. For example, 31% had a need for treatment of substance abuse, a significant increase compared with when they were in secure care (percentage difference 21%, 95% CL 9.0% to 32.7%). No mental disorder predicted subsequent offending.

Conclusions:  Boys who have been in secure care continue to have a high rate of mental health problems. The mental health needs of this group are not, however, static but change over time and with changing circumstances. Services need to be designed to meet these changing needs.