5 Mar 2004

Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, to the “Children in trouble with the Law – What Works” conference, Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle

Criminal Justice and Young People – Issues and Challenges

It gives me great pleasure to speak to this conference this morning. I wish I could have been here for the whole two days, but some of you may have noticed that Children’s Commissioners have been in the news a lot over the last couple of days with the publication yesterday of the Children Bill at Westminster. I have been in quite a lot of demand to give my views on that Bill, and the rather limited form of Commissioner for Children it proposes.

When my own appointment was announced, the Minister Angela Smith proudly told the media that I would be the most powerful Children’s Commissioner anywhere. Of course with great power comes great responsibility, and I am very conscious of the need to help deliver real change for young people’s lives.

I am very pleased that this conference is jointly hosted by the Criminal Justice Service for Northern Ireland, with whom I have already been in close contact, and the Department for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the Republic of Ireland. In my previous job as Chief Executive of Childnet International, the children’s internet charity, I worked very closely with that Department, in particular to help set up and support Ireland’s hotline for dealing with reports of illegal child pornography on the Internet.

More recently it has been a pleasure to meet with the new Irish Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, and I look forward to working closely with her.

In the last five months since I took up office, issues of how the criminal justice system interacts with children have kept coming up in all the different meetings and events I have attended across Northern Ireland. I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of vulnerable young people through agencies like Include Youth, Turning Point, and Challenge for Youth, and hearing from them what their concerns are. You are going to see some of those conversations in the Video that follows my talk.

I have also had the chance to meet with the NIO, the new Criminal Justice Inspector, the Police Service, the Probation Board, the Social Services Inspectorate, Social Workers from the Health Boards and Trusts, teachers, health visitors, psychiatrists, youth workers, those involved in restorative justice projects, those working in the care system, - indeed most of the professionals that engage with young people at risk at some point in their lives.

All of these meetings, and especially my conversations with young people have confirmed for me some strong impressions about the issues and challenges that young people who become involved or at risk of being involved with the criminal justice system.

I want to take the opportunity this morning to share with you those concerns.

First, there is no single cause for young people’s criminal behaviour, and thus there is no single magic wand we can wave to solve the problem. All the evidence I have seen would suggest that it is a combination of issues in young people’s lives which leads to them ending up in criminal behaviour. It is not like a light switch which one moment is off and the next moment on, rather it is usually a process of gradually slipping into behaving in an anti-social way with the potential for more serious criminal behaviour following.

What are the key factors in this downward spiral? Well I want to suggest four that I think are particularly important – it is not a complete list, but it illustrates the complex nature of the issue.

  • Poverty and disadvantage – young people from more disadvantaged areas are more likely to get involved in crime.
  • Problems at home and family breakdown – when things go wrong at home whether it be domestic violence, alcoholism, drug taking or indeed the family splitting up, it is much more likely that young people will become estranged and more open to risk taking and criminal behaviour. It is also of course more likely they will end up in the care system which for some rather than being a antidote to their problems can be a spur on to criminal behaviour. I had the privilege of visiting Clarawood Special School in Belfast which deals with the most emotionally disturbed children aged 8 to 11 – some of these children had witnessed horrendous events at home, and it was clearly going to be a tough road to help them get some stability into their lives.
  • Drugs, alcohol and substance misuse – many young people who develop addictions, some at a very early age – one young person told me her brother tried drugs at the age of 6 – end up having to find the money to pay for their habit. Some see no option other than to get involved in stealing and petty crime. In the area of London where I have lived for the last 15 years – Peckham – and where I was a local councillor for four years, there has been a huge drugs problem. I remember the local police commander telling me that 90% of the burglaries in the area were drug related i.e. people stealing so that they could sell or pawn goods for cash to feed their habit. Parts of Northern Ireland are similar to that.
  • Disillusionment with school – many young people feel that school does not meet their needs. For some disadvantaged children, who have had behavioural problems at home, school becomes one long wrestling match with the teachers and those in authority. Mild learning difficulties can play a role here. I visited a school in West Belfast where the Headteacher told me that she had over 60 children with some form of special learning need, only five of which were statemented. She feared that the 55 were not getting the support they needed and if some other event happened in their lives like problems at home, they would quickly stop trying at school, and slip into a spiral of problems including the potential for criminal behaviour. We do need to ask ourselves serious questions about whether our school system is coping with the behaviour issues presented by pupils and is adopting a genuinely child centred approach. I am especially pleased that the Belfast Education and Library Board have been asking those hard questions and will be publishing shortly a report on dealing with the challenging behaviour of children at school.

My second point is that we desperately need a strategy that will intervene as early as possible in young people’s lives. There is increasing evidence that it is nursery schools who are facing some of the most difficult problems in coping with challenging behaviour from children aged 3 and 4. Certainly by primary school, many teachers can predict those children who are most likely to get into trouble as they grow older. If we have children experimenting with drugs before the age of 12, it stands to reason that we have to intervene at the earliest possible moment.

While it is a truism to suggest that “prevention is better than cure”, it is nonetheless essential that we focus resources on identifying and helping young people at risk before they get into trouble, and find it harder to climb out of the pit.

Now I know that this kind of point does cause problems for government funding streams. While the Criminal Justice Division in the NIO would love to see the number of young people involved in crime drastically reduced, even if it was demonstrated that intervening in nursery schools helped they couldn’t devote resources to that. That is where overarching children’s strategies are so important, which recognise the links between different aspects of children’s lives and ensure that money is spent on prevention and early intervention to get benefits further down the line.

The Republic of Ireland has led the way with the National Children’s Plan, and in Northern Ireland work is currently underway on a 10 year Children and Young People’s Strategy. A draft document will be published in a couple of months time. I will be looking closely at that document to see if the principle of early intervention and the importance of prevention measures is given real priority.

My third point is the importance of individual key workers in making the connection with children at risk. One of the real frustrations for young people who do get into trouble is that they can end up being passed from agency to agency, constantly being assessed to see what help they need. As one young person said to me the other week “I feel as if everyone has a slice of me but nobody sees the whole picture”. She then added “ I am fed up going to meetings with these different people – I just don’t care anymore”. Now I am clear that the vast majority of individual voluntary and statutory agencies involved with young people are all seeking to act in their best interests, but too often the result can be that the young person themselves feels alienated.

This is the very issue that the English Green Paper, Every Child Matters, and now the proposals in the Children Bill are seeking to address for England. They are looking at ways of putting children back at the centre of services, trying to get the connections between health, social services, education and other people working with children. Trying to get clearer reporting lines, and more sharing of information.

At a practical level, as I think the video will demonstrate, it is often the importance of one key person – who may be in a statutory or voluntary agency – who makes the connection with the young person who will help them on a clear path out of risk taking behaviour. I passionately believe that we need to do more to empower those front line workers, to make it easier for one person to take the lead. I honestly don’t think it matters too much whether that is a youth worker, a social worker, a voluntary project worker, or a probation officer… what matters is that there is one main channel to the young person, that is helping them through the system.

I think we may be able to learn some lessons here from innovative work in the field of children with disabilities. The same problem of multi agency interest in an individual child arises. In this example there are many different health professionals as well as social services involved. The key worker concept is being pioneered in Foyle View Community Trust, where one person is the main contact point with the family, and co-ordinates the other services. In other areas, a lot of work is being done in terms of what is called wraparound of services – again trying to improve co-ordination and ensure the child does not feel they are being passed from pillar to post.

I appreciate these changes are not easy to perfect. But we must constantly ask ourselves “What is best for the child or young person concerned? How can we best help that individual?” If we start from that point rather than the issue of different agencies roles and responsibilities there is a better chance of achieving more for the child.

So three broad issues and challenges I want to pose today –

  • Have we grasped the many issues that contribute to a young person engaging in risk taking behaviour?
  • Are we seized of the need to ensure that intervention to help young people happens at the earliest possible stage and that we prioritise preventative programmes? And
  • What can we do to ensure that one person works most closely with the young person and avoids the overcrowding of professionals and agencies that can be so frustrating?

I hope in my own role as Commissioner for Children and Young People, I will be able to assist in answering these challenges working with all those involved. It is my pledge to you, that I want to make individual children’s lives better, by improving all the services that they use. I will leave no stone unturned in encouraging and challenging different agencies to keep a focus on the rights of the individual child or young person. Our young people deserve no less than that.

Nigel Williams
Commissioner for Children and Young People