5.1 Youth engagement
The importance of ‘effective communication and engagement with children, young people and families’ has long been recognised and is one of the six key areas within the Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce published by the UK Government (Children’s Workforce Development Council, 2010). On a certain level the term ‘engagement’ would appear to be fairly straightforward, yet what does it mean in the context of working with children and young people?
In 2008 the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales published a review of evidence entitled Engaging Young People Who Offend (Mason and Prior, 2008). Drawing on a range of research and practice material the authors, Mason and Prior, developed the following definition of youth engagement.
Techniques for engaging young people who offend are concerned with the question of how to gain young people’s interest and willing participation in interventions or programmes of interventions intended to prevent or reduce offending. ‘Engagement’ suggests a set of objectives around developing young people’s personal motivation and commitment to involvement in activities. It implies that passive involvement is not enough … For practitioners, the implication is that specific skills and knowledge (‘techniques’) are required to achieve engagement, in addition to skills and knowledge associated with the particular type of intervention.
The process of engagement, then, goes beyond a young person just showing up to appointments or meetings, to include a range of other ways of doing things that both supports, involves and enthuses.
Box 2 Caring for Northern Ireland’s youngsters
Social workers across the UK tend to share common challenges associated with their work. But there are some unique features to the job in Northern Ireland. The legacy of the country’s conflict continues to permeate the lives of people living in the different communities.
‘This manifests in many ways,’ says Karen Winter, senior lecturer in social work at Queen’s University, Belfast, and one of the lead researchers for the Talking and Listening to Children project. ‘There remains a clear demarcation between nationalist and loyalist communities and social workers may experience a level of latent anxiety in travelling into an area that is not of their own identity.
‘Social workers have been threatened in communities that basically police themselves. Poverty, mental health problems and substance abuse are problems all social workers have to deal with, but there is an added social and political dimension here.’
Winter says people who have lived with conflict, perhaps been imprisoned or a victim of violence, have a high level of mental health problems. ‘Affected parents leave their mark on their children and so the problems continue from one generation to the next.’
For social workers like Sheila Simons and her colleagues at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, one of the five integrated service providers covering Northern Ireland, this can mean access to vulnerable children is all the harder in some families.
‘As everywhere, we get extremes of parents – those who want to be helped and those who are obstructive and abusive,’ says Simons. ‘We have even had social workers’ homes targeted on social media, and because of the context of the Troubles , there can be suspicion.
‘It can be difficult for a child to see you as their advocate when the parents are being abusive towards you. So you go away and think about how you might have better handled the visit and what you might have done differently.’