Five Nations and the complexity of youth justice

Carole Dearie attended the 2014 Five Nations Conference, held in Cardiff. Here she talks about complexity, youth justice and why we’re still not getting it right for the girls…

The theme of the Five Nations Conference held in Cardiff was ‘Understanding Complexity: the challenge for Youth Justice’.  The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones (Prif Weinidog Cymru) set the scene for the conference with his opening speech on progress and challenges facing the Welsh Government.   He made sure to point out that challenges are better faced when we do them together.  When we share knowledge and ideas, the complexities are perhaps less challenging and less taunting when there is a shared optimism and vision for getting it right.

Claire Lightowler, Director for Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice, was tasked with providing input on how Scotland is meeting this challenge.  Claire’s presentation, aptly named ‘It’s complicated’, provided statistics on offending in Scotland and introduced the audience to the new initiative in the much needed mental health provision, the IVY clinic. Reference was made to the findings of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transition and Crime that commenced in 1998 and concluded in 2003.  Although concluded over a decade ago, the key findings remain relevant today.  Links between key issues such as mental health and violent offending may not have come as a surprise to many, if not all, the audience.  It is nonetheless imperative that this continues to be highlighted and it must find a place in understanding key themes that emerge as being associated with offending behaviour.

The study gave a key message that I was left contemplating, and led me to wonder how many people who work with young offenders embrace the notion that ‘those involved in violent offending were the most vulnerable and victimised’.  How many professionals would look for this to be a significant factor in understanding the causation of the behaviour?  Not to excuse the violent behaviour but to explain it surely is a challenge all professionals should rise to.  However, does this ideology of the offender being a vulnerable victim fit in with youth justice? 

A present day nature versus nurture argument was presented by Professor Gordon Harold of the University of Sussex,who researched the influence, if any, that genetics could have on the behaviour of young people.  Which has the greatest impact on behaviour – being brought up by biological parents, or being adopted/conceived through IVF? The findings concluded that there was no genetic link and that the environment and behaviours were influenced by those around you.  For the qualified Social Workers amongst the audience I’m sure the work of Social Learning Theorist Albert Bandura resonated.

Workshops on key themes ran throughout the day and the manner in which the event was organised allowed for the participants to attend all workshops.  They ranged from being very interesting and relevant to the theme of the conference, to being almost an ‘add on’ to fill a space.  Overall, they were fairly good.

I cannot write this blog without drawing attention to the glaring absence in both workshops and in presentations of keynote speakers of research or interventions with vulnerable girls/high risk young women.   The voices of girls found no significant place at the conference.   Although two workshops that focused on working with girls were both useful to some degree, neither workshop left me feeling that the subject of girls has finally found equal placing with boys.  Not for the first time in my career was I left to question why girls continue to be underrepresented.  Yes,  I am constantly informed that perhaps it’s due to the ‘relatively small’ numbers of girls compared to boys which results in more of a focus being on the male gender.  That said, Rotherham had 1400 girls, and counting, who were sexually, physically and emotionally abused and I cannot accept for the sake of girls that they are continually overlooked on the basis that there are not enough of them.  Let’s place the agenda of vulnerable girls in its rightful place at future conferences and events and give them equal representation so that we can work together in meeting their needs.

And finally, the message from the Five Nations Conference was consistent in one aspect and that is understanding the complexity of the challenge of youth justice is indeed complex in itself, and is better approached with a shared vision and commitment to getting it right for every child.

About our blogger

Carole Dearie is seconded to CYCJ from the Good Shepherd Centre, where she is Depute Head.  She has been working in residential child care for over 23 years, and holds a Diploma in Social Work and Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Residential Child Care. Read more.