Include Youth’s Commitment to Northern Ireland Care Leavers

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Located in Northern Ireland, Include Youth supports vulnerable and disadvantage youth by helping them to improve their educational and employment training outcomes, and their main objectives are to increase employment opportunities for disadvantage youth in addition to boosting their self-esteem and life skills.

According to a commissioned review by Include Youth, criminal justice reform and policing were acknowledged as two major areas of concern impacting disadvantage youth with early intervention/family support and diversion programs listed as interventions to reduce risks and increase protective factors for this vulnerable group.

Sharon Whittaker from Include Youth courteously agreed to facilitate a Q&A with us to highlight the amazing work of Include Youth.

SWH: Could you tell us about the mission and vision for Include Youth?

SW: Include Youth is an independent rights-based charity which promotes the rights of and best practice with disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people in Northern Ireland.  In particular Include Youth supports those involved with the criminal justice system and those who need education, employment and training.

Inspired by the experiences of young people Include Youth works to ensure that their rights are being realised. Young people’s views guide us in our advocacy work to achieve social justice, change and promote a greater understanding of their lives in government and across statutory organisations and the community and voluntary sectors.

We provide direct services to support young people to develop their employability and life skills, which are based on working at the young person’s pace and understanding their needs.

SWH: What are the main barriers affecting young people in Northern Ireland?

SW: Overall youth unemployment remains consistently high at 17.5 per cent in Northern Ireland, this is three times that of the adult population.  There are high levels of suicide and self-harm among young people generally, as well as other recognised mental health issues, including severe depression and anxiety.  Almost half of children in care or placed in custody at the Juvenile Justice Centre have serious mental health concerns.

We work specifically with 16-24 year olds from socially disadvantaged areas, have had poor educational experiences, have committed or are at risk of committing crime, misuse drugs and/or alcohol, engage in unsafe or harmful sexual behaviour or at risk of being harmed themselves.   All of the young people we work with are not in education, employment or training and many will have experience of the care system.

Education and employment is a huge barrier for young people in care.  Almost 3,000 children are in the care of the state here and only a quarter will go on to achieve five GCSE’s (grade A*-C) compared with more than 80 per cent of the general school population.  More than 350 young people aged 16 to 21 in care here are not in education, employment or training at any one time.  The unemployment rate for care leavers is double that of young people who grew up in the community.

SWH: What types of challenges have you run into?

SW: How children and young people are perceived in their community is a real challenge for Include Youth. A simple thing like how a young person might be portrayed in the media can impact on social policy is made and on how services to children and young people are delivered.

The young people we work are often most in need or at risk, yet do not have their voices heard and acted upon by organisational representatives and decision-makers.  This means the most vulnerable young people in society are more likely to suffer the consequences of inadequate policies and poor services.

Piecemeal and short-term funding is a challenge for our organisation, as to address the long-term needs of children in care a more sustained and cohesive approach is needed.  There is funding available for short-term projects, which will only ever help long-term goals to an extent.

SWH: Do you think enough is being done to help children in care?

SW: Too many young people from a care background are being detained in the Juvenile Justice Centre under PACE because suitable accommodation cannot be found.  Custody should only be used as a last resort, so not enough is being done to redress the overrepresentation of looked after children within the justice system.

In figures supplied to us by the Youth Justice Agency looked after children represented 40% of individual young people admitted under PACE, between October 2014-September 2015.  Up to 50% of these young people did not receive a custodial sentence, evidence that custody is not being used as a last resort.

We also continually look to Scotland to see what is happening there, as they tend to have more positive policies and practices around their responsibility to children and young people in care.  However some progress has been made to increase labour market opportunities for young people in care.  Business in the Community and Include Youth run targeted initiatives and the Employability Services run by all five health and social care trusts.  Each health and social care trust has employability and guidance schemes in place to help prepare young people for employment and have developed a range of service models, for example, ring-fenced posts and social clause provision in partnership with a number of companies.

SWH: What other vulnerable groups of young people does Include Youth support?

SW: We work in partnership with community-based organisations to deliver cross-community or employability programmes to young people aged 16-24.  Most of these young people won’t have experience of care, therefore their needs vary from young parents, to carers, substance abuse issues to early school leavers.

We also lobby on behalf of children and young people in our formal youth justice system.  Currently 10 year olds living in Northern Ireland can be arrested, prosecuted, get a criminal record and even be locked up however we’re seeking legislative change so that 10 and 11 year olds who commit crime are dealt with in a much more effective way.

SWH: Is there any way people can support Include Youth?

SW: There are a number of different ways people can support our work.  If you’re an employer, public, private or charity sector you may be able to provide a workplace tour or experience for the young people on our programmes or you may wish to join our Board of Directors.  We’re also always on the lookout for volunteer mentors who can support a young person in their area on a one to one basis.  Finally, you can get involved in our Raise the Age campaign and help us raise the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland.

SWH: What is next for Include Youth?

SW: To continually improve our services for the young people we work with.

You can keep up-to-date with Include Youth on Facebook, Twitter and their website on the latest services they offer young people in Northern Ireland.

Using Car Rides to Get Teenagers to Open Up

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For many years as a frontline practitioner and later as a respite foster carer, I have often driven children and young people to supervised contact visits with birth family members or to 1:1 session outside of the home. After talking to some workers the other day, we all agreed that these car rides provide opportunities for some of our most powerful conversations to take place with the young people in our care.

Many of us recognise the importance of this uninterrupted, private time with no risk of a direct gaze which often enables children to share and process their experiences and emotions. Then, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment and thought about it in the context of the child’s trauma and attachment needs, and these car conversations made even more sense.

Children who develop in homes where they experience stress and fear because adults are emotionally unavailable due to their own trauma, their mental illness, substance dependency, interpersonal violence, or are perpetrators of sexual or other abuse don’t get to internalise a sense of a safe person or place they can go to, either literally or metaphorically. They have more reactive survival brains and fear/threat responses that are easily triggered.

Daily life can be a brutal assault on their senses, triggering continual fight, flight, freeze, friend or flop responses in a random way so car journeys can feel more contained, predictable and less sensory stimulating. Hence why I have often arrived at the fast food outlet and the young person has preferred to carry on talking and it’s been my anxiety about feeding them which has eventually got us out and into McDonald’s!

Thinking of the children’s early childhood relationships which have often been largely unpredictable, chaotic and/or inconsistent then the time spent with a worker who offers a better attachment experience can be calming and reassuring. A car journey can become a non-threatening, attachment focused, time and space without too much sensory overload with a trusted adult to begin to explore, express and invite a reaction or response to complex, memories issues or concerns. The side of someone’s head who is slightly distracted by driving can offer a less intense interaction allowing a child to think and share what they feel the need too.

Of course, for some youngsters, cars may remind them of traumatic events. I remember a 6 year old telling me how Daddy had hit Mummy in the car, and he had tried to stop him. Then, he showed me how he had tried to wedge himself between them. We talked about how this had felt for him and our journeys gave him a different experience and memories. Other children may find being in a confined space with a relative stranger very frightening and triggering so they may not settle well, may fiddle with things and wriggle about as they get the urge to flee without the opportunity to fulfill this need.

As workers, hopefully we can see car journeys as potential opportunities to listen whilst taking the foot off the ‘find out information/fix it gas, so we can focus on relationship building and just ‘being’ emotionally available and present with the child or youngster in our care. Then, we can offer them a journey that’s not just getting from A to B, but a space that  is about them.

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