A global concern: why sharing youth justice practice is a smart move

In our latest Raising Youth Justice blog post, CYCJ Associate Stuart Allardyce reflects on shared youth justice practice, from Scotland, to Chile and beyond, and how this knowledge exchange can bring us together to tackle shared challenges.

With our TV screens filled every night with heart-rending images of individuals and families displaced by the war in Syria, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question, what are our responsibilities to individuals less fortunate than ourselves around the world? It’s a perennial question, and one that we all end up answering in our own ways: voluntary work; charitable donations; or just a sense of anger and guilt that such outrages take place. There seems to be so little that we can do to stop these atrocities or alleviate their impact.

How does this relate to work with young people in Scotland who offend? I’ve been thinking about the above question over the last few months, particularly with respect to what our ethical responsibilities are to professionals working in similar fields as ourselves, in parts of the world that don’t have the same infrastructure and resources that we benefit from here in Scotland. As practitioners working in UK, what are our responsibilities to those doing similar jobs to ourselves elsewhere in the world?

I manage a service that works with children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviours. We’re a small team of social workers and therapists who have all chosen to focus our efforts in working with children who are either victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse or exploitation. Most of the children we see fit into both categories.

A member of our team is a psychologist from Chile. She had worked with children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour for many years and through an act of serendipity she and her family relocated to Edinburgh for a period of time. She is a great addition to our team: a practitioner who has that rare gift that can’t be taught, of being able to engage with the hardest to reach children and adults in profound and practical ways.

Late last year my colleague’s managers from Chile, Valeria and Ana, were visiting Europe. As part of their travels they caught up with my colleague in Edinburgh and came to spend half a day with our team. They manage a NGO called Paicabi who operate range of services for children affected by sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as those who sexually abuse others, from a number of different locations across the north of the country. They also run training and offer work in other parts of Latin America and Africa.

Valeria and Ana brought with them a short video showing their staff in Chile individually greeting us and showing us around one of their buildings. It was a lovely start to our meeting. As we talked, it was apparent that a lot of the challenges they faced were the same as our own: funding and resources; the challenges of multiagency work; the emotional impact of the work on staff and team functioning; the pros and cons of specialisation. We talked about bits of research we were trying to complete and about how challenging cases had spurred us to find imaginative solutions to tricky practice dilemmas.

Throughout, we were repeatedly drawn back to talking about the children and young people we support day in and out. Valeria and Ana finished by giving us a print of a picture that a colleague had painted to commemorate the meeting of our services. The coming together of professionals from different countries who see the world in the same way. I thanked our colleagues and said we should consider this as a gathering of the clans.

I was deeply struck by the affinities between our services and our ways of working, but also by the warm acts of kindness of our colleagues from Chile. And since that meeting in December we have slowly started to build some bonds between our services. We have given permission for our colleagues to translate into Spanish a Barnardo’s programme on assessing the capacity of non-abusing carers to protect their children from abuse. In turn we have agreed to help translate into English one of their programmes on working systemically with children who sexually abuse. We have talked about comparing data and replicating pieces of research that our respective services have undertaken. I hope this is the start of stronger ties between our services situated on opposite parts of the world.

Generally our literature is dominated by research from North America. The knock-on effect is that international speakers at our UK conferences tend to be from the United States or Canada. I mean no disrespect to colleagues from North America, but I was at a conference in November last year listening to a highly respected and knowledgeable speaker from the US talking about his work with young people with harmful sexual behaviour; although his practice was profoundly child-centred, time and time again his references to legal outcomes for the young people he worked with reminded me of the highly punitive political and legal context that services for young people who offend in the US work within.

I wonder whether we need to rebalance things here: shouldn’t we be more actively making links with colleagues from other jurisdictions in Europe and beyond? Sometimes that will be because we might learn more from countries with welfare-orientated approaches, than through transferring research and learning from countries that struggle to work with young people who offend as children first and foremost. Sometimes it will be because it is refreshing to learn from innovation in developing countries where processes and approaches are still emerging. But sometimes it’s just about moving away from conference keynote and workshop and papers on research findings: real learning often comes from sitting down with colleagues doing the same kinds of things as us every day but in slightly different contexts and talking through what is the same and what is different about our practice. We learn from them, they learn from us. Truth is there when we describe the fine grain of the work we do with children.

So let’s open a discussion here. What are your experiences of knowledge exchange with practitioners and services from outside the UK?  What are our ethical responsibilities to share knowledge with colleagues in developing nations? And do you have any ideas about how we get better at learning from practice in other jurisdictions from around the world, including how we learn from practice and experience in the developing world?





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