Research: Young people with cognitive disabilities and their experiences with police

Young people with cognitive disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. While about 4% of young men and 3% of young women have a cognitive disability in Australia, a much higher proportion of young people in detention (about 14%) has some form of cognitive impairment.

To contribute towards understanding this problem, Dr Kelly Richards (School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology) and Dr Kathy Ellem (School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, University of Queensland) recently undertook interdisciplinary research on young people with cognitive disabilities’ first point of contact with the criminal justice system: the police. Funded by the Queensland Centre for Social Science Innovation, the research drew on the disciplines of criminology, social work and disability studies, and involved interviews with service providers who work with young people with cognitive disabilities in south-east Queensland. The project also sought the views of young people themselves, and for the first time, gave voice to three young people with cognitive disabilities who had been in contact with the police.
The research yielded a number of key insights that make a significant contribution to this under-examined topic:

• Service providers identified the phenomenon of “escalation” – ie, that once in an interaction with police, young people with cognitive disabilities face a range of difficulties exiting or evading police contact in ways that other young people usually successfully manage. Young people with cognitive disability may become highly visible to police and are at heightened risk of cycling in and out of the criminal justice system as offenders.
• Service providers also identified that young people with cognitive disabilities often come into increased contact with police due to the complex constellations of disadvantage that this group commonly experiences, such as homelessness, being in out-of-home care, co-morbid mental health conditions, and poverty. Further, a young person with cognitive disability may present with complex behavioural issues that others close to them find difficult to manage. Parents of young people and youth residential workers have been reported to deliberately involve the police as a strategy to cope with a young person’s challenging behaviours, again leading to increased police contact.
Young people with cognitive disabilities themselves reported in their interviews that being treated by police in ways that are “procedurally just” (ie being able to have a say, being treated with dignity, respect and fairness) enhanced their interactions with police. For example, 18-year-old “Justin” appeared to have a positive experience of citizen participation in his interaction with police. He reported having being supported by his disability worker to make a statement to police about a physical assault he had experienced. He reported that the police were “nice”, gave him time to explain things and directed some questions to his disability support worker, which he found helpful.
Findings from the study underscore the urgent need for better non-criminal justice supports for families of young people with cognitive disabilities, skill development in staff of youth services to better respond to complex behaviours of young people, as well as improved police training on issues of both youth and disability. The authors have recently been invited to present their research to Queensland‘s Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women.

Publications from the research:
Richards, K., Ellem, K., Grevis-James, N. and Dwyer, A. (2017) Young people with cognitive impairments’ interactions with police in Queensland: A report to the Queensland Centre for Social Science Innovation. Brisbane: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/109470/

Ellem, K. and Richards, K. (2018) Police contact with young people with cognitive disabilities: Perceptions of procedural (in)justice. Youth Justice: An International Journal https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1473225418794357

Richards, K. and Ellem, K. (2018) Young people with cognitive impairments and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system: Service provider perspectives. Police Practice and Research: An International Journal https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15614263.2018.1473771

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