In the Media

Speech therapy: When sorry seems to be the hardest word

PUBLISHED February 7, 2012

Young offenders with communication problems and at risk of falling deeper into criminality are being given a voice

Ryan Griffiths is struggling. He has to "make reparation", because the police have said so ? he damaged a car ? but he does not know what it means.

"I'm on my last chance," says Griffiths (not his real name), 17, from Bolton, to his speech and language therapist, Ian Warriner. "The next time something happens, it won't be good."

Using a simple ladder diagram the two discuss the thieving and car crime that will propel Griffiths up towards the police and the actions that will help him to stay down at the bottom where he is happy with his foster family and his dog.

Then Warriner painstakingly helps the young offender to say aloud the various ways he might put right the situation with the car owner ? by paying for the damage, visiting her, or writing a letter. Suddenly, realisation. Griffiths whoops: "It's a kind of way of saying sorry!"

Warriner is paid by Bolton NHS foundation trust to work with the local youth offending team (YOT) to identify and deal with speech and language defects in young offenders to prevent them getting deeper into criminality. In this case, he has persuaded a panel to keep Griffiths out of the criminal justice system because of his serious speech, social and educational needs, provided the youngster does the same restitution work as any other offender.

On the strength of Warriner's work, Bolton's YOT has just been awarded ?75,000 by the Department of Health to focus for a year on assessing the communication problems of first-time offenders and to identify effective language interventions. Young offenders often have more physical and mental health problems, are poorer and achieve less well educationally than the general population. The grant is one of 31 awarded to YOTs to examine aspects of their charges' health. Bolton's is the only grant for communication difficulties.

Warriner's passion for working with young offenders is fired by the knowledge that around 60% have a communication disability and yet tools to improve offenders' prospects, and the court process itself, are based on an assumed language ability. "My mission is to ease their passage through the system," he says. "Kids like Ryan are not criminals ? they have been given a really poor start in life. People forget that these are children, all they see are young offenders."

He describes a youngster who thought "intervention" was "something to do with an owl in a tree". These are young people who may have difficulty in maintaining eye contact and following conversations, limited vocabulary and short attention spans. Some have the verbal abilities of a six-year-old. Others use the F word between every other word because their grans do, he explains.

Warriner, an ex-stammerer, started his working life as a structural engineer. He retrained as a speech therapist in 1997 and in 2008 began working with Bolton YOT.

At that time, only two other YOTs (in Leeds and Bradford) ? out of 147 ? had speech therapists, and the Conservative MP John Bercow had been asked by the Labour government to undertake a review of children and families affected by speech, language and communication needs. The report went on to describe speech and language provision in the UK as "unacceptable".

Warriner, meanwhile, was dealing with teenagers who had communication skills on a level with children of primary school age. Without the means to measure their capabilities, he devised a rough assessment tool. From 42 questions, he whittled them down to the nine that he and other practitioners in Bolton use to screen first-time offenders and those already in the system who staff may have concerns about. Questions include: "Does the young person have poor, or no eye contact?", "Do they look at the floor or the walls a lot?" and "Does the young person find it hard to listen to you?"

Warriner's screening tool has been integrated into processes in Bolton, with all teams working with the young person trained in its use, from YOT workers and probation and police officers to drugs professionals and magistrates.

Any youngster scoring yes to more than four questions is a candidate for referral. Warriner will then carry out a more detailed assessment and advise on the best communication approaches to use. A key piece of advice he gives to staff is not taking a nod or grunt as proof that a young person has understood, but asking them to say what has just been explained to them.

Warriner has used the screening tool with more than 100 young offenders. It bothers him that young people with significant communication difficulties are only picked up when they break the law. "Some of them are little shits," he says. "But perhaps 60% of them, with the right care and support to communicate better, might not be in the youth offending system in the first place."

His work is attracting attention from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. YOTs across England have expressed an interest in his method, Gloucester YOT is piloting the screening tool, and Lancashire police have asked Warriner to organise a conference on offending and autism, because of the association between the two.

Following the Bercow review, the Communication Trust was set up to enable practitioners to access training and expertise to support the communication needs of all children, a communication champion was appointed for two years and some 25 YOTs now have specialist speech therapists. But Karen Bryan, professor of clinical practice at Surrey University and an adviser to the review, criticises the still "patchy" services and cuts.

"The value of language input to YOTs goes beyond language," she says. "Recent research shows it improves offenders' attendance and engagement with all the services they are offered, so that the effect goes beyond the individual." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds