The Government has been advised to urgently invest in supports for vulnerable young people to prevent “catastrophic” outcomes for some children post-Covid.
Professor Ursula Kilkelly, head of the College of Business and Law at UCC, is the chair of the board of management of Oberstown Children Detention Campus, and contributed to the Government’s recently-published Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027. She said that supporting vulnerable young people now is critical.
Concerns over violent, aggressive, and antisocial behaviour among Ireland’s youth have been raised in recent weeks.
A 17-year-old girl fell under a stationary train during an alleged assault by a group of teenage boys in Howth, Co Dublin. A gang of youths surrounded a car in Malahide and one person jumped on the roof.
And repeated complaints of youth antisocial behaviour have been made since the pandemic struck.
As supports and structures for young people have dissolved over Covid, an increase of these behaviours could be expected, Prof Kilkelly said, although data is not yet available to know whether there has actually been any increase in youth violence or antisocial behaviour.
"School provides such important stability for young people. The withdrawal of that was catastrophic for some," she said.
Cancelling the Junior Cert "in a single press release" had been difficult for teenagers, and recent reports have unsurprisingly shown a drop in school engagement with that age group since then, she said.
"The Junior Cert for many is a very important milestone. And for those who don’t go beyond it, it's critical.
"We really need to be looking at what additional educational supports will be put in place to continue to invest in those young people, particularly those who are vulnerable at the margins who need those supports more to make sure that they’re really properly cared for going into the next academic year.
Although money is always found for the courts, youth and community supports are often the first areas to be cut when recession bites, Prof Kilkelly said — but funding these areas should be obligatory, not discretionary:
“There’s been a lot of talk about Covid dividends, about how we use this opportunity to rethink, refocus, and reinvest in what really matters to us as a society and as a Government.
"That’s the Covid dividend I’d like to see. We need those well-resourced community groups and activities that are often young people-led that can pique their interest, keep them engaged and learning.
She said the structures through which these vital community support services are delivered may allow funding to be quickly cut to them in times of austerity.
“We deliver a lot of services and supports through small community organisations that are funded by Government to do that work — so Government is one step removed from the organisation that’s delivering the service. It can be easier to cut that money than if you’re providing a service directly.
"It’s seen as discretionary spend, whereas schools, education — we have to pay our teachers, that is a core function delivered by the State.
"But we invest in what the public want. So we need to be clear about what’s important and make sure that young people and children are a part of that.
"Children also have the right to be treated equally, without discrimination. But there are some who are very much at the margins or who have acute unmet needs where we have to do so much more to make sure that they have an equal shot, an equal chance."
"It’s important to reflect on what everyone’s been through over the past year and take time to make the right decisions and choices with how we invest post-Covid, and prevent these disadvantages from being accentuated or exaggerated into the future."