Language is the key to understanding

Guest blogger Kelly Howard tells us why New Zealand’s use of a communication assistant at Family Group Conferences is helping it meet the needs of young people accused of committing crime. 

In New Zealand, there is a focus on low level responses to offending by young people. This means keeping young people out of court as much as possible. A key feature of the New Zealand system is the Family Group Conference: a more informal decision-making forum that involves the young person, their family, the victim and relevant professionals such as police, the young person’s social worker, lawyer and education representatives. The purpose of a Family Group Conference is to work out if the young person admits the offence and if so, develop a plan that holds them accountable and puts in steps to prevent future offending. Family Group Conferences are ‘talk-based’ processes and speech, language and communication needs can negatively impact how well a young person can understand and participate in them.

One innovation being utilised in New Zealand to better meet the speech, language and communication needs of young people accused of committing crime is the communication assistant. A communication assistant is a speech-language therapist who is appointed to provide specialist one-on-one assessment and support in justice processes, including in Family Group Conferences. Communication assistants are provided in New Zealand by Talking Trouble Aotearoa New Zealand (TTANZ) and MoreTalk.

As part of my clinical psychology doctoral research at the University of Auckland, I interviewed young people (and family members) who had been supported by a communication assistant in a youth justice process. The main messages from my interviews were that:

  • Young people and their families want to understand and be able to participate in processes affecting them
  • Families want to help their young person understand and participate but might not know how
  • Simplifying the language helps (easier words and less jargon)
  • Having visual aids assist with understanding
  • It is helpful when everyone is adapting their language and using the same strategies
  • Being able to understand and participate may mean better outcomes for the young person and their family

Overall, young people and their families spoke about communication assistance making it easier to understand and participate in a system that was otherwise hard and complicated. Many young people and family members had previous experiences of justice processes with which they could compare.

The cohort I interviewed were small in number (n=10), but the results suggest that communication assistance has a valuable role to play in the New Zealand youth justice system (and may be an option that is worth exploring in overseas jurisdictions). Unaddressed speech, language and communication needs mean frustration and disengagement at a minimum, and compromise fair process and just outcomes at their worst.

While research shows that there is an over-representation of speech, language and communication needs in young people accused of committing crime, it is unlikely that all require specialist one-on-one support. Others are likely to benefit from broader communication friendly changes to justice processes. To borrow the words from a communication assistant I interviewed as part of my research:

I guess what I’m hoping to do is that FGC [Family Group Conference] is also a learning place for everyone. This is how you might like to do it. I’m not going to be at every FGC and you don’t need one of me at every FGC. Why not change practice? That’s the long-term plan as well.

Communication assistance in New Zealand has prompted us to evaluate how we have engaged with young people in justice processes to date, and to reflect on how we can better recognise individuals’ needs and set people up for success. The importance of communication in justice processes cannot be overstated.

Ko te reo te taikura ō te whakāro mārama

Language is the key to understanding

Mā te mātau, ka ora

Through understanding comes well-being

About our blogger

Kelly Howard is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student based at the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology.

For more information about Kelly’s research, please follow the links below:

Leave a Reply

Contact Us

Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
Lord Hope Building, Level 6
141 St. James Road Glasgow G4 0LT

(0141) 444 8622

Stay informed

Subscribe to our e-newsletter and get all the latest advice and news.

Latest Discussion

Follow us on Twitter >>

Connect with us