Is nobody listening? Speech, language, and communication needs in youth justice

Published 26/06/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

At least 60% of young people involved with the youth justice system have a speech, language, or communication need.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists recently commended the Senedd’s Equality and Social Justice Committee for shining a light on this “often overlooked topic”. In its report, the Committee highlighted that improving access to speech and language therapy support could help prevent young people from getting into trouble with the law.

The Welsh Government acknowledges the problems facing this group of young people – who may experience language delay, stammering, dyslexia, deafness, and barriers related to neurodivergence. However, it rejects two of the Committee’s recommendations, which the Royal College says would give young people with speech, language, and communication needs access to “much-needed speech and language therapy support”.

This article considers the Welsh Government’s response to the Committee’s report, ahead of the plenary debate on 28 June 2023.

Why communication matters in youth justice

The Committee’s report aims to give a voice to young people disproportionately represented in the youth justice system – those with a speech, language, or communication need.

The Royal College’s Justice Evidence Base puts the figure at 60%. Local data provided to the Committee by Neath Port Talbot Youth Offending Team reported an even higher number. It said that in 2022, 79% of the young people who came into contact with the service had some level of speech, language, or communication need.

This matters because navigating the justice system isn’t easy – it relies on a person’s ability to listen, understand, and communicate thoughts and experiences in words.

The police routinely encounter young people with a speech, language, or communication need. If police officers can’t recognise or support these needs, it can have a detrimental effect.

It may give rise to suspicion or mistrust. In police interviews, a disjointed narrative may be misunderstood as a reluctance to participate. In court, the young person’s attitude and demeanour may be misunderstood as boredom, rudeness, or a lack of cooperation.

Difficulties in a young person’s ability to understand spoken and written instructions by justice professionals also risks jeopardising their compliance with court orders and instructions.

Making a difference - young people’s stories

The Committee heard evidence from young people that illustrates the positive impact the right support can make to the lives of young people with speech, language, and communication needs.

By working with a speech and language therapist, one young person who’d become disengaged from school (and was known to youth offending services for criminal damage and actual bodily harm) had been successfully reintegrated into full time school, with no further offending.

Another young person who’d committed a number of offences including burglary, and had disruptive and violent behaviour, was supported through anger management therapy to turn his life around, with no further offending.

Both are examples where it's most likely that speech and language therapy intervention helped to change the trajectory these young people were on – preventing future offending and perhaps even, the revolving door of prison life.

Speech and language therapists are hard to come by

The Welsh Government rejects a number of the Committee’s recommendations which seek to expand or enhance the role of NHS speech and language therapists into youth justice.

The Welsh Government insists there simply aren’t enough NHS employed speech and language therapists to accept the Committee’s recommendation of embedding speech and language therapists in every youth offending team in Wales. To do this, there’d need to be an increase in training places and workforce supply.

The Committee’s report recommends a workforce plan, with the aim of increasing the current number of speech and language therapist training places. However, while the Welsh Government accepts this recommendation, the Royal College says an Allied Health Professionals workforce plan (which would include speech and language therapists) has already been rejected by NHS Wales.

The Royal College calls for more speech and language therapists in Wales, explaining that there are fewer speech and language therapists per head of population in Wales than any other part of the UK. They say:

… we have consistently argued for higher commissioning numbers for speech and language therapy given the clear evidence base for the expansion of the profession into newer areas such as justice.

However commissioning numbers in Wales have remained stubbornly at 49 from 2020 until 2023 despite the creation of a second undergraduate course, sustained increases in other healthcare courses and evidence from higher education institutions that there is both demand and capacity for a growth in numbers.

It is therefore deeply frustrating to read in the government response to the report that the reason for the rejection of the recommendations relating to workforce is the lack of speech and language therapists rather than lack of evidence of need.  

Youth justice and the Welsh context

The Committee’s report is a reminder of the “jagged edge”; that youth justice cuts across education, social services, health, and justice. It shows that despite justice itself being reserved, there are decisions and investment the Welsh Government can make in devolved areas (such as health and education) that can impact positively on children and young people in contact with the youth justice system.

We previously highlighted in our article ‘Devolution of criminal justice to Wales – will it actually happen?’ that ‘youth justice is ‘top of the list when it comes to the Welsh Government seeking devolution of criminal justice.

Youth justice policy is underpinned by a trauma-based approach in Wales, which recognises the impact of childhood adversities on offending behaviour. It’s based on the philosophy that young people involved in offending share a similar background to young people in need of care and protection. It follows therefore, that young people involved in, or at risk of offending (in particular those with a vulnerability such as speech, language, and communication need), should receive the right care and support.

The Royal Collage is calling on the Welsh Government to reconsider the number of future training places to ensure there are enough speech and language therapists “to meet the needs of our most vulnerable young people”.

It’s clear they feel there are immediate steps the Welsh Government, and its partners, could take to better support young people with speech, language and communication needs who end up in trouble with the law.

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament