From locked up to linked up: Developing the recovery capital assets of justice-involved children and young people

Too many of our kids are incarcerated and living away from their families and their ‘country’ in youth detention facilities. It is urgent and critical to commit to transforming the way Australian youth justice service is undertaken. Sharynne Hamilton, Ngunnawal woman and PhD scholar at the University of Western Australia, explains the potential of ‘Justice Capital’ to lead the way.

Reducing the over-representation of our children and young people in prisons and out-of-home care systems is an essential element of improving the future health and wellbeing of our children, families and communities. We must seriously consider ways to repair the well-known repeated injuries resulting from ongoing colonising processes.

Like most youth detention facilities around the country, in Western Australia (WA), Aboriginal youth are 27 times more likely than their non-Aboriginal peers to be under youth justice supervision. Our research in WA identified that neurodevelopmental disabilities such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder have been shown to be a major problem for detained young people - Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. Indeed, 89% of the young people were found to have at least one area of severe impairment in their brain function: with their memory, with their ability to plan, to effectively communicate, to understand what is being said to them, follow instructions or to say what they want or need to say. They were likely to be impulsive and had a compromised ability to link their actions to potential consequences, good or bad. At a minimum, equity and fairness in our justice system is dependent on all of these things being understood and considered by the legal profession - from first interactions with police, appearing before the court, understanding and adhering to community sentencing conditions, or when incarcerated.


These findings should encourage a shift in the expectations of young people involved with youth justice and provide us with an opportunity to apply a different lens to understanding and caring for these youth. The WA government is currently investing in training tools which have been developed for custodial staff to better understand and care for young people with neurodevelopmental disabilites. This is a significant step toward understanding and caring differently for incarcerated young people with neurodevelopmental difficulties. The challenge now is to continue to seek opportunities to draw together networks to support these young people to grow, and to develop other aspects of their lives that may also be impacted by neurodevelopmental difficulties. Our children and young people and their families need recovery, healing and hope for the future. 

Recovery capital

The work undertaken by my UK colleague Professor David Best, a leading recovery capital and crime desistance scholar, informs a more holistic understanding of the many facets which can impact justice-involved children and families. Recovery capital is a strength-based model for healing and hope. It has been primarily used for recovery from serious mental health problems and alcohol and other drug misuse - also problems often encountered by young people involved with youth justice services.

Recovery capital describes the resources and assets that individuals, families and communities possess and can be drawn on to improve wellbeing. It includes increasing knowledge about an individual’s:

  1. Social capital: family and kin relationships, social networks and connections, and  bonds of trust and mutual obligation.  

  2. Physical capital: access to safe, secure housing, employment and education; access to nutritious food and prosocial activity.

  3. Human capital: aspirations and hopes and access to resources that enable growth.

  4. Cultural capital: values and beliefs.

Recovery capital provides a potential assessment model for collecting a suite of information which can assist individuals to connect and grow. However, it does not pay attention to the challenges individuals experience by having a neurodevelopmental disability. Undetected neurodevelopmental challenges must be considered in therapeutic responses as they will most likely impede the process of recovery, or make it it difficult to gain benefits from education, employment opportunities and the like.

Justice Capital

My research explores the potential for the addition of  ‘Justice Capital’ to the recovery capital model. I argue that taking inventory of the the neurodevelopmental resources that allow or prevent individuals from navigating, understanding, communicating and being engaged fairly and equitably in all systems of care and service provision will afford better outcomes for individuals and families. By considering Justice Capital, we can inform the development of strengths-based assessment models, which in turn can help create pathways to neurodevelopmental, emotional and functional benefits.


Yarning with the young people in our research has given us a plethora of information about their strengths. In addition to assessment information about their neurodevelopmental challenges, they have told us three very significant points. First, their families, culture and connections to country are of utmost importance to them. Second, they almost all loved sport, particularly football. Third, they almost all identified career goals they wanted to pursue for the future. In other words, they told us they were much more than ‘young offenders’.

The Justice and Recovery Capital Framework enables better knowledge about networks and relationships (positive and negative). From there, assessors or carers can identify processes that are likely to increase trust and a sense of obligation, such as participation in prosocial activity like team sport. We can then begin to understand how the networks and relationships can be linked and assist young people to move toward their aspirations and hopes by providing them with the resources and skills they may need support with to achieve their dreams and live meaningful, healthy lives.

Much of my previous work and research has advocated for the rights of parents and family members who have had (or are at risk of having) their children removed by child protection services. Justice Capital is highly relevant to this work. In fact many areas of human service delivery could potentially place the concept of Justice Capital at their centre. Many government agencies make decisions about individuals and families which can have life-long consequences. It is imperative that an individual’s neurodevelopmental, language or communication needs and the potential effects from intergenerational trauma are taken into consideration by these services. Developing interventions for children, youth and families to capture recovery networks and Justice Capital strengths and challenges, could potentially build on the personal resources, creativity and abilities of our children, who can be nurtured in strong, healthy and supportive family and community networks.