Challenges & lessons learned

A successful Youthlab takes a lot of coordination and skills. It is normal to be faced with challenges and doubts along the way. In this section, you can rely on the experience and lessons learned from partners to have a head start in your program and be ready for the challenges.

Navigating the inherent power difference between previously detained youth and justice professionals

The training is presented as an opportunity to question the roles of each actor during the judicial procedures, to take distance from those roles and to analyze their effects on the interaction between youth and justice professionals. The absence of legal implications is usually enough to create an atmosphere that is less focused on the distribution of power and more on shared reflection and perspective taking.

In order to further strengthen the power balance, you can have as a requirement for the youngsters’ participation that their judicial proceeding is finalized. That way they feel confident and free to speak and exchange with justice professionals without any fear of retaliation.

Creating the right mindset for the youth trainers to facilitate open, meaningful, person-to-person dialogue

This mindset is usually part of the training preparation sessions and other follow-up meetings – and that is why they are so important. The youth should be trained properly in order to interact with justice professionals. Peer-support, methodological skills, knowledge in terms of legislation, practices and learning from peer-experiences helps building self-confidence and self-awareness. This provides youth with many opportunities to practice this open mode of communication both with each other and with the moderator. Contact between youth and ongoing support is crucial to facilitating and maintaining this openness.

FInally, making it clear to youth trainers that they are an added value to the program due to their experience is important, while ensuring that they are not required to share their story with anyone.

Creating the right mindset for the justice professionals to facilitate open, meaningful, person-to-person dialogue

When the exchange offer is disseminated, the programme with the goals and approaches is included. The professionals who register are thus informed in advance, which can also create a selection bias: the participants who are most likely to register are also those who are to some extent aware of the issues.

Once the exchanges start, participants are reminded of the objectives of the sessions, that is to say the constructive criticism of the juvenile justice system. The youth are then introduced as junior trainers. It is shared that the youngsters were in contact with the justice system in the past, overcame these problems and afterwards undertook a specific training to be part of the program. Thanks to this, they now provide justice professionals with a very relevant perspective of the justice system.

Establishing clear boundaries that help safeguard the youngsters against undue pressure to share personal information

The youth’s experience is crucial for this program as they gained a particular perspective of the justice system. During the exchange sessions, the young trainers provide observations and analysis drawn from their experiences and reflect together on issues that are important to them. However, the scope of the training is not the analysis of their story. It should be clearly stated in the ground rules that questions about the concrete offenses are not encouraged as they are not useful for the purpose of the workshop. Instead, the focus should be on the improvement of the skills and attitude of professionals working in the youth justice system and how they relate to the youth involved in criminal proceedings.

Protecting the well-being and boundaries of individuals when strong emotions arise

It is especially important to discuss the youth’s boundaries on a regular basis, depending on each activity planned. The preparation of activities as a group allows the youth to distance themselves from their experiences and engage instead in an objective analysis of the justice system and its functioning.Likewise, the debrief moments are an opportunity to reflect on the sessions and the emotions it elicited, and how they can be managed in the future.

During the training, it is explained that one of the objectives is to understand what creates the communication blocks between youth and professionals. This leads to an examination of the limits of the system, those of the young people and those of the professionals. Here, it is important to emphasize that the purpose is not criticizing specific individuals, but the functioning and internal dynamics of the system.

Despite precautions, it happened once that a young participant got frustrated during the training. The participants responded in a professional, caring and understanding way. It is important to trust those whose job is to support young people through moments of crisis.

Youthlab Coordinator, Belgium

Nevertheless, in general, the emotions that tend to emerge are more likely to be empathy, a sense of nostalgia, or a commitment to helping youth in conflict with the law.

In addition to the training sessions, it is essential to also consider the own emotional, social, professional, and environmental conditions of the youth as they participate in the project. Depending on their age and the situation they are in, their circumstances can change rapidly, which requires a level of flexibility in participation, but also continuous follow-up based on a relationship of trust.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that involving young people in such an emotionally demanding initiative tends to blur the lines between project supervision and personal involvement for project coordinators. When a young person with a difficult past is recruited, the present is often also delicate. As part of this personal involvement, care must be taken to maintain fluid communication, ongoing support, and a willingness/availability to be flexible, to listen, and to support when needed – even outside of project activities.

Approaching subjects that can create a significant power imbalance

Topics such as remorse can arise, however the discussion should focus more on the quality and adequacy of the youth support services than on youth’s behavior. The goal is to identify communication and support approaches that help to appropriately manage the situation of a young person in conflict with the law, while making them feel heard, understood and respected.

When past behaviors are discussed, it is from the point of view of identifying the needs of young people at key moments in their development and how to best support them.

“Aren’t you sorry?”

During an exchange session, a parole worker asked one of the boys in the group if he regretted what he had done. The boy answered with a short ‘no, I don’t’. You could feel the tension in the room and the atmosphere changed.

The facilitator knows this boy and his background quite well and helped him explain his thoughts. The facilitator asked him: “Murat, of course I know your story, and I believe you’ve said once that at the time, you felt you didn’t have any other option than to do what you did, is that correct?”

The boy confirmed this and added: “Yeah, you know, I had asked the institutions for support and I just didn’t know what else to do anymore to get some money to buy food, so that’s when I got on the wrong path.” The facilitator continued: “Imagine your situation had been different, would you have acted the same way?” Murat answered: “No, I never thought or expected that I would do something like this.”

The facilitator is helping the youngster find the words to express the way he experienced what had happened and how he reflects on it. With the support of the facilitator he was able to express that he had felt powerless in the situation and that he wished it had not happened. The facilitator asked a different question, but the parole worker got an answer to his question about regret, as well as a better insight into his story.