Change is in the air…

“There’s something in the air…but we’ve got to keep going.”

The words of defence lawyer Iain Smith could not have been more appropriate for this year’s rights-themed National Youth Justice Conference, at which he was a speaker. Charlotte Morris looks back at an event that saw delegates and speakers unite in a powerful desire for change.

Holding a conference online means you worry about losing the ‘in person’ vibe that makes your conference a talking point long after it’s taken place. This year’s National Youth Justice Conference (like so many aspects of our lives) took place via Zoom Webinar due to COVID restrictions, and we feared it ‘wouldn’t be the same’ as previous years.

Turns out our concerns were needless. When delegates talk of being put through “an emotional wringer” you know you’ve hit the right nerve. And there was little doubt that the theme of this year’s conference ‘Children’s rights in justice: UNCRC and beyond’ resonated loudly through every talk, workshop and discussion, reaching beyond our screens to engage and inspire us. Whether it was due to the conference being postponed for a year, or maybe with the tide turning in favour of a rights-respecting approach (with the passing of the UNCRC (Incorporation) Scotland) Bill, The Care Review Promise and an increase in participatory approaches), the energy, passion and determination for change was palpable.

After a year of delays, restrictions and frustrations, with practitioners, children and young people and families all feeling the impact of the pandemic, everyone appeared to be in agreement: Scotland is long  overdue a sea-change in attitudes, practice and lived experiences.

“We need to ensure that children and young people are seen as children and young people first.” Given the theme of children’s rights, Children and Young People’s Commissioner (and proud human rights defender) Bruce Adamson was a fitting choice to chair Day 1, as was Fiona Dyer (CYCJ’s Director, Interim) who chaired Day 2. Both Chairs did a fantastic job of cheering on the speakers, reflecting on the key learning points and staying on theme.

In Scotland we must do more to avoid criminalising our children; we must ensure that their rights are upheld and that they are supported to flourish and contribute positively to their communities.” Fittingly, the first day of the conference (16th) marked the launch of ‘The Rights-Respecting Approach to Justice for Children and Young People – Scotland’s Vision and Priorities 2021’  – announced by Scotland’s newly appointed Minister for Children and Young People Clare Haughey, in her ministerial address. Following on from Scotland’s previous youth justice strategy, this vision builds on conclusions and findings from CYCJ’s ‘Rights Respecting? Scotland’s approach to children in conflict with the law’ paper. It also focuses on The Promise’s key findings and calls to action on avoiding and stopping the criminalisation of care experienced children, and how Scotland can meet the UNCRC obligations for children in conflict with the law, or who are at risk of being so. Proving that it isn’t just paying lip service to participation, the Scottish Government consulted the young people of Youth Justice Voices on their views and ideas for the vision.

It was a privilege to welcome the Minister to this annual youth justice conference, and we look forward to working together with Ms Haughey, our stakeholders and children and young people to take this important work forward.

“We have a powerful tool with the UNCRC to change things for children’s rights in Scotland – and we all have a part to play in making this happen.” Our first keynote speaker was another human rights defender, with extensive experience of fighting and advocating for rights. Together Scotland director Juliet Harris treated us to a comprehensive grounding on the basic principles of the UNCRC implementation, what exactly it will mean for children in conflict with the law and our collective role in upholding the Articles. She also captured our imagination with the ‘Dignometer’ – a tool developed by the Children’s Parliament to identify and measure things that have a positive or negative impact on children’s happiness, wellbeing and rights – surely a tool we should all be using in our daily practice. We loved the young person’s advice she concluded with: “Get rid of your leaflets and booklets. Be human, just speak to people, talk to people about what their rights are.”

“No one asked what was going on for me, they just saw my behaviour.” Excellent speakers all shared expertise, theories and beliefs about rights respecting justice – but it took the powerful and devastating words of Hannah Snow to really drive home why we do what we do and who we do it for. Hannah’s account of a life lived through the care and justice systems surely affected even the most jaded practitioner. Her childhood was characterised by a lack of support: “No one explained to me why services were involved; there was no emotional connection with changing workers; I was talked about like I wasn’t there.” Hannah’s cries for help were perceived as bad behaviour, and her recollection of being physically restrained made us question why this practice should ever be used.

System failure after failure culminated in Hannah ending up in prison being strip searched on Christmas Eve – aged 16. Waking up scared and alone on Christmas Day, she ventured into the neighbouring cell for chocolate bar and company. Instead, she was offered heroin, which led to an addiction that shaped her life. Between 16 and 21 she spent most her time in prison: “It was easier to be there because I got three meals, clothes washed and people had to pretend that they cared for me.”

Hannah only sought help to deal with trauma at age 26 and that was by herself: “I was so sick of being in pain…life is hard but I believe I got the opportunity to get clean so I can help other people, and speak here today.” Her desire to make a difference is evident, but she worries that her criminal record may get in the way of her ambitions to become a social worker and help others. Yet by courageously using this platform to share her voice, it is clear that Hannah is already making a big difference. We are very grateful to have had the chance to hear her story, and promise her we will do everything we can to act on what she has told us.

“Every society is dealing with the same issues around children’s rights – it’s a powerful common language and the UNCRC means we can benchmark ourselves internationally.”
If we are to meet the obligations of the UNCRC, it is important to watch and learn from other countries. Dr Anthony Charles (Swansea University) and Professor Jennifer Davidson (Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures) both delivered excellent perspectives from a Welsh and global context respectively.

Using Wales as a reference point, Anthony, who is a CYCJ Associate, focused on the impact of the pandemic on children’s rights and services. He discussed how the pandemic has highlighted both fragilities and strengths in our systems, highlighting the silver linings: “Covid has given us a chance to stop doing the everyday every day. We need to take stock of the wider harms facing children in society.” He questioned the UK Government’s cry to ‘Build Back Better’ – “Does ‘build back better’ miss the point? We need to BE BETTER at supporting children, families & communities.” Anthony called for us all to work together with a ‘common vision’ as fellow Celtic nations – and hopefully, as the wider UK.

Jennifer, who led on the UN Justice for Children, Justice for All project, talked about child friendly justice pathways across the globe, cautioning that “An international perspective is only as useful as the impact it makes on children’s lives.” She described the aims of the Sustainable Development Goal 16 – which focuses on access to justice – as “not about just leaving no one behind, it’s actually reaching out to those who are behind.” Reiterating that children should only be deprived of their liberty for the shortest available time, she shared the tragic story of a young woman in Canada who died in custody: “Ashley’s earliest ‘crime’ was to throw a crab apple…but it was the crimes she committed in an institution that kept her there until her death. What does this tell us about how we treat children who are deprived of their liberty?”

“Knowing the impact of trauma has made me a better lawyer.” Delegates may have been surprised to see not but two lawyers on our programme. However, Iain Smith and Gillian Mawdsley are part of a growing trend towards ‘trauma informed lawyers’ – something we very much hope to see continuing in our justice system.

For Iain Smith (founder of Keegan Smith Law) it was a change in mindset that led him to want to do better for his clients and understand the role of trauma in their lives: “I used to think battles were done in court but most of the battles of children happen when they are young.”

Iain questioned why we treat children so differently when they turn 16 – “We see children go from a ‘wee shame’ until they are 16, when we cut them loose and they go to ‘wee shites’. We are dealing with the same children with the same problems, yet treat them differently.” He reiterated the life long impact of childhood trauma and how it can be difficult to address this: “Young people don’t share their trauma until years after…and they don’t talk about what their parents have done because they love them. Everything is hidden underneath the horrific iceberg of their childhood.” He also warned against the danger of ‘casually’ labelling children: “We label children as junkies or scum, we ignore their pain, marginalise and stigmatise them, put them though adult court system, then jail them and let them die in large numbers.”

Of course, we know it isn’t always easy to be kind to damaged young people, but as Iain reminded us, it is something we must do: “It’s about dignity and respect, about compassion – what would be described as the soft skills but are actually the hardest skills to employ every day. The best way to respond to people who are being unkind is to be kind.”

On Day 2, Gillian Mawdsley’s talk on children’s 360 role in the justice system reiterated and reflected on Iain’s messages, giving us food for thought around the definition of a child, especially given time and context: “People looking back may be astonished how long it took us to introduce a smacking ban in 2019.”   She discussed hate crime and bigotry, and how this can start from something as innocent as a game of football in the school playground. Like all the speakers, she believes it is the responsibility of everyone involved in a child’s life to bring about change and address prejudices and hatred before they have a chance to begin.

“We asked you to speak but you roared.” The joy of an online conference meant we could use technology to share the voices of those who could not be physically present. And for the residents of HMP Edinburgh and the Good Shepherd Centre this was particularly important. We were privileged to premier two short films, starting with the ‘Saughton Sonnets: A Hidden Voices’ project. If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen a lot of chat about #SaughtonSonnets – and rightly so. This impactful anthology of poetry – written by the residents of HMP Edinburgh in lockdown and judged by a panel of practitioners, academics and citizens – is making important conversations happen. We are grateful to founder Gerry Hamill for creating and sharing a short film that not only featured the inmates reading their poetry, but also the voices of well-kent Scottish literary talent including crime author Val McDermid, Glasgow poet Darren McGarvey aka Loki, Stephen Watt, Dumbarton FC’s poet in residence, and John Scott QC.

This may have been a hard act to follow for some, but the young people of the Good Shepherd Centre were more than worthy of this challenge. Abbey, Sophia, Rhys and William told us what it was like to be locked up in secure care, the importance of children’s rights being upheld, knowing what rights are and suggestions for change. “It’s really important to talk about your rights because you need to know what you’re entitled to.” By listening to the voices of their young people, the Good Shepherd Centre have achieved the UNICEF Rights Respecting School Bronze Award. In this they’re joined by Rossie Young People’s Trust, which achieved Silver and delivered a workshop about this at the conference. It is encouraging for secure care in Scotland to see both centres progress so well on their ‘rights respecting’ journeys.

Just when we thought the tears had dried, Project Return’s gorgeous performance of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ got us reaching for our hankies again. Staf’s community based choir (who create music to help with trauma) provided a musical interlude that gave us pause to reflect on everything we had learnt so far – and hope for a better future.

“We ceded control to the young people – it was scary but for it to be true participation, required.” Participation was definitely the buzz word of this year’s conference – and hearing CYCJ’s Ross Gibson talk so passionately about it, it wasn’t hard to see why. Given that The Promise was built on the foundation of thousands of voices from the care community, and with more organisations turning to participation as a way of involving children and young people actively in decision making, there is a rising trend towards participatory approaches in Scotland.

We hope that we are helping to lead the way at CYCJ: our recent Participation and Engagement Strategy put young people in the driving seat, CYCJ’s Guide to Youth Justice includes a new section on Participation and we’ve recruited participation workers to help us deliver this. CYCJ’s Participation lead Ross Gibson presented on the co-production process behind the strategy and how he is urging others to adopt the same practice.

Proof that young people with lived experience can make a big difference were Kev and Chris from Youth Justice Voices, CYCJ and Staf’s participation project. The Youth Just Us steering group members shared some of the project’s incredible achievements – including discussions and podcasts with senior politicians, shaping the Scottish Government’s Youth Justice Vision and creating a knife crime awareness video game. Their advice to organisations? “Always ask the young people what they want to do, make it about them, involve them in planning and writing strategies.” A showing of Watch, Act, Listen, a film about the project’s digital exhibition of issues based artwork with the Articulate Cultural Trust and local artist Scott Lang, brought the messages to life: “There is a light inside all of us.”

Lightning talks also included a sneak peek at the development of CYCJ’s new service for local authorities/partners that will help them include children and young people in the design and delivery of services/systems affecting them (launched later this year) and Ross Gibson discussed findings from the recent consultation on the age of referral to the Children’s Hearing System.

Not forgetting the wonderful workshops (all 18 of them!) which represented a wide variety of topics from the age of criminal responsibility, new ways of addressing children’s needs, and bail and remand to getting it right for families affected by imprisonment, sentencing, and restorative justice, yet all focusing on children’s rights. If you went to a workshop and felt inspired, we’d love to hear from you – perhaps you’d like to blog? Get in touch at to find out more.

It feels only right to conclude with the words (and sentiment) of Dr Anthony Charles: “I haven’t been to a conference where I’ve felt such inspiration, emotion, energy and purpose in a long time.” And Professor Jennifer Davidson: “We are making room for that voice of experience…I hope that when I finish my career this will be so normal that I won’t even have to comment on it anymore.” Let’s fight together to ensure that children’s rights, participation and experience the norm and hope that in 20 years’ time, we will be able to look back and ask “why did it take us so long?”

About our blogger

Charlotte Morris is Communications Lead at CYCJ and event manager for the National Youth Justice Conference. Read more.

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