In my last post, I talked about restorative justice, how incredible it is and how much I love working in restorative justice at a Youth Offending Service. But I do more than facilitate RJ mtgs – I also organise and supervise young people’s reparation work and manage one or two young people on their court orders.
One of the difficulties of working with young offenders is that it is sometimes difficult to remember that not all young people are ‘offenders’. We happen to work with the small percentage of young people who are convicted of offences, but it can taint your view of young people in general. Furthermore, it can be hard to start work with an individual and take them on face-value alone, not the ideas you have formed about them already from the offence details and court information.
However, since my last post our team had a case review day where we all looked in detail at three cases, to discuss and analyse the young people’s circumstances, review how we as a team have worked with them and to look at possible ways of working with them in future. The overwhelming feeling that I came away with was a sense of sadness for just how messy and tragic the lives of a lot of the young people we work with are. It was quite easy to find myself questioning what the hell we are doing punishing some of these young people who have had the most awful childhoods. It’s not that this was a new discovery for me; just that we were analysing real cases, of people I had worked with, as opposed to just looking a statistics.
When we unpicked the childhood backgrounds for some of these young people there were horrific events, broken relationships, violences, and more pain than anybody should have to bear – never mind children. It was hard to imagine myself going through what these young people had gone through and being any better myself. It was also hard to accept the realisation that these young people weren’t the only ones to have gone through those kinds of childhoods. A huge number of children will suffer those experiences without ever resorting to offending. This realisation: that for many, many children their childhood is, quite frankly, shit – has stayed with me ever since that day.
Then, last week, we had some training around ‘human traficking’. If you don’t know much about this issue, then please, please take a minute to visit Stop the Traffik, as this issue needs more awareness. Without going into great detail about trafficking – I was stunned to learn the extent of the problem. For example: worldwide, traffickers are earning twice as much profit as Coca Cola earns. And I was disgusted to hear of how many people worldwide are still being bought, sold or forced into being nothing more than commodities. The problem is huge in the UK and even in my town. We were being trained to recognise whether the young people we work with are being trafficked or groomed for potential trafficking. This problem is real and it is a threat to young people as well as adults. The stories were heard were heartbreaking and terrifying. I spent a lot of the training thinking about my little daughter, and how I just want to keep her in the house forever to keep her safe.
So, the last couple of weeks have been tough because I have a tendency to dwell on these things and worry. I often catch the bus home, and standing at the bus stop on several occasions I have found myself people watching and having a heightened awareness of just how many people are drunk, high, aggressive or anti-social in the town centre during the day. But I have also been more aware of how people talk to children. How many people seem alone. How many people seem like they are carrying pain. And it’s very easy to start to despise society, to see the bad rather than the good, to worry about what kind of a world I brought my daughter into, to wonder whether I/we can really make a difference.
However, it is often little things that snap me out of this thinking. I recently worked with a young man on reparation. He was so impressive in his work and so respectful and polite, particularly towards a lady we were working with. And there was just one moment, where he insisted that he do a difficult job instead of her – a little moment of chivalry(?) – that hit me and reminded me that essentially, people are good. Yes, many of our young people are damaged, and yes, the world is often crap for them, but – nearly always – the good still shines through. Even the young people with severe offences can be lovely to work with and have so much to give. The young people we discussed in the case review day were all young people I had worked with, and whom I had enjoyed working with. In fact, it is extremely rare that I work with a young person that I don’t like. It’s just that often, I have to remember to look for the good.
Whilst writing this, I thought about when I was standing at the bus stop recently, looking at all the problems around me. It just dawned on me that I did see a young lad insist that an elderly couple get on the bus before him, but I hadn’t dwelt on that. I was sat next to a young couple with baby twins who looked so happy and content, but I was more concerned with the angry drunk over the road. And I had forgotten to consider why he was drunk and why he was angry.
This is why I do my job. Because I believe that people are inherently good. Many/most are damaged but they are still good. Take a ten pound note and scribble on it, tear it, stamp on it, screw it up – it’s still worth ten pounds.* Surely those that traffick humans need to somehow reduce them to commodities to be able to traffick them. If they truly saw them as human beings, I struggle to believe that they could continue in their trade. And I struggle to do my job if I only see the young people I work with as offenders, or fail to remember why they ended up offending, because I can’t then relate to them. In fact, I would be doing a bad job because I would be perpetuating the crap that they have gone through and reinforcing their criminality.
A big part of our work is to show young people that they are inherently good, that they can contribute to society, that they can overcome their situations. And RJ is brilliant for helping this to take place, which is why I love my job -most of the time!
[*This was taken from a talk given by the father of a murdered young man to some of our young people. I think it was the main point that most of the young people had taken away with them]