WATCH: Youth Justice – We Need to Engage with Stigmatised and Marginalised Groups


Full speech transcript:

Like many areas of youth work and many areas in general, the Garda youth diversion projects have been under significant strain in the past 18 months or so as a result of Covid. This has allowed many of these projects to reach out and find new ways of working. Much of this outreach was effective in reaching out to young people who might not have been involved previously in the centre-based work of youth projects.

I am on the board of a Garda youth diversion project in Crumlin called CLAY. The project did assertive outreach to hard-to-reach young people who were causing trouble in the neighbourhood and were not engaging with any of the centre-based services. This focused piece of outreach allowed CLAY to reach out, build relationships and start the work, accepting where these young people were at and start pulling them back into the centre or even trying to divert them from where they were, while working on the street.

As things return to normal, many of the services are faced with the challenge of choosing between outreach, which is proven and effective and reaches very difficult-to-reach young people, and centre-based work, which is also proven and has good outcomes for young people. To force services to choose between outreach and centre-based work is deeply unfair and, ultimately, unfair to the young people.

We need fund dedicated outreach workers and services to reach those young people who are so far refusing or unwilling to engage with centre-based programmes. It allows a street-level response to the crime and antisocial behaviour the projects are not able to bring, notwithstanding the good work they are doing in the centres. It is not either one or the other; we need both. To do the outreach properly, we need funding to go with that. There is no mention of that kind of specialist outreach in the strategy. We need to start resourcing and developing policies around that.

Speaking of youth and hard-to-reach groups, I share the concerns raised by other Deputies and the Irish Penal Reform Trust on the inclusion of children aged between 8 and 11 years. Bearing in mind the age of criminal responsibility begins at 12, I am concerned that scooping up children aged between 8 and 11 and including them in a criminal justice response will stigmatise a whole bunch of young people who should be receiving generalised rather than justice themed support services or support services around offending.

I know there is offending behaviour among young people of that age. Gangs are looking to groom children of that young age, partly because of the lack of criminal responsibility that applies to them. We need a response to them but a criminalising response or one that scoops them into justice programmes will create problems of stigmatisation. There are huge problems with stigmatisation. Many young people in disadvantaged and marginalised communities feel they are picked on, simply by being a member of that community and feel the gardaí are out to get them because they are poor. This creates an us-and-them attitude and a resistance to the kind of youth justice work that is successful. This can be fatal to much of the youth justice work we are all praising. We need to be conscious of and careful around that stigmatisation and of how many of the youth offending problems we are talking about grow out of a background of inequality, marginalisation and poverty.

While a youth justice strategy is very important, it must have a fundamental grounding in that world view. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, spoke about the need to be holistic and community focused, but we need to be naming marginalisation, poverty and social exclusion and actively addressing them. Previous speakers referred to the need to include Tusla and the HSE and this is all part of that. While I commend the strategy, that is one point that occurs to me.

One related issue, which was also raised by Deputy Gino Kenny, is direct consultation with young people. We need to find ways to directly communicate and consult with young people and have them feed into these projects. Much of the youth justice work comes from that youth work perspective of consultation, empowerment and engagement. Much of that work is being done, but I look at the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence reduction in the United Kingdom and on encouraging and supporting direct consultation with young people and children from many of these marginalised communities which are often over-policed and will be on the receiving end of this strategy. Finding ways to do that direct consultation will also help break down the stigmatisation and the us-and-them attitude between young people and gardaí. I thank the Minister of State for his support.