Celebrating the voices of young people

As the Year of Young People 2018 draws to a close, Ross Gibson reflects on 12 months of powerful blogs written for CYCJ by young people – and where we go next.

I’ve never written a blog before.  At least, not a proper one.  I think the closest I’ve come is website updates as secretary of my rugby club or ramblings on Twitter about Pink Floyd, Rangers or Adverse Childhood Experiences.

So this is my first attempt at blogging; it’s a pretty difficult task to switch from academic or policy orientated writing to something far more personal, reflective and – I hope – mildly entertaining.  As a result, I am now even more impressed by the blogs that I’ve been fortunate enough to read during 2018 where CYCJ have published pieces by those with experience of the justice systems in order to celebrate the Year of Young People.

Having acted as the link between CYCJ and the authors I know first-hand the effort, honesty, integrity, thoughtfulness and time they poured into their work.  I’m acutely aware of the balance they sought to strike between exposing parts of their lives that are raw and fragile, whilst avoiding shock tactics that I see too often from some quarters.  I have been struck by their skills in finding this balance; illuminating parts of their lives that we all wish they hadn’t encountered, whilst enlightening the reader on how to improve systems that ought to support them.

It would be grossly unfair to single any one blog out from the rest.  Unfair, and also impossible.  Each of them have highlighted connected but distinct elements of the systems that respond to young people who are in conflict with the law, who require additional support or who are in need.  Subjects have been wide ranging, with sharp, punchy soundbites and well developed, complex narratives.  Without exception, each blog has provided the reader an insight into the thoughts and views of the young person in a way that large, bureaucratic organisations rarely achieve; more so when the young people in question may have engaged in behaviours that society disapproves of.  That’s one of the reasons that CYCJ and Staf are launching a participation project for justice experienced young people next year.

Importantly, we have heard of personal successes, such as Vicky Glover discussing the role that non judgemental assistance and sport played in her leading a prosocial lifestyle and representing Scotland at the Commonwealth Games.  Young Scot of the Year Jordan Daly spoke about his experiences of being gay, why greater understanding amongst services is required in order to support young people who are LGBT, and why his successful campaign to have the Scottish Government adopt LGBTi inclusive education will assist young people to understand gender and identity.  Their personal successes have reminded me of the resilience and drive that is within each young person; we just need to work out how to aid them to find their calling in life.  They have also illustrated the necessity to show compassion and empathy, attributes that need to be embedded within the workforce of tomorrow.

On that note, I am delighted that young people who themselves are going to be providing care and support to vulnerable people in the future have produced blogs.  Rosie Moore has provided two blogs – with a third in the pipeline – highlighting the reality of living with a criminal record as well as injustices that contributed to her accruing one.  Rosie’s thoughtful, meaningful writing has left an indelible impression on me, reminding me to look behind the offence and to consider myriad complexities faced by the young people we support.  Similar themes were touched on by Lizzie Coutts, who wrote about the steps that Positive Young Voices: Positive Future are making to provide a space and opportunity for justice experienced young people to meet, express their views and challenge the stigma attached to living with a conviction.  From within CYCJ, Claire McDonald provided insights into her research on the narratives of young people’s lives, stressing the importance of looking beyond the ‘problem’ in order to see their strengths and resilience.

Further perspectives on looking beyond the offence was provided by James Frame who wrote a blog which articulated the complex consequences of facing multiple adversities throughout childhood.  His advice on what attributes, skills and qualities are necessary in order to support young people in conflict with the law should be mandatory reading for all aspiring social work students.  And police officers.  And teachers.  And…

Someone who expends every ounce of energy to make Scotland the best place to grow up, Beth Anne Logan, gave an emotional, powerful and beautifully written account on the perceptions that people have of young children in distress, and the resilience that young people can demonstrate in order to become a co-chair within the Independent Care Review.  I was really impressed by Beth’s writing, the depth and weight her words possessed.  For me, her desire for 2019 to be a year when she doesn’t lose a sibling to the care system has sad parallels with recent incidents within HMYOI Polmont, and fuels my desire that this review improves the lives of all young people who come into contact with the justice systems.

2019 will also see debate over the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, both with UN consultation on raising the International standard to 14 and the progression of the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill.  This was also one of many subjects discussed by the members of the Pilton Youth & Children’s Project FACENorth Group during a Q&A session that they took part in.  Some really sharp and brutally honest answers were given, and I know I was not alone in appreciating their insight, particularly on the need to see friends as a strength and not merely what professionals would call ‘antisocial associates.’  We can’t expect young people to isolate themselves from people they have grown up with.

The Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility was also discussed by Josh and Lauren from Communic18, whom also touched on the impact that childhood adversity can have in leading to young people coming into conflict with the law. Catherine Bonnar also wrote about parental imprisonment and the challenges that she faced and overcame as she made her way through education and into University.  Whilst it is beneficial that such adversities are becoming more understood amongst the wider public, I just hope that those who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences are not unfairly labelled through the unintended consequences of becoming an ‘Ace Aware Nation’.  A similar tone was struck by an anonymous blogger who spoke of the stigma that she encountered during her time within the care system and how she sought to address this in her subsequent career as a social worker.  As these blogs have shown, young people should not be judged by what has occurred during their childhood.  Rather, we must help them achieve their potential.

As I said at the 2018 Youth Justice conference, since joining CYCJ I have had to learn quickly about the role and purpose of participation and what part I can play in honouring the human rights of young people. One way I have done so is by speaking with – and learning from – Ellen Maloney who provided a quote that I think of whenever I hear the word participation;

“Participation is not about giving young people a voice. They already have that. Participation is about letting children and young people’s voices have real weight. It is about recognising that every young person has the right to be actively engaged in the making of decisions that will influence their lives.”  (Maloney, 2018)

In a small way, I hope that the blogs over the past 12 months has given a little more weight to young people’s voices and perhaps encouraged decision makers to seek out their views more often than they previously have.  If they have only achieved that, then I think the authors should be immensely proud of themselves.

They have gone farther than that though.  To my mind, the Year of Young People blogs have been a great success, providing a platform and audience for young people to tell us how things really are.  In light of that, whilst 2018 is coming to an end we intend to continue to feature the voices, views and expertise of young people – and those who aren’t so young – in our suite of blogs during 2019.  We are eager to feature blogs from people with ‘lived experience’ of the justice systems.  It would be great to hear from parents on their experiences of their children’s path into or out of the system, perhaps highlighting what they believe practitioners, policy makers and the public need to know in order to make the systems work for every child.  It would be equally interesting to hear Panel members’ views on social work practice, or from young people leaving secure care about their transition into the community.  . It would be great to hear from you so please get in touch.

In closing, the chance to work on the first year of ‘lived experience’ blogs has been deeply rewarding and reminded me of the brutal realities that young people face every day. I’ve felt utterly privileged to play a tiny part in amplifying the voices of people who otherwise may not have had their views heard, or indeed be invited to share them.  The look of surprise – and trepidation – on the faces of those I asked to contribute has been touching and serves to underscore the necessity to seek out and listen to their views as a matter of course and not merely as part of tokenistic platitudes.  In closing, to the 2018 cohort I wish to record my thanks and to the future voices of 2019, I look forward to hearing from you soon.

If you would like to write a blog or take part in an interview on any matter related to the justice systems, please contact Ross via ross.a.gibson@strath.ac.uk or on 0141 444 8622.

About our blogger

Ross Gibson is Practice Development Advisor for CYCJ. His focus of work includes young people’s participation in youth justice services, community alternatives to custody and secure care, youth justice input within higher and further education and identifying examples of creative practice.


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