Putting children first

Our guest bloggers Sean Creaney and Dr Stephen Case argue the importance of participatory rights for children involved in the youth justice system.

It is disconcerting that children – and their supervising officers (staff in multi-agency Youth Offending Teams/YOTs) – are finding that being involved in the criminal justice system is a disempowering and disengaging experience. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that practice is dominated by a context of enforcement, control, regulation and surveillance. In other words, ‘engaging’ relationships between children and practitioners are often court ordered, compulsory and often non-negotiable. Practising in such an environment can constrain professionals and make the development of user-led participatory forms of practice problematic.

An ‘adults know best’ or professional as ‘expert’ mentality persists across youth justice services in England and Wales whereby such professionals – through interpreting the wishes and feelings of younger members of society – decide suitable ways of dealing with crime and anti-social behaviour. However, over the past 30 years, the need to seek children’s views and empower such a group in a collaborative way in the decision making process has gained momentum. This particular way of thinking has been influenced by a number of factors, namely:

  • The acknowledgment that children are a group of people in their own right with ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, not mini adults who are incapable of putting a viewpoint across due to a (perceived) lack of incompetency
  • The ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in (1989) by the UK Government, championing children’s participatory rights, in particular the need to involve children and devise services that are appropriate to ability, capable of allowing for choice and influence

The ‘participatory rights’ of children involved in youth justice processes – and specifically those who are imprisoned – ‘lag considerably behind children’s right generally (Little, 2014:18). For example, it took 13 years for the Children Act 1989 to be considered applicable to children in juvenile custodial facilities. In the youth/criminal justice arena, there exists practitioner, public and political resistance towards allowing children the opportunity to actively’ participate and manage projects/interventions. More specifically, the idea of allowing the child some control and power over the process may be disconcerting to the day-to-day practitioner.

Participatory approaches can provide children with opportunities to share their unique insights into what life is like for them and help enhance their engagement (belief, commitment, involvement) with youth justice practice and processes. Children can explain ‘what works’ for them, raising points that professionals may not have considered. Here the individual can influence the care they are receiving or influence policy and practice on a greater scale. Participatory practices should be legitimate (considered fair, moral and just), meaningful and beneficial to the child; for example, improving interpersonal and communication skills. Such practices should begin with a self-assessment to determine the child’s abilities, interests and experiences, using this as a basis to offer the child a range of ways to participate. Importantly though, some children may be of the view that their voices will not be heard – having prior experiences of being silenced – and others may have not had many opportunities to express their feelings.

Professionals have a duty in accordance with the UNCRC to consult with children and seek their viewpoints on matters affecting them. Furthermore, professionals have a responsibility to empower the individual to influence the design and delivery of such services. With that said, not each and every individual is interested in being empowered – this relates particularly to children who are unwilling or involuntary. Moreover, a child may feel empowered in one way (involved in planning, delivering and reviewing the youth justice services they are receiving) but disempowered in other ways (denied an opportunity to lead on a project/manage an activity).

This disempowerment could make the young person/worker relationship problematic. In order to overcome such issues a culture needs to be created that is open to the idea/concept of active youth participation, with a particular emphasis on seeking the voice of those who are hard to reach or seldom heard, involuntary or unwilling children. This may be somewhat difficult to do in practice with the justice system being primarily concerned with security and control – leading to feelings of exclusion. However, if children are provided with genuine opportunities to engage and not merely consulted on matters – which could lead to disempowerment and disconnection – this could lead to increases in self-esteem and confidence and reductions in offending.

Participatory practice may be in the form of a one-off consultation. However, some (including service users themselves) may regard this as disempowering, as it may be deemed to be too tokenistic in nature.

Rather than being in receipt of services on a voluntary basis, children involved in youth justice processes are required by the court to comply with the conditions set out. Such court ordered compulsory nature of the work serves to disengage children and professionals and contrasts sharply with participatory principles, namely that of empowerment, trust and respect.

Professionals may find themselves working with clients in the Youth Justice System who appear reluctant to change and resentful of any form of intervention, regardless of the benign intentions of practitioners. Practising through an ethical/inclusive lens and in a principled participatory way, however, can be of benefit to children and help to overcome any resistance. Young people should be provided with sufficient guidance and encouragement to engage in the process of change as partners, whereby the intervention is not done to but with the child. Alongside such articulated intentions, those tasked with working with such individuals should strive to develop a positive working relationship, based on openness and honesty.

About our bloggers

Sean Creaney is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Social Sciences at the University Centre, Stockport College. Sean is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a PhD student at the School of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University. He is a Trustee of the National Association for Youth Justice and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Safer Communities peer reviewed journal.   

Dr Stephen Case is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Swansea University. His main research interest is the promotion of a ‘Children First’ model of youth justice through evidence-based, diversionary, participatory and rights-based practice. Stephen’s forthcoming article (with Kevin Haines) in the Howard Journal is entitled ‘Children First, Offenders Second: The centrality of engagement in progressive youth justice’

You can follow Sean on Twitter at @sfcreaney and Steve at @SteveCaseCrim.If you’re on Facebook, find out more by joining the Youth Justice Swansea University group.

Sean Creaney and Dr Stephen Case are running a seminar on the issues raised in this paper for the Yorkshire Association for Youth Justice on December 15 at Oxford Place Leeds (9.30 – 12.30). Please email rita.hawley@sheffield.gov.uk  to book a place.

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