Cormac O'Keeffe: How do we save children from a life of crime?

Ahead of the publication of a new youth justice strategy, Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe looks at a number of innovative projects, including those aimed at the most chaotic of young offenders, that have been evaluated as part of the process. If it were not for the programmes, the young people say they would either be in prison, or dead
Cormac O'Keeffe: How do we save children from a life of crime?

Figures show that young adults, aged 18-24, are disproportionately represented in the prison population. File picture. 

Finding ways to prevent children from getting sucked into serious criminality and gangs is a key part of efforts to deal with crime.

But it's an endeavour that receives far less public and political attention – and financial investment - than measures to deal with existing criminals and gangs.

In addition, community youth projects and drug projects have long complained of the impact of successive cuts to their budgets because of austerity measures and, most recently, have flagged concerns at the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on a vulnerable cohort of juveniles.

Figures show that young adults, aged 18-24, are disproportionately represented in the prison population, accounting for around 20% of the total prison population, compared to 9% of the general population.

The primary system of dealing with children (aged between 12 and 18) engaged in anti-social behaviour and criminality is through the Garda Youth Diversion Programme.

This programme has received praise by all the relevant quarters, though its image was tarnished in recent years by revelations at the wider failings of the garda system to deal with those juveniles who were not admitted into the programme.

These minors – who were unsuitable because of the seriousness of their crimes and/or because they would not accept responsibility – got away, as the Policing Authority heard, “Scott free”.

Where they were supposed to have been charged and brought through the criminal justice system, they escaped without any sanction.

This was an injustice to their victims, but also a failing of the State to intervene in their lives to try and turn them around.

The Government is about to publish a new youth justice strategy and have looked at a number of innovative projects as part of an evaluation process.

These include projects aimed at the most chaotic of young offenders, in which some of them told researchers that if it were not for the programme they would either be “dead” or “in prison”.

The grim reality facing many young people sucked into gangs was manifested in the most horrific way last January with the murder and dismemberment of 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods – his life brutally taken as part of a feud involving rival gangs in Drogheda and north Dublin.

One of the projects evaluated found that three quarters of the youths participating were involved in organised criminal networks.

Others examined those trying to create an alternative education system for juveniles.

A final initiative is trying to give juveniles valuable work experience.

These reports, commissioned by the Department of Justice, provide a rare insight into these little-known initiatives.

The projects come at a fraction of the costs of secure detention. They show that, while there are no easy answers, it is possible to change the lives of many of these children, and, in turn, benefit society.

The hardest cases 

The blandly-titled Programme A is a one-off in the country and caters for the worst of juvenile offenders.

Unlike the bulk of young criminals, these minors are carrying out major crimes, such as serious assaults, drug dealing, burglary and possession of dangerous weapons.

They were persisting with their offending and they were failing to engage in normal Garda Youth Diversion Projects.

In addition, three quarters of those referred (12 of 16) to the programme were suspected to be involved in organised criminal networks.

Preventing children from getting sucked into serious criminality and gangs is a key part of efforts to deal with crime. Picture: Iain White / Fennell Photography
Preventing children from getting sucked into serious criminality and gangs is a key part of efforts to deal with crime. Picture: Iain White / Fennell Photography

The project was set up in August 2017 and this evaluation was conducted 18 months into what is a four-year programme.

One headline result from the evaluation was that half of the group “either halted or reversed” the downward trajectory of their lives.

The juveniles concerned described their lives as being “without hope” and certain to end in “either prison of death” if it were not for the programme’s intervention.

The evaluation, conducted by Annabel Egan, said that substance abuse was an “acute risk” for most participants.

The programme was set up in an area of high socioeconomic disadvantage and organised criminal activity.

Participants were aged over 15 and under 18.

Unlike the mainstream diversion programmes, this project does not require young people to take responsibility or agree to be supervised.

The project operates a youth work model, including large amounts of street work and “relentless outreach”, as well as individual close and work with other agencies.

As of April 2019, there were 16 young people on the programme, 14 of them referred by garda juvenile liaison officers.

One estimate calculated that the 16 minors were responsible for over half of all offences committed by juveniles in the garda district.

The welfare needs of the group were substantial: all of them had drug problems, all were early school leavers and they all were living in an area of high disadvantage.

In addition, most of them came from one-parent families, from a jobless household and had addiction in the home.

The majority had drug debts and had witnessed “extreme violence or death”.

Almost a fifth had a diagnoses mental illness.

If that were not enough, youth workers suspected that most of the juveniles were involved in a criminal gang and this, the authors said, posed several problems.

They said research had demonstrated that once engaged in a criminal network, there were strong factors pulling them in, such as reverence of network leaders, the respect gained locally from being involved in the gang as well as access to cash and drugs. 

There were also darker forces, such as drug debts and fear of being watched and suffering retribution.

The research said these factors can discourage “pro-social behaviour” and “block” exit from the networks.

It said while people caught in this situation may progress, that regression was “highly likely”, particularly if the young person remains living in the area.

This would suggest the “necessity of long-term intervention” and the need to “temper expectations”.

Revealing an insight on the scale of the task, youth workers told researchers that their outreach work was “relentless” and “like stalking”.

The report said: “They said the purpose of this approach was to demonstrate to young people that ‘we are different: we are not going to give up on you and we are not going to go away just because you tell us too’.” 

One youth workers said: “You need a thick skin to keep going back, but persistence works.” 

One juvenile said: “I only came in to get [key worker] off my case…but once you get to know them you feel different about it.” 

Getting the juveniles to face up to their crimes or the impact on victims was not easy.

The report said: “Participants also struggled to explicitly recognise the seriousness of their offending, preferring instead to dismiss this as ‘messing’.” 

But when asked what their lives would be like without the programme half of them said they would be “in prison” or “dead”.

Juveniles described trust as central to their relationship with key youth workers, with most saying they were the only adults they could rely on for support when in trouble.

Staff at projects referred to “long term absence of structure and routine” in the lives of participants and a fear of failure.

What stands out in the evaluation is the importance the juveniles said the key workers played in practical supports.

“If you have an interview or job and it’s far away, they [key worker] would get out of bed to bring you,” said one participant.

Another one said: “They never forget about anything. If it wasn’t for them, I would be lost. They even remember your court dates.” 

But they aren’t always successful. One juvenile said his key worker was “sound” but added that nothing would keep him out of trouble.

The report said access to drug treatment services was something that would benefit the programme.

Participants said that at the time they were referred to the programme that drugs and alcohol were a “significant negative influence” in their lives.

Most juveniles were not willing to discuss their current drug use, preferring to dismiss it as casual and occasional. 

They distinguished between heroin and cocaine, which they considered to be drug abuse, and cannabis and prescription medication, which they did not.

But this was not the view of staff, who said substance abuse remained a “significant challenge”.

There was a split result in terms of substance abuse, with a positive outcome (risk decreased) for half and a negative outcome (risk increased) for the other half.

Researchers said that while there was a reluctance to take responsibility for their offending, or recognise their drug problems, most expressed a “keen desire” for change in their lives.

It assessed that the proportion of participants assessed as high risk fell from 60% to 40% over the 18 months.

Most juveniles reported improvements in their motivation, education, offending, living arrangements and family relationships.

The report said that while there was not a dramatic reduction in risk, this would not be expected until later in the programme. But it said there were early signs of “significant progress” and a clear reduction in five of the 16.

It added: “Most participants interviewed for this evaluation also credited their involvement with Programme A for keeping them alive and/out of prison.” 

With a total budget of €132,000, it estimated the total cost per person per month was €687.

This compared to a daily cost of €1,039 for a juvenile held in Oberstown Children Detention Centre.

It said Programme A was “a one-of-a-kind pilot” and did not think it should be extended until the four-year pilot was completed and evaluated.

Next hardest cases 

The second project was set up earlier, in 2015, aimed at a wider age group – 12 to 17.

The similarly uninspiringly-titled Programme B is a shorter project than Programme A, with average engagement period of nine months.

It targets juveniles with high levels of need or at risk of progressing in crime.

It has worked with 43 juveniles since it started and has closed 32 cases.

Twelve of these (38%) were positive closures, but 20 were negative. 

Programme managers told researchers they prioritise those minors who are motivated to change.
Programme managers told researchers they prioritise those minors who are motivated to change.

Half of the negative outcomes were because of low attendance/non-engagement and more than a third were because of a lack of motivation to change.

The average age was 15 and around one in six of the youths were Travellers.

Four out ten were repeat offenders and similar to Programme A, they were far more serious - assault, burglary, robbery, selling drugs and arson - than the normal offences associated with juveniles – theft and public order offences.

Programme managers told researchers they prioritise those minors who are motivated to change.

“I’m not going to give a place to a young person who is still telling me to F*** off at the door. They are not ready to engage. I’ll give the place to someone who will use it,” said one manager.

Again, the background of the kids highlights a lot of issues, with almost two thirds having a history with the Child and Family Agency, Tusla.

The evaluation, also conducted by Annabel Egan, said the prevalence of mental illness among the juveniles and parents was “striking” with almost six out of ten with a diagnosed mental illness and half involved with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

Seven out of ten of the minors had parents with a mental illness, while the same number had family members with a criminal history.

The research said that nearly a quarter of participants may be involved in organised criminal networks.

The project said that reducing offending is a long term objective, but that short-to-medium term objective is to keep the juveniles in education and boost their pro-social behaviour.

The researchers said the project has had a “positive, if not dramatic” impact on family relations.

In relation to their youth workers, the participants were clear that what they most valued was having ‘someone to talk to’ who was ‘always there to listen’.

Researchers said that support from project workers to participants with practical issues was valuable, such as helping them re-engage with education, prepare and attend for court.

One of the managers underlined the success they were having: “We are getting the most chaotic young people often at a late stage and yet we are seeing changes in behaviour – clear periods of doing well accompanied by consequential thinking. Some even stop offending altogether.” 

Another said: “Getting away for over nights can provide young people with a chance to practice basic skills like cooking, winding down to go to bed, dis-engaging from technology and demonstrating what a good day time/night time routine should look like. 

This cannot be under estimated as many of these young people come from extremely chaotic environments and have not observed this at home. 

A third said: "Without [Programme B] I am on bended knees to Tusla to try and get high risk young people who are refusing to engage in mainstream projects referred elsewhere. 

"The fact that [Programme B] exists means I now have an avenue through which to directly refer young people so that they can get the help they need and get it quickly.” 

Of the 32 cases closed to date, 20 (62%) were closed for negative reasons and just 38% were closed for positive reasons.

Researchers said the high percentage of negative outcomes signalled the need to “temper any expectation” of more widespread positive results.

It said it was possible that many might benefit from a significantly longer intervention. 

It was also possible that the visibly close working relationship between programme staff and referring agents (Gardai or Probation) “may stand in the way”.

It said despite the overall negative outcome, the programme was assessed of having positive results in relation to substance abuse and behaviour.

It pointed out that “overall criminogenic risk”, referring to factors determining reoffending risk, had been “reduced or stabilised in 52% of closed cases”.

When the juveniles were referred to the project, 94% were neither in stable education/training nor employment. This figure reduced to 72% on the closure of cases.

In addition, 92% of participants said the programme encouraged them to attend school and 85% said it assisted them to get on better with their teachers.

It said stakeholders viewed the project as a “crucial part” of the youth justice infrastructure in the area.

It estimated that the average cost of service delivery per participant per month is €1,215. It said this is less than one and a half days in Oberstown.

Programme B was “one of a kind pilot”, it said, targeting young people at risk of escalating their offending/anti social behaviour.

Keeping them in education 

The clunkily-worded QQI Coordinator Programme is based around four Garda Youth Diversion Programmes in the Midlands.

Its purpose is to provide an alternative educational setting and has dealt with 136 learners between 2015 and 2019.

The evaluation, carried out by Sandra Roe Research, said that 57% of participants were male and 43% female. The project achieved a 90% retention and progression rate.

The programme works on average with 40 juveniles a year and has 10 tutors.

The four projects include the Acorn Project in Edenderry and the Fusion Project in Tullamore, both in Offaly, and the EYE Project in Mullingar and the ALF Project in Athlone, both in Co Westmeath.

Key issues affecting the young people were early school leaving, learning difficulties, criminal behaviour, drug misuses, drug dealing, mental health and intergenerational disadvantage.

One parent said: “He got a great Junior Cert and is very bright but he had a real problem with school. 

"He was psychology assessed and had counselling and he was very angry and he stopped communicating in school and wouldn’t do anything. He was asked to leave and I didn’t know what to do."

One youth worker said: “There have been a lot of suicides in the area. There are a lot of behaviour or anger management issues among young people, ADHD, dyslexia.” 

A parent said: “She had mental health issues like panic attacks and she was so sick in school and was self-harming out of frustration. We had to give up on school because she wasn’t able for it.” 

The evaluation said drugs were identified as a big factor.

A programme coordinator said: “Drugs would be the main issue around here. It’s also the lifestyle that young people see that drugs can offer. Young people can make thousands a week dealing drugs.” 

A youth justice worker added: “Drugs would be a big issue here. We had people in trouble that were running for the drug dealers. It would be also robbing to get money for the drugs.” 

The report said communities were affected by drug dealing and violence.

Some of the programme coordinators said the key preparation for the programme was young people being ready and willing to participate.

Many of the juveniles had learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, and behavioural issues such as ADHD and poor attention span, the evaluation report said.

The programme works at the pace of the juveniles and is in a more relaxed youth work setting.

The report said staff listen and talk to young people about the reasons behind their behaviour.

One youth justice worker said: “When they are in a temper and very angry you leave them off but then you challenge them about their behaviour the next day and that works well.” 

A programme coordinator said: “In the years she was with us, I’d say there were fifty times she walked out the door. We always maintained the same stance which was, ‘you are brilliant and when you are ready we will be there.” 

Parents expressed positive changes from attending Programme B, resulting in them being less aggressive and less stressed at home.

The juveniles were also taught about practical things like budgeting, using a bank machine, form filling and cooking.

One project said it found it difficult to engage parents from the Traveller community initially.

On the programme’s value for money, one coordinator said: “She was heading in one direction, where she was going to be a burden to the State, and in terms of value for money, she is going to be a net contributor to the State. 

"She told us she was going to go on the dole and she was selling drugs to augment that. If only two of them transferred from the dole and it is the shift from dependence to independence.” 

Another coordinator said: “The cost of keeping young people like these in an institution is around €150k and for the cost of a third of it we can help sixteen of them here.” 

Some of the juveniles have progressed to employment, including one being an apprentice to a “celebrity chef” and another becoming a corporal in the Army.

One coordinator said: “Some of the successes we have had are amazing. We had a guy who wasn’t suited to school and he was very disruptive. 

"His family were the main drug dealers in the area and he would have followed that road. 

Through engaging here and through patience and resilience he has gone on to further training and employment. 

"Now he volunteers here two nights a week doing football with other young people.” 

One youth worker said there would need to be more funding and more hours if the programme was rolled out across the country.

One coordinator highlighted an issue with attracting girls: “With girls it’s harder to find something that keeps their engagement. 

"I meet with them and see what is going on with them and we offer them something and they can take it or not. The girls did the nail art and it worked well to get them in and interested.” 

The juveniles said the patience of coordinators helped.

One said: “He [coordinator] has great belief in us all. He tells us, ‘you are going to go so far in life so don’t give up now’.” 

Another said: "It [programme] actually helped me find what I’d like to do. I’d like to do personal fitness but I never thought I could do it. I’m doing the health and fitness part of the programme at the moment and it’s really good.” 

A third juvenile said: “I always wanted to do carpentry. We have carpentry classes once a week here. They give you information about how to get an apprenticeship and all that here.” 

Many of them said the programme boosted their self-confidence.

“Before I came here, I wouldn’t even talk to people and I was very shy and now I’d chat to everyone,” said one.

The participants also said it helped reduce their offending behaviour.

“If I seen a car before it was, ‘how do I rob it’. Now, I would walk clean by a car now and not even think about it,” said one juvenile.

A second minor said: “I want to say a big thanks to them [programme coordinator and youth justice worker]. 

"They are the two main reasons I got back my life and went down the right road. If it wasn’t for them, I would probably be doing armed robberies and be in prison by now.” 

A third said: “I was doing bad shit when I came here. I was on coke and robbing and everything and they sat me down and made me realise I was going down the wrong path.” 

Concluding, the research said the programme should only be provided to young people on a needs-related basis.

“However, for young people who are out of education and are involved in Garda Youth Diversion Projects, the programme offers a great opportunity to return to education,” it said.

It recommended more funding for tutor hours, ways of engaging with more young females, funding for transport for the kids and training for tutors.

Working Life 

This broader scheme is a work experience initiative that comprised 20 projects in 2019 and 15 in 2018.

In 2018, 56 young people started the programme (most aged 15), some 70% of them males.

The evaluation report, again conducted by Sandra Roe Research, that two thirds of the young people finished the programme, with the majority.

One of the big difficulties facing course organisers was to attract employers.

Importantly, it found that overall young people “felt the programme worked very well”.

The work programme was initially developed by ‘Ossory Youth’ in Kilkenny in 2015 and copied around the country.

A third of the young people were from unemployed households and almost two-thirds were from one-parent homes. Six out of ten were living in social housing.

Key issues facing the juveniles include offending, behavioural issues, mental health issues, learning difficulties, Asperger’s, ADHD as well as early school leaving, substance abuse and intergenerational unemployment.

One youth worker said: “Some of the young people in the programme would have a reading age of five or six years of age.” 

In addition to a general issue of attracting employers, one youth service experienced difficulties in recruiting employers to take young Travellers.

Interestingly, this project said they did not experience the same difficulties recruiting placements for other ethnic minorities such as young people from an African background.

Talking about the challenge, one youth service manager said: “We had to find emphatic employers that were willing to give young people a leg up. 

"The pool of employers wasn’t difficult to build up. For example, we had butchers, shops, hotels, gyms. 

"They were mostly self-employed people, some that had suffered adversary themselves or their children had. Placements were not easy to come but you had to mind them.” 

One youth worker said: “One of the lads was determined to go and become a mechanic. He is flying out there now and has an apprenticeship and now the owner says he is the best fella he ever had.”

 Another youth service manager said: “Young people build a relationship with the employers and from the employers they see these so called ‘gurriers’ and they see the goodness there that we know is there.” 

One manager said it was good value for money: “To have four young people on the programme costs €2,000. It works well.” 

Practical issues, such as setting up bank accounts, was a challenge for many young people, often because of lack of documentation, such as birth certificates and passports, or bills in their name at their address.

Many programme managers complained at the amount of paper work the programme involved.

The evaluation said that while some employers considered the young people to be a huge asset to their business, others said it created more work for them.

Employers said that as well as the experience, the placement has bigger benefits for the participants.

“If they go for an interview for a job, they can say I have worked here for six months and they would ask you for a reference,” said one employer.

The types of employment participants worked in included shops, supermarkets, garages, cafes, restaurants, hotels, gyms, landscaping, hairdressers and in youth services.

The report said young people learn important basic qualities, including timekeeping, attendance, budgeting, organisational skills and communication.

Young people told researchers they learned a lot.

“I’ve learned it’s hard work. It was hard enough, getting up early in the morning. I have to wake up at a quarter to seven and walk over to the other side of town,” said one youth.

Another said: “I have learned social skills. I have learned to be better around people. I was very shy beforehand.” 

A number of the participants suffering from anxiety and mental health issues said the programme helped them deal with their anxieties.

Almost all the participants said the placement made them think about their futures and what they would like to work at.

Concluding, the research said: “Overall, the evaluation found that the Work to Learn Programme was very effective in meeting its aims and objectives to young people, employers and youth services.” 

It said the young people “acquired various work-related skills” and gained experience of a working environment, in addition to increasing their self-confidence.

It said the programme assisted young people to figure out what they want to work at in the future and gave some of the young people “a determination and focus” to return to education and training”.

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