One of the first options put forward to my youth work class for gainful employment was working in the youth justice system. I looked into it with keen enthusiasm as it was one of the areas I was interested in when I first joined the course. I began looking at the policies and practice standards required of the sector and was excited to see the focus on restorative practices. I read some journal articles and blog posts and began to ask some questions. Finally, I asked a few people who worked in the sector what it was really like and my whole worldview was thrown into a spin.
Many of the youth workers I spoke to felt like little more than jailers or parole officers. They felt that their role was to keep the young people from causing trouble to society. They mentioned that they got to use some youth work skills however it was minimal. The focus of their work seemed to me to be clearly in the ballpark of retribution not restoration.
I was downtrodden. The system seemed to be talking the talk but not walking the walk. I was put in contact with a number non government support agencies to see what else was happening and my view became brighter. Group conferencing, crime prevention, family mediation and mentoring became my landscape of hope. Perhaps the youth justice system wasn’t so bad.
A number of the youth workers that I met in the statutory youth justice system were what I now know as canny outlaws. Rallying against the system these youth workers spend time building relationships, helping to keep young people involved in treatment programs and providing much needed guidance. The main thing is that these youth workers practiced youth work.
If you are a youth worker in a youth justice system, you need to remember that your first duty is to the young people. You are not a police officer, parole officer or jailer. You are a youth worker. If you remember that then you will provide justice to these most troubled of young people.
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