Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

SARAH CADEN & SUSAN STEWART (County Durham Youth Offending Service)

SARAH CADEN & SUSAN STEWART (County Durham Youth Offending Service)


AWARD WINNERS 2015-16: Sarah, a Practice Improvement Officer at County Durham YOS, and Susan, a Speech and Language Therapist at North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, are described in their nomination as “a fabulous team – our own dynamic duo”, and receive an Award for their outstanding contribution to the management and support of young people with communication difficulties. [This Award is sponsored by Working Links.]

Sarah Caden & Susan StewartSarah Caden, a Practice Improvement Officer in County Durham Youth Offending Service (CDYOS), and Susan Stewart, a Speech and Language Therapist seconded to CDYOS from North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, have together led a dramatic shift in the management and support of young offenders with communication difficulties.

Lead nominator Dave Summers, Countywide Manager at CDYOS, explains that the organisational transformation in attitudes to SLCN came from the synergy between Sarah, a youth justice practitioner and advocate for the communication needs of young people, and Susan, the Project Lead Speech and Language Therapist.

“Together they’ve brought leadership, energy, creativity, innovation and teamwork [and] transformed how we, as a service, work with young people who offend and young victims of youth crime.” Dave describes them as “dynamic, creative staff with a shared vision – to put communication at the heart of everything we do as a service. They are passionate about this work – and it shows,” adding “They are a fabulous team – our own dynamic duo.”

Their leadership is described as “outstanding” and “inclusive”, involving “all the staff and volunteers in CDYOS, young people (both those who offend and young victims of youth crime), parents and carers, and a wide range of partners in the local authority, health, CDYOS partnership, and criminal justice.” Together they have “driven forward the agenda and taken everyone with them, ensuring everyone has a good understanding of the communication needs of young people in the youth justice system. This has resulted in real culture change and transformation.”

There’s a growing recognition in the sector of the importance of communication and the wider context of learning difficulties and disabilities (see our 2014 Butler Trust Workshop), and Sarah and Susan’s work has clearly transformed their service. Dave describes their “incredible creativity and imagination in developing a unique and innovative range of communication friendly resources for young people in the youth justice system with the help of young people themselves.”

Additionally, Sarah and Susan have proved “truly inspirational” in implementing a “very valuable and sustainable strategy” through their commitment to training. All 85 CDYOS staff have received training in SLCN and communication strategies, with SLCN awareness now part of the CDYOS induction process. Some 13 staff are Communication Champions, and 35 local magistrates have also been trained in SLCN.

The results are impressive, with 89% of staff now confident in recognising SLCN, and 82% saying Sarah and Susan’s work has transformed their working practice. As Dave notes, “these figures are great recognition of their impact to date.”

Gill Eshelby, Strategic Manager at CDYOS, explains that “the catalyst for the work was national research which suggests that 60-90% of young people in the youth justice system have speech, language and communication needs.” Such needs ‘might include an inability… to effectively understand and engage in a legal process, leading to poor presentation in court or during a police or YOT interview.’ (‘Nobody Made the Connection’; Children’s Commissioner, 2012).

Susan and Sarah’s work has ensured CDYOS now “question if young people really understood their journey in the youth justice system.” As Gill notes, “without appropriate communication between young people… and staff, our work is not effective; young people live unfulfilled lives and their risk of offending (and re-offending) increases.”

A complex and sustained multiphase approach over the last couple of years has brought a focus to the communication needs of young people, trained all staff in SLCN awareness, as well as seen the development – with the help of young people – of an extensive range of communication friendly resources which have impressed other colleagues in the field.  Their work has also had an impact on young victims of youth crime by helping them and their parents or carers better understand and engage in restorative justice.

Sarah is described as “highly committed and enthusiastic, with the ability to lead and inspire colleagues” and “an outstanding, highly skilled and inspirational colleague.” Susan, meanwhile, “deserves an award for her energy, vision and expertise to drive forward our work to become communication friendly. She has empowered staff and partners to put communication at the heart of what they do.” Together, their partnership has “transformed how we work with young people.”

An extensive range of testimonials speak for themselves. Young offenders and victims had this to say about their work. “The pictures help me to understand”, “It’s basic and simple to understand. Some difficult words are better explained”, “It related to my offence – made me think more” and that it was “Easy to work through… not too hard to get stressed… not too easy to get bored.”

Parents and carers agreed, while CDYOS colleagues praised their work as “excellent and very easy to follow, both for the practitioner and young person. It offers a variety of ways to enable young people to understand what they are expected to do and how YOS works.”

Others agree. One pointed out that their work had “reminded me that words that are commonplace to me are not easily understood by others” while another noted that they were “more aware that the ‘dunno’ answer could be more that the young person does not understand or cannot formulate an answer”. A manager added that “Staff communication has completely changed. They easily recognise difficulties and identify the best way to communicate with young people”.

A wide range of senior colleagues across the sector have also expressed enthusiasm. In March 2015, the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales called their work “highly professional and potentially ground-breaking”, while the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties Lord Ramsbotham offered them  “every good wish” for their work. The Legal Adviser to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said “I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you for the fantastic presentation. The magistrates were really impressed with what you had to say and your commitment and enthusiasm was apparent.”

County Durham and Darlington Foundation Trust hailed their work as “a superb example of partnership working at its best,” while a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons were also impressed, citing a ‘positive developing focus’ on SLCN: “we found a lot of evidence of case managers applying this work, in particular to the way they planned to engage with children and young people.”

Their work has led to findings from the SLCN screen and SLT assessment being included in Pre-Sentence Reports. They cite one example where the Crown Court Judge stated that the diagnosis of Language Disorder was a mitigating factor influencing his choice of sentence – the young person was expected to receive a custodial sentence, and her co-accuseds did, but instead she received a community sentence.

These kind of concrete outcomes, says Gill, have “major implications for the broader criminal justice arena,” including adult offenders, Courts, and families. “Uniquely to CDYOS,” she continues, “young people’s views about their communication skills are also explored supportively. This may be the first time someone has actively sought their opinions about their communication needs.”

One example of their support for two young people led to an assessment in which their significant language needs, in terms of their understanding of words and sentences, were shown to be around 7-9 years lower than their real age.

Sarah and Susan’s commitment to their work is evident and passionate. “We are staggered by the level of need that has not previously been identified. Analysis of need and gaps in provision will be used locally to inform future commissioning.” They would like to continue to roll out their work to the rest of Children’s Services and the criminal justice system, and point out that speech language and communication needs “do not disappear at the age of 18.”

Top of the page