Transforming support for care and custody experienced young adults

Always Hope

Uniquely, Innovation Unit helps places and partners solve today’s urgent problems and grow sustainable solutions for the future – building a safe and credible pathway between the two.

Always Hope Evaluation Report

Few inequalities are more entrenched than those which play out in our justice system, and one key area of our work is to reduce reoffending by supporting care-experienced young adult men preparing to leave prison. Led by the voices of those with lived experience, we harnessed the commitment and expertise of cross-sector system players to tackle the challenges experienced by one of our society’s most vulnerable groups, creating sustainable solutions for them and for future generations.

Young adults who have been in social care are hugely over-represented in the prison system, with 1 in 4 people in prison having been in care. For many, it is experiences of trauma that has led them into the care system, which is then followed by the added disadvantage and challenge of being in the justice system. The young adult’s life chances often suffer even more after their release from prison, when they are less likely to have support networks and are more likely to reoffend, more likely to experience homelessness, and more likely to be victimised by criminal gangs. All of this comes at huge human, social and economic costs. 

The system that aims to support care-experienced young adults in custody faces huge difficulties in doing so, from the fragmentation of services to a lack of data, staffing shortages and turnover. Over the last five years, working with partners in the West Midlands, we’ve applied our formula for innovation and impact to this complex issue forging a sustainable pathway to quality, integrated support for young men with experience of care and custody. 

Five years after first beginning to explore this issue, we’re proud to have co-designed and piloted a new approach, led by the voices of those with lived experience – care- and custody-experienced young adults, and the many professionals and leaders working with and around them. Independent evaluation has highlighted how positively the pilot has been received, both by professionals and young adults. It has had both direct and indirect impacts, leading not only to positive experiences for the people involved but also to greater awareness of the challenges faced by care-experienced people, and an enhanced understanding and commitment to providing the support they need to thrive.

Generating insights

Understanding the issues was our starting point in the first phase of Always Hope. After receiving funding from the Oak Foundation in 2018, we carried out mixed-methods research such as interviews and an evidence review to understand root causes, and identify meaningful opportunities to provide better support for young adults.

In particular, we identified that the fragmentation of care – with young adults often having to work on their post-release plans with three separate professionals with limited access to one another – was a real barrier for leaving prison ‘well’. As it stands, the prison system does not collect data on care status and is reliant on people with care experience self-identifying – which they may be reluctant to do. We knew that implementing change on these issues would impact on future young adults experience. 

Mobilising energy

It’s one thing to try and understand an issue as complex as reoffending rates among care-experienced young adults but gathering and sustaining the engagement, energy, and vision that leads to actual action and change is another. 

After receiving funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, we secured commitment from practitioners and senior leaders at a national level, including having the support of the HMPPS leads for care-experienced people. We focused on the West Midlands, as this was an area in which there were already bright spots of innovation and good practice. 

As a neutral, external partner coming from outside the ‘system’, we were in a unique and fortunate position to convene a ‘design group’ of people with relevant experience and influence, who all had a common interest in improving the life chances of care leavers in the prison system, but who had been working in silos, unintentionally creating confusion for young adults at an already difficult time. We invested significant time and expertise into building strong relationships among this group, ensuring long-term buy-in to the project and creating an environment in which innovation became possible.

We ran separate design sessions with young adults with care experience who were currently serving prison sentences, due to the logistical impossibility of having all experts in the same room. This meant we were able to test and reshape the models based on the insights and feedback of people with lived experience. It was in one of these workshops that the name of the project, Always Hope, was decided.

Always Hope logo

Designing new solutions

We codesigned a new approach that brought together local authorities, prison, probation and VCSE services involved in the care and support of care-experienced young people leaving prison. This was directly informed by what we had learnt in the ‘generating insights’ phase. There were two core strands to the approach:

  1. Creating an integrated plan for each young adult by aligning statutory assessment and planning between practitioners in the prison, probation and leaving care services.
  2. Developing a sustainable and coordinated support network for care leavers, both for when they’re in prison and when they’re released using Family Rights Group’s Lifelong Links approach.

We were careful to design a model that repurposed existing resource and provision, and didn’t rely on the creation of new roles and resources for support to be offered to young adults as we know the model designed needs to be future proof.


Once we had a design, we were fortunate to receive funding from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Ministry of Justice Local Leadership Integration Fund to test this new model. Over the course of 18 months working closely with Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton leaving care and probation services and HMPS Brinsford and Swinfen Hall our pilot supported a cohort of 61 young adults aged 18-25. 

We ran Learning and Development days to share knowledge about the experiences of care and custody experienced young adults, highlight the different roles of practitioners from the support services and share the detail of the Always Hope model.

We also established two groups to support the work: the Implementation Group and the Advisory Group. The Implementation Group consisted of practitioners delivering the work and provided a space to adapt and amend the model in real time; while the Advisory Group was composed of senior leaders who were able to provide high-level guidance and address challenges faced by the Implementation Group as they arose. 

Once we began delivery, we played an important role by supporting local practitioners to understand Always Hope, and connect them with each other when needed. We also gathered practitioners together at ‘Deep Dive’ events where together we looked back on the young adults’ life to help us to understand what is happening now and to inform collaborative planning. 


Our current focus is to ensure the Always Hope model is fully embedded in the West Midlands, so that when funding expires in June 2024, local governance processes and resources remain in place to ensure that all care-experienced young adults leaving custody are offered Always Hope support. We are confident that the attention we paid to details when creating a solution across three systems will have long-term benefits and enjoy longevity. We have captured what it takes for a region to deliver Always Hope support in our Handbook

In due course, we’ll get a full picture of the programme’s impact on young people’s outcomes after release.

What’s next?

We’re now working to spread the Always Hope approach into the North Midlands. 

We were pleased to see that the recently published HMPPS Care Experience Matters report focuses on best practice in cross-sector working, and draws on the Always Hope model. This guidance document is being rolled out across the prison and probation services leaving Innovation Unit in a strong position to support future adopters by providing crucial support in how to deliver this approach well. 

We are also connecting with national policy leads, aiming to ensure that the model is offered to all care-experienced young people in custody and on release, regardless of where they are in the country, to ensure that support for care leavers in prison does not become a postcode lottery. 

Alongside our partners, we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved through Always Hope. We’ve brought together a wide range of people, across a complex system, to work together for the benefit of care-experienced young people. It’s a great example of how systems can be shifted with the right support, expertise, and resources – but the work is far from over. 

There’s lots for us to learn from Always Hope, and we’re very interested in continuing this work with new partners. Please get in touch with us if you’d like to offer similar support in your area – or if you have another complex ‘systems challenge’ that would benefit from collaborating with us at Innovation Unit.

We have distilled our learning about what it takes to build these safe and credible pathways in our Growing People Centred Systems framework. Our approach is founded on three building blocks: culture, agency and power.

To learn more about this approach, our impact and our work in justice and reducing violence contact Jessie Ben Ami. We would love to hear from you.

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