How change happens

The Theory of Change for the YouthLab Program explains our mission with and for our target audience: youngsters released after detention and professionals working in the judiciary system. Below you will find an overview of what we aim for with  the program. 

CHALLENGES 

Young people

  • resort to  a single and static script when engaging with justice professional
  • deal with  unresolved frustration and trauma from past experiences in the justice system
  • lack skills and tools to meaningfully  transform into a new and positive phase in life
  • experience persistent stigma: a lack of recognition in their new and positive role in life.

Professionals… 

  • resort to  a single and static script when engaging with youth, lacking awareness or skills for a tailor-made and empathic approach. 
  • are limited to  meet youth in roles of ‘offender’ versus ‘justice professional’; often lack  the opportunity for informal meetings outside court and detention. Therefore they are rarely able to connect outside the existing power-dynamics. 

INTERVENTION 

YouthLab facilitates the opportunity for both parties to connect outside this existing   power dynamic. We support and equip formerly detained young people, by creating a (safe) space to share their life story, learn to express themselves and participate in society in a meaningful way. Professionals are trained to act in an empathic and constructive approach towards youngsters and each other. 

A YouthLab training aims to make professionals and youngsters aware of the (single) script(s) they use in contact with each other and how to create multiple and adaptive scripts. For professionals, the aim is to improve their communication (skills) and empathic approach within the power-related situations and settings (like a courtroom). For young people, the purpose of the training is to experience that the youngster and their experience are taken seriously and are worthy of being heard, thereafter making a change to the system and their own lives.

ULTIMATE OUTCOME 

Young people:

“I am worthy to be heard and to be on my best path. My idea of Self transcends the things I have done or what happened to me. I can inspire change for myself and can help others get there too.” 

Professionals:

“I know how to systemically operate and communicate in a youth-friendly way, that is most beneficial for the young person I work with.”

Why YouthLab: Our value proposition

The moment a young person comes in conflict with the law, is arrested and even deprived of his liberty, they enter a new and intimidating world, run by adults that speak a language full of legal jargon. Most young people feel alienated and lost, which has a negative impact on their wellbeing, contact with professionals, perception of fairness of the procedures and ability to participate.

This alienation process is largely a matter of language and communication, as many justice professionals speak in a legal and instrumental system-world language, which is a different language compared to what the young person knows and understands. Professionals also find it challenging to engage and communicate with young people, because of the split reality they are working in: the legal world and the world of the child with its own language, norms and values.

To re-engage the young person in the criminal justice process, the language and communication skills of the system-world (of legal professionals) need to be connected with the expectations and (non)verbal communication skills of young people. Child-friendly communication skills of professionals emphasize respect, demonstrate that young people are taken seriously and treated fairly, and give them the means to increase control of their own case and life.

This is what YouthLab provides: a trust-based space where professionals working in the judiciary and (forensic) youth care can learn from youth experienced in the system and improve their competences in working with minors.

“What motivates me in this project is being able to see professionals in a different light, in a better light, being able to communicate without this hierarchical relationship, even if the respect remains present. I also like the fact that I can share what I have experienced, knowing that I will be listened to and that it will help other young people.”

Young YouthLab trainer, Italy

Bridging the world of young offenders and justice professionals

Up to a point, the world of youth care and of the judiciary in the participating countries is of a systemic kind: it concerns large numbers of youth, reams of dossiers, as well as policy changes and/or budgetary deficits. Within every bureaucratic system there is the risk of the rationality of the system overpowering the life of its subjects – this risk is even greater when the subjects do not feel free to speak out.

Both in youth care and in the judiciary, where there is an unequal power relationship with the youth, the risk of the system overpowering the lived reality of youth is strongly present. For this reason, making the perspectives of the youth present and visible can be a challenge, despite the fact that youth is – or should be – at the center of all these systems. The YouthLab offers these perspectives.

Watch below the trailer of the mini-documentary ‘Exchanging Perspectives. You can watch the full documentary here.

The professional – an existential reality check

The gains of participating in the YouthLab can be plotted on a continuum, ranging from the understanding of youth perspectives to practical skills.

On one end there is the existential reality-check: ‘What is the meaning of my work in this young person’s life?’

Professionals working in the judiciary are in charge of applying the law and/or educational measures and, consequently, they (might) add suffering to the life of a young person – despite their best intentions and legitimate grounds. The severity of this task implies a heavy responsibility – a responsibility that YouthLab participants experience very strongly. In some cases, it is sufficient just to hear what a visit to a courtroom means for a youth—oftentimes, that in itself can have an enormous impact on the professional.

At the other end of the imaginary continuum, there are the practical, trainable skills that are gained: What should one do or not do? Which words resonate with the youth, and through which types of behavior do you lose (or gain?) their understanding?

Justice professionals need to hear criticism, to question themselves. Don’t hesitate to be totally frank with us, we don’t have many opportunities to know how the youth are experiencing our interventions in their lives.

Member of the Public Prosecutor’s Office
Youth x Professional Exchange participant, Belgium

Learning from experience

What Youngsters and Professionals have to say about YouthLab

Relying on the experience of those who have been a part of YouthLab and the youth x justice exchanges allows you to see the actual impact of the program on those who participated, including youngsters who were trained to become experience experts, and justice professionals who joined the exchanges.

Below you will find a collection of video testimonials from YouthLab coordinators, young trainers and participants to inspire you, potential partners and donors.

Models of youth participation

Youth participation in judicial procedures: research outcomes

Research findings on the involvement of children and youth (from now on, often referred as ‘youth’) in decision-making overwhelmingly show youth’s desire to be included in decisions affecting their lives. Participation makes youth feel respected as autonomous persons. Consistent with the theory of self-determination, an autonomy-supportive environment has demonstrated to benefit youth by stimulating engagement, motivation and achievement – for instance, in education, by parents and in (mental) health care[1]. This outweighs the possible concerns youth have, such as being nervous or scared to talk in court[2].

Contrary, being excluded from participation can result in feelings of frustration, desperation and powerlessness, and even lead to problematic behavior[3]. When prevented from participating, chidren and youth ‘learn’ not to have a say and, as a consequence, do not develop trust in their abilities to make decisions on their own.

Research also shows that young people under the age of fourteen often do not fully understand what judicial procedures entail[4], while older adolescents have significantly more knowledge about judicial procedures[5]. Moreover, not knowing what to expect seems to be one of the main reasons why youth in family law proceedings experience anxiety or stress[6]. Research has shown that legal terms are often used in communication with youth, which can be intimidating and can decrease their motivation to participate[7]. However, it is important to note that the development of individual youth may differ: some are behind, and some are ahead. Simply, the age of a young person is not enough to indicate what they can understand. For example, research shows that intelligence, mental health problems and stress because of the trial may play a role in the understanding of the trial[8].

When youth participates in the decision-making process, it increases the chance that they accept the outcome of the decision, even if this differs from their own views[9] because the reasons for taking the decision are explained and, consequently, better understood by them[10]. Involving youth and youth in the decision-making can even increase their reasoning-skills and facilitate them to better express their opinions in the future[11].

To improve participation of youth in judicial proceedings, three conditions are of importance to take into account[12]:

  1. Informing the young person: using child-friendly communication adapted to their level of maturity, preparing them before the proceedings and explaining the decision that has been made.
  2. Creating a safe environment: an informal setting in which the young person does not feel intimidated – neither by the setting nor by adult participants; including a representative or trusted person of the young person.
  3. Communication skills: reducing the young person’s level of stress by giving explanations and making them feel at ease, stimulating them to tell their story, and avoiding suggestive questioning.

Typologies of youth participation

In the past decades, various models for the effective implementation of the right to be heard were designed. Below, three different models will be discussed.

THE LADDER OF PARTICIPATION

Roger Hart introduced the Ladder of children’s participation[13], a tool to understand the different types of children’s participation. The ladder consists of the following rungs:

Non-participation:

  1. Manipulation: situation in which children are used by adults to pretend certain causes were inspired by children.
  2. Decoration: when children are used to help a cause indirectly, but adults not longer pretend that children are the inspiration behind a cause.
  3. Tokenism: when children and youth are given a voice, but they have little or no influence and opportunities to construct their own opinions.

Participation – different degrees

  1. Assigned but informed: youth gets a specific role and receive information about how and why they can participate.
  2. Consulted and informed: youth provides input and advice to adults; they also how know how their views will be used and are informed about the outcomes of the decisions.
  3. Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children: adults initiate a certain project, but the decision-making is shared with youth.
  4. Child-initiated and directed: youth initiates a project and adults are only there to support.
  5. Child-initiated, shared decision with adults: projects are initiated by youth and decision-making is shared between youth and adults.

Pathways to Participation

Harry Shier developed a model of Pathways to Participation[14], where five stages of children’s participation are described. Shier explains that this model is inspired by Hart’s ladder and serves as an additional tool.

Shier distinguishes five levels of participation:

  • Level 1, children are listened to: youth are listened to with due care and attention, but only when they themselves come forth with an opinion.
  • Level 2, children are supported in expressing their views: adults take action to hear youth, who can openly and confidently share their opinions.
  • Level 3, children’s views are taken into account: this calls for adults actively incorporating youth’s views into their decision-making. It is important to note that this does not imply that youth’s views are always followed.
  • Level 4, children are involved in the decision-making process: this level involves youth in both the consultation and the decision-making.
  • Level 5, children share power and responsibility for decision-making: here, youth are not only involved in the decision-making, but they share power and responsibility for the decisions taken. At this level, adults cannot overrule youth.

Each of these levels may have different degrees of commitment to empowerment. This is why Shier also introduced three stages of commitment that cut across each level of participation. They are:

  1. Openings: this occurs when adults are ‘ready to operate’ and make a personal commitment to work in a certain way;
  2. Opportunity: different needs are met to enable the adult to operate, including but not limited to like resources, skills and knowledge;
  3. Obligation: it occurs when youth participation is built into the system through a policy. This means adults have to act in a certain way to enable participation.
Shier, 2001 – The Lundy model of child participation

Finally, Laura Lundy’s[15] model conceptualizes children’s right to participation. She distinguishes important elements of effective participation based on article 12 CRC: dialogue between adults and children, providing feedback to children on their views, and giving due weight to their views. Lundy’s model sets out four distinct, yet interrelated elements to the right to be heard:

  1. Space: Award children the opportunity to set forth their views
  2. Voice: Facilitate children to set forth their views
  3. Audience: Listen to children’s views and
  4. Influence: Appropriately act upon children’s views.

According to Lundy, tokenistic participation should be avoided. To achieve this, the dialogues between children and adults should be encouraged by decision-makers and authorities. However, she also argues that tokenistic participation is better than no participation at all: just because it is not 100% perfect and meaningful, does not mean it is legitimate to not do it at all[16].

References

  1. Reeve et al., 2004; Su & Reeve, 2011
  2. Nunes, 2021; Smeets et al., 2020; Birnbaum & Bala, 2017; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2007
  3. Bessell, 2011; Barnes, 2012; Winter, 2010
  4. Grisso, 2000; Rap, 2016
  5. Grisso et al., 2003
  6. Smeets et al., 2020
  7. Ten Brummelaar et al., 2018; Turoy-Smith et al., 2018
  8. Grisso, 2000; Grisso et al., 2003; Lansdown, 2005; Scott & Steinberg, 2008
  9. Saywitz et al., 2010; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2007
  10. Collins, 2017; Schofield, 2005; Van Bijleveld et al., 2015
  11. Fitzgerald, et al., 2009
  12. Rap & Smeets, 2021
  13. Hart, 1992
  14. Shier, 2001
  15. Lundy, 2001
  16. Lundy, 2007

You can download the full list of bibliographical references below

Exchanging Perspectives

An inspirational insight on youth participation

The documentary below shows the trajectory of the youngsters participating in the EU YouthLab project in Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. For one weekend, they had the opportunity to reflect together on their experience in the justice system, on how the program transformed  them and their aspirations for the future of the juvenile justice system. 

See below the documentary with English subtitles.

The documentary is also available with subtitles in Dutch, French and Italian.

International policy-frameworks on youth participation

By linking your YouthLab to international policy frameworks and standards, you are able to better legitimize it and engage partners and other stakeholders. 

So explore below the main internationally adopted frameworks and understand why these matter in your YouthLab initiative. 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Council of Europe protects and promotes the human rights of all children, based on the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, the European Convention on Human Rights and other legal standards. Among the Council’s main topics are Child participation and Child-friendly justice

YouthLab as a model is a best practice on how to give shape to these two main areas of focus.  Over the years it has evolved bottom-up, in co-creation with both youngsters and justice professionals, to meet the International and European mission to protect and promote the rights of those under eighteen years of age within the justice system. 

After all:

The proceedings shall be conducive to the best interests of the juvenile and shall be conducted in an atmosphere of understanding, which shall allow the juvenile to participate therein and to express herself or himself freely. 

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (‘The Beijing Rules’), 1985, para. 14.2.  


In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the United Nations. The CRC is a legally binding instrument to ensure the rights of children worldwide. In its first article, children are defined as ‘every human being below the age of eighteen years’ (article 12 CRC).

1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters aff ecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings aff ecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national  law.

Article 1 CRC : The right to be heard

One of the core children’s rights is the right to be heard (article 12 CRC). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN-Committee) explains in its General Comment No. 12 (2009) how to implement this right in practice. Article 12 CRC applies to both individual children and groups of children; they should be able to explain their views on all matters affecting them and their views should be given due weight. According to the UN-Committee, this means that the views of children should be seriously considered; simply listening is not enough (para. 28). Through participation, children can also learn how their views impacted the outcome of certain decisions (para. 3). Moreover, the best interests of the child (article 3 CRC) can only be considered when the child is heard, when taking a decision that affects the life of the child.

For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national  law.

The UN-Committee has formulated requirements that are needed for an effective implementation of article 12 CRC (para. 134). To hear and have children participate, the process should be:

  1. Transparent and informative;
  2. Voluntary;
  3. Respectful to children’s views and the context of children’s lives;
  4. Relevant to the lives of children, enabling them to draw on their knowledge and to address issues they themselves find relevant;
  5. Child-friendly, with adapted environments, working methods and resources;
  6. Inclusive, with opportunities for marginalized children;
  7. Supported by training for adults, in which children can be included as trainers and facilitators
  8. Safe and sensitive to risk, minimizing risk to children of violence, exploitation or other negative consequences;
  9. Accountable, with a commitment to follow-up and evaluation.

With regard to youth justice proceedings, the UN-Committee (2009) explains that throughout every stage of the penal proceedings the right of the child to be heard should be respected and implemented (para. 57-58). To effectively participate, children should be supported to understand the charges and consequences and the proceedings should be conducted in a language the child understands and in an atmosphere that allows children to participate. The UN-Committee (2019) refers to developments in child-friendly justice, which encourage child-friendly language, child-friendly interview spaces and courts, appropriate support, removing intimidating legal clothing and adapting the proceedings (para. 46).

The need for continuous and systematic training of professionals is also emphasized by the UN-Committee (2019, paras. 39, 52, 95, 111-112). This training should cover information from different fields on a) social/other causes of crime, b) development of children, c) inequalities that may lead to discrimination, d) the culture and trends in the world of young people, e) the dynamics of group activities and f) diversion measures and non-custodial sentences at hand (para. 112).

The European children’s rights framework 

Within the European Union (EU) article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR) contains the rights of the child. Article 24 (1) CFR explains that children have the right to the protection and care that is needed for their well-being. It also sets out that children’s views shall be taken into consideration in matters that concern them in accordance with their age and maturity. Article 24 (2) CFR explains that in all actions relating to children, the children’s best interests must be a primary consideration. In 2011 the European Commission stated in its EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child that making the justice system in Europe more child-friendly is a key priority. In 2021 a renewed EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child was launched. The strategy focuses on six areas defining the priorities for EU policy making; the first concerns children’s participation. The EU intends to promote and improve the inclusive and systemic participation of children at the local, national and EU levels. 

With regard to youth justice proceedings, the Directive (EU) 2016/800 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 May 2016 on procedural safeguards for children who are suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings (EU Directive) is of relevance. It contains procedural guarantees for young suspects. Important rights set out in this legally-binding directive are: the right to information, the right to an individual assessment, and the right to participate effectively in the trial. 

At the level of the Council of Europe, the Guidelines on Child-friendly justice (2010) play a key role in defining and implementing youth participation. The European Commission stated in its 2011 Agenda that the use of the Guidelines on child-friendly justice should be promoted and taken into account in future legal instruments.

The Guidelines give detailed recommendations to ensure child-friendly justice for all children. According to the Guidelines, child-friendly justice refers to those justice systems that guarantee to respect and effectively implement children’s rights at the highest achievable level. Consideration should be given to the maturity and understanding of the child and the circumstances of the case. 

Specific recommendations that apply to children involved in judicial proceedings include:

  1.  Information should be adapted to children’s age and maturity and should be provided in an understandable language (para. IV, A.1).
  2. When children come before a judge, it is important that their right to be heard is respected. Judges should hear the child and give due weight to their views (preferably in all matters that affect them and at least when the children understand the matters in question). Children should not be excluded from being heard based on their age. The judgments should be explained in a language that children can understand (para. IV, D.3). 
  3. Professionals who work with children should be trained on the rights and needs of children. Within this training, there should be a focus on the different age groups of children (para. IV, A.4). 
  4. In general, a multidisciplinary approach is needed, amongst others to assess the situation of the child (para. IV, A.5). 

The fundamental principles that guide child friendly justice are:

  1. Participation – including the right  to be informed, to be given appropriate ways to access justice and to be consulted and heard in proceedings involving or affecting the child.
  2. Best interests of the child as a primary consideration in all matters involving or affecting the child.
  3. Dignity, safeguarded by treating the child with care, sensitivity, fairness and respect throughout any procedure or case.
  4. Protection from discrimination on any grounds such as sex, race, colour or ethnic background, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, socio-economic background, status of their parent(s), association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity or other status.
  5. Rule of law, which should be applied fully to children as it does to adults. In addition, elements of due process should be guaranteed for children as they are for adults and should not be minimized or denied under the pretext of the child’s best interests.

Financial principles and fundraising

The financial model of YouthLab rests on 2 pillars.

  1. The youth are at all times paid for their contribution there is no question about it. If the YouthLabis requested to deliver training and decides to accept the assignment, but the interested organization does not have funds , the YouthLab host should reimburse the youth from its own pocket. The exact amount will depend on the host organization and you might want to consider the local costs of living, national and taxing legislation, etc. In some cases, the youth might feel that being paid makes their engagement feel less sincere – in this case, you can encourage them to donate the money instead of not accepting the payment. The payment is not only a way to encourage youth’s participation, but mainly to demonstrate that their contribution is valuable and can make a positive impact.
  2. YouthLab raises money just like a consultancy bureau would: by ‘selling’ consultancy services and training courses. The ‘ clients’ of YouthLab services are aware that they are paying for a ‘social enterprise’: the revenue covers the expenses and payment for the trainers (youngsters), the YouthLab organization as well as the leadership course to prepare the experience experts. When the YouthLab starts out, it will often be the case that its revenue will not be enough to cover expenses. In the Netherlands, for instance, it often required supplementation with contributions from equity funds.

Tailored agreements with partners

The term ‘consultancy bureau’ works for the youth—it gives them a sense of pride—but it is also misleading. In the end, YouthLab tries to create ‘tailored’ agreements with partners regarding coverage of expenses. For example, in The Netherlands there are separate price agreements with the Public Prosecution Service: one half-day training session ‘costs’ 1000 euros. With the Ministry of Security and Justice we charge the same fee, but we also charge extra personnel costs. Thus, YiP charges both partners the market rate, corresponding with the regular costs of hiring external contractors. The partners are aware that they are supporting the financial model of a social enterprise.

However a new YouthLab organization can choose not to charge participants for the full service in order to gain practice, finetune their training and build a demand. That has been the case of Defence for Children – Italy. Nevertheless, a small fee was charged upon registration so that professionals feel commitment to the training throughout the sessions.

At the same time, the YouthLab also works together with colleges and universities, which usually have less available funding. Thus, when it is financially feasible to do so, YouthLab will also accept these assignments. After all, the YouthLab does not strive for maximum financial gain, but the maximum number of learning opportunities for the participating youth and the justice/youth care professionals.

FUNDRAISING MODEL

Formal starting point of acquisition: for youth, for professionals

In many countries, professionals working in the judiciary and/or (forensic) youth care are required to take classes in order to improve their communication and social skills. Moreover, some occupational groups, such as (juvenile) lawyers, are also required to complete a number of classes linked to ‘training points’. Only when they have achieved sufficient training points can they remain a member of the occupation. Thanks to these requirements, many budgets will have resources set aside for the education and training of justice and/or (forensic) youth care professionals; these are often explicitly labeled as such. In the ideal situation, the YouthLab will come to be seen as a place where one can meet these educational requirements in an interactive, highly insightful and fun way.

Informal starting point of acquisition: searching for connection

More often than not, professionals working in the judiciary and (forensic) youth care participate in the training course not out of requirement, but from a deep seated desire to ‘truly’ connect with youths. This is not a straightforward matter with youth who have been in conflict with the law, for the simple reason that this conflict frames and accompanies nearly all contacts they have. Due to this, many meetings are negatively loaded from the outset, which should be seen as a consequence of the structure framing the relationship between youth and professional.

The YouthLab exists both inside and outside this structure. Outside, because the YouthLab organization ideally operates separately and autonomously from the judiciary. Inside, because its outsider status forms a good basis for partnering up with the judiciary. The blend of insider and outsider status increases the chances of a ‘successful’ interaction with the youth; and this is reflected also in the training and/or consultancy services. Because of this, the training courses are able to fulfill a deeper need for a real and reflective conversation.

A final element of added value: the YouthLab organization takes on the risks

From the very first moment that the YouthLab starts providing training courses, the question will arise:

‘What if a juvenile prosecutor receives training from a youngster, who later will have to appear in court again?’

The odds are very real, because the rate of recidivism among juveniles is often high, and also because ‘old cases’ can follow youths for a long time. It is therefore possible that a youth does not realize that he is part of a criminal investigation, even though a justice professional is aware of this already.

For that reason, it is wise not to assert that YouthLab youths will never re-offend, and to position this risk as a starting point for collaboration. This means that the YouthLab never makes the promise that the participating youths will not re-offend, all the while committing itself at all times to prevent this from happening. Secondly, this also means that the YouthLab will enter appropriate agreements with the partner organization and, if necessary, formulate protocols that enable YouthLab to respond swiftly when a youngster re-offends or falls under suspicion again.

For example, in the Netherlands the following agreements apply: a younster must notify the YouthLab immediately, when he becomes aware that he is the subject of criminal investigation. Subsequently, this individual may not join in or provide training sessions in this period of time, unless agreed upon differently with the partners.

In the Netherlands it has happened that a youth, who provided many training sessions, committed a serious (and media sensitive) offense. The Ministry of Justice swiftly declared the matter as ‘sensitive’—however, the protocols that were agreed upon beforehand were able to disarm the situation very quickly. What proved to be especially important in this matter was that the news reported that ‘a juvenile of the YouthLab umbrella organization’ (in Dutch: Stichting Young in Prison) committed the offense, and not a ‘trainer from the Public Prosecution Service’. In short, the host organization functions as a buffer, insulating the partner organization from these types of risks. This too is an important reason why partners choose to work together with the YouthLab organization.

I get paid to tell my story?

When Joel joined a YouthLab training for the first time, he was very pleased when he received his envelope with his contribution. Out of honesty, he came up to me: “Is this the right amount? My travel expenses were much lower than this.” The trainer explained to him that he will get a contribution for each training, as well as a refund for his travel expenses. He added, your experiences and your time are very valuable to us and many professionals. We can learn from your experiences, and you deserve to get paid for your efforts.