The journey of an Electronic Monitoring Champion

Following her own experiences of being ‘tagged’, Donna McEwan shares her reflections as an Electronic Monitoring Champion, and what difference she thinks Movement Restriction Conditions can really make to a young person, their families and communities. 

Writing this blog, I found myself conflicted. I am now a fully-fledged Electronic Monitoring (EM) champion…but what does that mean and what should I be championing?

I have now completed the final tasks on my journey, which involved a day at G4S Monitoring Centre updating my learning about electronic monitoring, shadowing supervisors in the G4S control centre and finally, a supervisor in the field. I attended the Champions Day arranged by the Scottish Government to consider the role of those, like myself, who have chosen learn more about EM and increase  awareness and knowledge around how much it has changed. I was also fortunate enough to experience (very briefly) what it felt like to wear a tag for a week.

This journey has raised many questions for me. Such as, what difference can EM make to a young person’s life? Why does it seem like we are not using it to its full potential? And what are the barriers to this, how do we overcome them and is there a danger of increasing the risk of up-tariffing a young person by inappropriate use of EM? How can we achieve a more nuanced and insightful use with children and young people?

I want to reiterate my previous stance that I am not advocating we should have every child or young person tagged, whether through the Children’s Hearing System (CHS), Court or as part of post-release licence conditions. I used the word nuanced above and this, along with a proportionate and responsive approach to assessed risk and needs in a meaningful way is the critical point, reflecting the GIRFEC principles for each child or young person. Having said that, I do foresee a continuing role for EM, and will explain why.

During my time shadowing a G4S supervisor, out of the small numbers of individuals we visited a number had vulnerabilities that might affect their ability to adhere to the conditions of a tag, and it appeared the tag was a standalone order rather than imposed alongside a Community Payback Order with a Supervision Requirement. For some, the tag was performing a solely punitive role and the rehabilitative element seemed to be lacking.

What also struck me was the importance of human interaction. The relational aspect, however brief, is an opportunity to promote engagement and compliance, and provides positive interaction and sometimes humour (there’s a fab story about an over friendly pooch – maybe one for another day!).

So what does this mean for young people and EM? Acknowledging that many children and young people involved in offending behaviour and particularly those involved in significant harmful behaviour are often our most traumatised and vulnerable individuals, and that often has a significant impact upon their understanding of the world and how they process information, is a crucial starting point. This should frame how we talk about the impact of using EM and why we’re doing it.  Critically we must understand the risk of setting a child or young person up to fail with restrictions they are not capable of managing, even with robust supports. This may significantly increase the risk of them ending up in custody or secure care, not because of increased risk but by recommending EM when our assessments and knowledge suggests it would be inappropriate. I would recommend that more discussion is required with family members when a MRC is being considered. We need to recognise the impact upon the family dynamics and the stress on relationships. Individuals and family members need robust information and supports to manage conflict, particularly as they often take on the ‘policing role’ to try to get their child to adhere to the MRC. So supporting family and carers to feel confident in managing such difficulties should be part of any support plan, as should consideration of contingency planning.

We also need to consider how we can be creative and flexible in the application of EM. The bog-standard seven days a week, 12-hour restriction is too simple when you consider what we know about offending behaviour and the issues an individual may present with. A one-size fits all approach to addressing offending behaviour is recognised as no longer acceptable, and historically the use of EM has not been particularly flexible or individualised.

There are increasing examples of a creative and flexible approach to EM. These include restricting someone not to their home but to a placement a set number of hours a day. It could be imposing a curfew over the weekend from Friday to Monday nights; times split through the day. In consideration of victim safety planning, perhaps restricting someone away from a location, usually the victim’s address, though this requires higher levels of victim involvement and agreement than those responses purely directed towards the individual who has harmed or is at risk of harming others. The restrictions could be more intensive to begin with and reviewed to allow for a positive response to engagement and participation with the curfew and wider interventions, resulting in a reduction in restrictions.

There are very few limits to the application of EM through either the CHS or Court. What is required is confidence that what is being proposed forms part of a robust wraparound plan that addresses the offending behaviour and seeks to reduce risk and harm in relation to that individual child. Understanding how and where EM may interfere and disrupt a pattern of offending or harmful behaviour is crucial to influencing the changes being sought. It is also important to recognise, as highlighted within the Electronic Monitoring in Scotland Working Group Final Report, the pattern of offending behaviour and how and where the use of EM would support a child or young person to remain in the community by reducing risk of harm to others. How could flexible curfew times encourage inclusion within their community and family whilst providing structure and boundaries? Often young people will state that they require the limits of a tag as it allows them to shift the responsibility or decision making to the tag when trying to avoid negative peers.

Finally, what do we perceive as the purpose of a MRC? Is it about ‘shaming’ the victim or is it genuinely rehabilitative? Blogs from our volunteers demonstrated that the feeling of shame in being electronically tagged is very real, but does it really serve an effective purpose as a tool for justice?

There are many other discussions to be had about the use of EM. Too many to include in this blog! And at CYCJ we have been contributing to this and will continue to do so. What is clear, is that we need to keep the conversations going about what we are trying to achieve with the tag, the long term impact on an individual’s life, and the importance of advocating a more creative and flexible approach, that is ultimately person-centred. Then, and only then, can we start to make real progress on this journey.

About our blogger

Donna McEwan is a Practice Development Advisor with CYCJ. Find out more.

In October 2016, four youth justice professionals wore an electronic tag for a week, to raise awareness and understanding of electronic monitoring (tagging) and how MRCs (movement restriction conditions) can be used, in a CYCJ led initiative. This coincided with the publication of CYCJ’s paper on MRCs in Scotland. 

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