The transition from out-of-home care and offending behaviours


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Content type
Short article

September 2017


Susan Baidawi

This is the second in a series of short articles exploring why children and young people in out-of-home care or who have a history of maltreatment are over-represented in the youth justice system. This article focuses on the needs of young people leaving care who are at greater risk of offending and coming into contact with the youth justice system.

Young people leaving out-of-home care are one of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups of young Australians. In addition to difficult experiences of abuse and neglect, they face a sudden transition to independence at their 18th birthday when state and territory governments cease to have responsibility for their care and protection.

While the majority of children in care do not offend, young people involved with child protection and out-of-home care systems are over-represented in youth justice systems. While few Australian studies have looked specifically at offending among care leavers during late adolescence and early adulthood (between 16 to 21 years), we know that care leavers are at a higher risk of offending and having contact with the youth justice system for a number of reasons. These include:  

  • Adolescence is the peak risk time for offending behaviour from a life course perspective. At a population level, the amount of crime committed increases with age until around 16 to 20 years, and then decreases throughout adulthood. The same is true for an individual young person, who after early adulthood is most likely to commit less crime as he or she gets older.
  • Harmful childhood events such as the abusive and neglectful experiences of many care leavers increase this risk of offending throughout adolescence.
  • Placement in residential care, which generally only occurs in mid to late adolescence, carries an increased risk of criminal justice system involvement. Although placement in residential care can be a sign of pre-existing behavioural difficulties among these young people, residential care environments also contribute to young people offending and coming into contact with the criminal justice system because of:
    • the co-location of groups of similarly-vulnerable young people who may expose one another to new offending behaviours (known as cross-pollination); and
    • the adoption of criminal justice system responses to challenging behaviours in residential care units (known as criminalisation).  For example, a young person may damage a wall in the unit when upset, and police, who are contacted by unit staff, then charge the young person with criminal damage.
  • Lastly, the early and forced transition to independence for this group of young people expose them to additional pressures not experienced by young people who are not in care.  Many young people leave care to unsuitable situations such as homelessness or return to families previously deemed unable to provide appropriate care.

What can be done to reduce the risk of offending and youth justice system involvement?

This question is the subject of ongoing debate and research but studies suggest a number of promising strategies that might help divert care leavers from ongoing involvement in the criminal justice system. These include:

  • Developing state-wide interagency agreements to reduce the contact of young people in residential care with police and the criminal justice system1
  • Increasing the availability of therapeutic environments for this group of young people,particularly in the out-of-home care and youth justice systems
  • Enhancing supports for care leavers, and increasing the age of leaving care – international findings from the US have found the risk of offending is lowered for youth who receive ongoing support.

In 2017, these issues and approaches are gaining increasing research, advocacy and policy attention. Examples include the increasing number of therapeutic out-of-home care placements nationally, national Home Stretch Campaign to increase the age of leaving out-of-home care from 18 to 21 years, and the establishment of the New South Wales joint protocol to reduce the contact of young people in residential out-of-home-care with the criminal justice system.

Further reading


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016). Young people in child protection and under youth justice supervision 2014–15. Data linkage series no. 22. Cat. no. CSI 24. Canberra: AIHW.

Cashmore, J. (2011). The link between child maltreatment and adolescent offending: Systems neglect of adolescentsFamily Matters, 89, 31-41.

Deloitte Access Economics. (2016). Extending out of home care to 21 years: Summary of the Australian socio-economic cost benefit analysis. Report commissioned by Anglicare Victoria.

Mendes, P., Baidawi, S., & Snow, P. (2014). Good practice in reducing the over-representation of care leavers in the youth justice system (Leaving Care and Youth Justice: phase three report). Melbourne, Victoria: Monash University

Richards, K. (2011). What makes juvenile offenders different from adult offenders? Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 409. Australian Institute of Criminology.

Victoria Legal Aid. (2016). Care Not Custody: A new approach to keep kids in residential care out of the criminal justice system. Melbourne: Victoria Legal Aid.


  1. See Appendix of ‘Care not Custody’ (2016) report for a copy of this protocol <>
  2. For numerous policy and program approaches which support therapeutic responses to this group of dual order young people, see <>