Commitment required from all agencies on early youth interventions

Without commitment from Ministers and those responsible for health and social care, education and criminal justice to implementing an early intervention approach, Northern Ireland will not be able to effectively tackle the problems emerging for at risk children, young people and their families.

That is the conclusion of a Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland report published today, 24 July, ‘Early Youth Interventions – an inspection of the contribution of the criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland to preventing children and young people from entering the criminal justice system’
The inspection aimed to examine and assess early youth intervention arrangements across the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.
Acting Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan said, “The benefits of early interventions have been well documented in terms of social, emotional, educational and financial outcomes. However, inspectors encountered a number of issues, including a limited overall strategy for justice agencies, a lack of co-ordination between Executive Departments, a cluttered landscape of provision leading to potential duplications and a lack of evaluation of outcomes.
“The role of criminal justice in this area is less than that of other bodies whose primary role is working with children. However, it is inevitable that, in some cases, a lack of early intervention and support for children and young people and their families will lead to conflict with the law and therefore criminal justice agencies have a responsibility to contribute in this area.”
Inspectors were not able to get a complete picture of the number, types and funding of early intervention programmes available in Northern Ireland. There were a myriad of providers, targeted participants, funding streams and delivery and evaluation methodologies utilised in projects. The lack of coordination meant there was a risk of duplication of funding for projects and the lack of evaluation made it difficult to assess effectiveness and value for money.
“All too often interventions attempt to deal with social problems that are already well entrenched. This is not only ineffective in helping those young people with issues that contribute to criminal behaviour, it is also more expensive.”
Many of the problems that contribute to criminal behaviour are already formed long before the young person reaches the criminal justice system. The overriding view of stakeholders was that whilst agencies within the criminal justice should have some input in terms of being able to refer young people or providing funding for projects, the justice sector should engage in a non-direct way in order to avoid stigmatisation or bringing young people into the criminal justice system further.
“While the problems are well known, and the benefit of youth interventions are well understood, the practical difficulties of ensuring that this determines the allocation of resources and focus of work right across the various Northern Ireland Executive Departments are enormous.”
The report recommends that there is a clear commitment to the early interventions approach from the Ministerial representatives on the Ministerial Sub-Committee for Children and Young People. The Sub-Committee is chaired by the two Junior Ministers from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have responsibility for children and young people and all departmental Ministers are members.
“Ultimately the question of whether to fully commit to an early interventions approach is one for Ministers and there needs to be consensus between those responsible for health and social care, education and criminal justice and to some extent also with those responsible for social development, employment and learning and the environment.
“While the ultimate impact may take several years to become apparent and the costs may need to be shifted from other services there needs to be a clear commitment to an early intervention approach encompassing all areas of government policy and practice in relation to children and young people. The alternative is a continued failure, as a society, for our most vulnerable children.”