Happy New Year! Are you feeling ready for 2019? Here at CYCJ, we’re excited about continuing our journey towards making things the best they can possibly be for Scotland’s children and young people, and working with our stakeholders to achieve this.
Whether you’re a professional, carer or member of the public, one resolution that we should all be making is in addressing how we perceive children and young people. In a recent interview I gave for Reach magazine, I discussed common misconceptions about young people in the justice system, where (and why) stigma exists and what can be done. I wanted to share these thoughts with you and ask, how can we work together to ensure we keep labels for clothes and groceries, and see children as children?
What’s in a name?
…Shakespeare once asked. Maybe not much – unless you were labelled ‘bad’ as a child. Then, that label sticks. And trying to unpeel it could take a lifetime.
Even amongst professionals, there is still a dangerous mind-set of ‘deserving and undeserving’ children and young people. The consequences can be devastating: if a child is constantly told that they are ‘bad’ or ‘undeserving’ this can result in negative social reactions, which impacts on negative behaviour; put simply, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s focus on the facts first:
- The majority of young people who offend have been a victim first. Research by the Edinburgh Study of Youth, Transitions and Crime shows that although not all those who have experienced a traumatic childhood will go on to offend, those who offend have nearly all experienced some form of trauma in their lives.
- From the 200 young people referred to our IVY (Interventions for Vulnerable Youth) service, their first experience was as a victim. And yet they are not treated the same way as other young people with welfare needs, by the systems, professionals, policies and communities.
- A young person’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20s, with the risk taking part being the last to develop. Indeed, risk taking behaviour is a normal part of teenage development – with 95% of young people in the Edinburgh Study admitting to committing an offence. They don’t fully understand the law to make informed decisions regarding their behaviour, and struggle with the formal court processes, as my paper explains.
- Boys are more likely to externalise their feelings through violence towards others, whilst girls are more likely to self-harm (although there are of course exceptions to this rule).
- We continue to criminalise children due to their circumstances, be that poverty, being in residential childcare, or the behaviour of others. They are continually excluded – from school, relationships, opportunities, wealth and so much more.
Children are children, no matter how hard they may to be to love. They will make mistakes but they are never beyond help. Whatever the crime, we need to ensure our response is always appropriate and proportionate.
What can we do?
I was co-author on CYCJ’s 2018 paper for Social Work Scotland, written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Social Work Scotland Act. This charts the development of youth justice in Scotland since the Kilbrandon Report ushered in a new era of social welfare, and calls for further radical change that’s rooted in children’s rights. I’ve highlighted some of the key messages and recommendations made by the paper and elsewhere:
Act early. Research tells us that the majority of young people who offend come from deprived backgrounds and are known to services from a young age. We need to address the deprivation, and do our absolute best to stop the abuse from happening in the first place. The Edinburgh Study has shown that engaging in early preventative interventions further labels young people and families as they are viewed by others and systems in a negative light. What we need to do is support children and their families as part of diversionary measures, focusing on their strengths in ways that don’t further label them whilst supporting all victims of crimes.
Change policy. Legislation that will make a big difference to the future of Scotland’s children and young people are going through Parliament just now, including the Age of Criminal Responsibility, Disclosure Scotland and Vulnerable Witnesses Bills. There’s also the Independent Care Review and its significant potential to effect positive change to the youth justice system through its Justice & Care working group.
Change attitudes. Challenge perceptions within society (and the media), stop blaming children and young people (and their families) and start helping them, or the cycle will just continue. We need to change the language we use; instead of calling/viewing these young people ‘unmanageable’, we should begin to look at how they can be helped and what services are needed to meet their needs.
Inclusion rather than prevention should be our default position. This means we can potentially avoid any negative labelling or stigmatising affects and focus on the inclusion rather than making an issue out of prevention.
Speak to young people. Ask them what is, or what would have been, the most effective way to help and support them without causing more stigma and shame. Initiatives such as 2018’s Year of Young People clearly demonstrated the benefits of engaging with children and young people, whilst showcasing their incredible creativity, talent and passion for change (have you read our YOYP blog series?). As a result of work undertaken into secure care by CYCJ, a Strategic Board for Secure Care was established by the Scottish Government, leading to the creation of the STARR, a platform for care experienced young people and adults to make changes.
Meet their needs. Being in secure care or a YOI can have long lasting detrimental impacts upon young people and impact on their future behaviour and decisions. That’s why it’s so important that we develop the right resources to meet the needs of these young people, and stop bringing them into formal systems, where there’s an opportunity to instead enhance their strengths and address their welfare needs.
This change must continue. Most importantly, we must always remember that there is hope and a real passion for change at all levels, ages and backgrounds. Will you join us?
Get in touch
CYCJ offers support and advice to the youth justice workforce. If you’d like to reach out and work with us, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0141 444 8622.
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About our blogger
Fiona Dyer is Interim Director of CYCJ. Read more.