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Laying charges

I currently work in a residential school in Scotland. The majority of children are looked after and accommodated for reasons mainly due to social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, which are attributal (in my opinion) to abuse in the family home or similar settings.
 
My experiences of such children particularly in relation to their development is that often they struggle to cope with structure in their lives and find it difficult to conform to boundaries and rules. When boundaries are crossed and rules are broken (for example if young people assault staff or property that does not belong to young people is damaged) staff sometimes take the decision to get young people charged by the police.

Young people who enter into care through no fault of their should expect to live in an environment that promotes their welfare, development and future opportunities, after all for many young people the reason they are taken into care in the first place is to prevent damage or harm to their health, welfare and development. But then again staff have rights also.
 
Taking account that assault and damage to property would not normally be tolerated in our society, should young people in care be charged with similar behaviour given that they are in a situation whereby they have people (workers) who care for them and have time to work through their difficulties and problems with them in a controlled environment unlike some other children in mainstream who do not? And if so, what favours are we as workers doing for young people's futures when they eventually leave the care system or are we setting them up to fail by being the people responsible for the long arm of charges young people can accumulate whilst being in care.
 
This will undoubtably provoke a mixed response, but that is my intention. I think readers may know my view or maybe not, however, I welcome and look forward to other views and opinions.
 
Kind regards
J. Young
Final year social work student University of Strathclyde
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I would suggest that the first challenges is to create a structured caring environment in which these children are engaged in a rich menu of daily activities and relationships to minimize the destructive behavior. If it does occur, the consequence of course depends on the severity. My preference is not to charge children but to convey to them with our personal authority that what they did was wrong and then use our relationship to help them rectify the situation--fix what was broken, pay back the offended, apologize etc so that they can learn we care about them and their development as persons, not as menaces to society. But then there are some very serious offenses for which we have to involve the legal system.
 
Mark Krueger
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Great question to pose!
 
In my humble opinion, I would say that you should not get the police involved for behaviours of damaging property or fighting. I say this for the simple reason that law enforcement has done as much for changing behaviours as saying "have a nice day" has done for curing depression.
 
The youth you (and the majority of us) work with have learned behavioural ways of coping with stressful situations in their world. I would suggest that we all work toward creating safe and accepting environments where youth who "screw-up" have the chance to restore justice.
 
A friend of mine who works in a group home, recently saw the removal of one female adolescent after she engaged in a fight with another. The girl who was removed had been living at this group home for years and called her house parent "mom". The girl who she fought with was a friend of hers. The fact is that this girl would have benefitted much more by staying in the house and learning how to reconcile her differences with her friend. In the end she had lost her home, her "mom", her friend, and her stability.
 
If you had a child of your own who was having a temper tantrum, and threw a book threw a window, or fought a sibling, would you call the police?
 
I would recommend the book Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School, by Leila Berg (Pelican Pub). 1968. Good luck, it will no doubt be out of print. It is a wonderfully empowering book about a man who became the principal of the toughest comprehensive school, in the most impoverished area in London, England.

This man, Mr. Duane, upon receiving a new pupil who broke a window, paid the student a five pound note. The boy did it again, and Mr. Duane paid him another five pound note. The boy eventually stopped because he was not getting the desired result he wanted (and I bet he felt a bit guilty). Mr. Duane often gave his car keys to possible car thieves and asked them to move his car, or get something from his bag in the trunk. He was successful because he was a caring man who knew that every child was a trustworthy individual.
 
A quote under the chapter Desperation in this book states, "These girls and boys must somehow be made much more active partners in their own education". This was a revolutionary statement for that time, when corporal punishment was the way to keep kids in line with the norms. When we phone the police to intervene with a troublemaking child, are we just passing off the corporal punishment to someone else?
Do you play for the team that believes that all children are born with inherent goodness, or sin?
Sorry for the length, I tend to ramble when such questions are posed.
 
Maddy
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"Are we setting them up to fail by being the people responsible for the long arm of charges young people can accumulate whilst being in care."

I think there have been incidents in every home that could result in staff members contacting the police and often staff do not so that they may discuss the issue and avoid having a child charged (and let's be honest, it doesn't always look great on your shift exchange if you call the police every day!) I think when staff do involve police there are a few guidelines many follow such as;
 
1. It has been at a victim's request. As an advocate of all children in your care it is important to follow through with the wishes of the victim as much as it is to assist the agressor through their issues. If a client expressed to me a desire to speak to police about being assaulted or bullied my persoanal sense of responsibilty would orient myself towards helping that client get over their attack. In all honesty I would also be thinking about what kind of work I will need to do with the bully while the child talks with the officer but I wouldn't be thrilled about it!
 
2. When staff members feel repeated poor choices and social interaction skills are putting other children at risk. If I had a teen who assaulted other teens in the group home on a daily or weekly basis and all I could do was repeatedly restrain him AFTER he has ALREADY violated another child, I may put the safety of the other teens ahead of that teens needs and urge the police to charge him and recommend a secure or 1 to 1 placement for that teen until he's able to be around other people safely? There is a belief that many behavior issues arise in teens whose parents put little or no controls in place for them. Losing all personal freedoms if even for a few hours can be an eye-opening experience for some young people.

3. When it comes to staff laying assault charges, this one is a little touchy for me but I must start out by saying I'm 6 feet tall and weigh 220 pounds. I assume that we all understand there is a possibility that we may, at any given time, be attacked by a client. Many of us require restraint training before we're allowed to start our employment for that reason. 100 percent of restraints are initiated by staff people and I have heard of charges being pressed for struggles during a restraint. I believe that is inappropriate as we have initiated the physical contact with an expectation that the youth may fight back. If a child or teen walked up to a staff person (OR ANY PERSON) and punched them in the face or kicked their legs out from under them I may consider contacting police?

It's probably different around the world but I know in Edmonton, filling out a statement for the police and reporting a crime does not always result in charges being laid, police investigate and determine when charges are laid, not the youths involved. Their statements allow officers to make an informed decision and move on when it's appropriate to do so. I would stop any talk of "so and so got ______ charged. No they didn't, they reported a crime and the police charged him because it was illegal. Period.

Brian LaBelle

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If we do not have them charged we are setting them up for a major setback once they are in the community. The staff will assist in any way possible, going to court, ensuring they follow through on the expectations, but to not charge them would be unreasonable.

Linda Windjack
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This is a good topic! I work in a residential setting also, in Alberta, Canada. I have been there for 20 years and have seen both of which you mention. Understandably, our kids come from situations that are unacceptable however, allowing them to destroy property or intentionally harm staff is in my opinion unacceptable. Part of which we do is teach responsibility for themselves and the world and people around them. If they are allowed to get away with violence, are we not reinforcing their belief that this is how the world works?
 
At our centre, for young people who destroy property we have restitution. They pay back what they owe in the form of extra chores that take time based on the cost of the destroyed item. We do not take money as their allowance is often the only form of money they get! They learn that they cannot get away with wrecking something and the chores, (not hard labor I might add!)are often a deterant to future tantrums. We also process with them their anger and the reality that they have ruined something that other kids as well as themselves can no longer enjoy.
 
As for violence towards staff, we are encouraged not to charge children as their anger is often directed towards their former abusers and it's not your face they see when they act out. However, all situations must be looked at on an individual basis. If the injury occured during a restraint or an episode of impulsive acting out that they may not have control over (and lets face it, we see more kids with Fetal Alcohol these days who are missing that control mechanism), then the incident should be documented and put on file. For those kids who we know have control but deliberately intend to hurt staff (and those of us who have been around long enough can tell the difference) should be charged. I have worked with kids who have managed to be "saved" from their actions who have ended up murdering/raping or otherwise done serious harm to others because they were never held accountable for their previous behavior. At the very least, a critical incident report needs to be done and forwarded to their caseworker for their file. To many times I have seen innocent people affected after the fact because, in the belief that the best interest of the child is paramount. Sometimes, what is in their best interest, is to hold them accountable, as we all are to laws and norms of society.
 
We also have a wonderful crisis management program in place for the staff whereby we can arrange to debrief with one of our psycholgists the incident and solutions. This is a recent addition to our program thanks to a previous Director who could not believe that with the stressful work we do, we did not have an outlet!
 
I should clarify that our Centre takes the kids that have already been through kinship care, foster homes and group homes.
 
Shawn Lechelt
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Dear J. Young
The question of charging children comes up regularly in Ireland. What I often say is, I know nothing about lions. If I put myself in a cage with a lion in Dublin Zoo, sooner or later I will get bitten, because that is what lions do! It is my view that if I put myself in that situation without adequate training, it is unfair and unreasonable to blame the lion when I get bitten.

Many of the children in residential care have experienced varying degrees of emotional and/or physical abuse neglect and maltreatment. All of the literature tells us that these children will have distorted perceptions of reality, poor conscience development and may present with behavioural difficulties. In Ireland 56% of the poeple working with these children have no formal training, ask yourself is it reasonable then to blame the children when they present with the behaviour thet one would or should expect, if the staff cannot adequately deal with it? The situation is further complicated when staff are competant but institutional diffficulties mitigate against adequate care.

Regards,
John Byrne
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My problem with questions like this is that we so often end up talking about a "child in care" as a static and undifferentiated phenomenon instead of talking about individuals like Charley Smith or Brenda Brown. Example: Charley has been admitted to care because his aggressive behaviour has put him at risk of getting involved with the juvenile justice system. On the first night he is with us he punches Jimmy White on the nose -- so we charge him with assault! Why on earth did we admit him? What responsibility have we taken for working with Charley on his aggression problem? This is like admitting a physically ill patient to our ward with the words "Welcome to our hospital - but God help you if you get sick in here!"
 
A "child in care" is a function of his or her developmental history, family, community and school background, reasons for admission (and our acceptance of the youth!) into our program, status (in terms of who is responsible right now for his or her safety, treatment, etc ... and so on.

If we are playing fair with Charley, there may well come the day when we have engaged with him, taken the trouble to get to know him and understand him, provided him with the support, affection, information and discipline which he needs to play the role of a fifteen-year-old boy (or whatever) and after we have walked the journey with him he still punches Jimmy White on the nose -- and then he can take his chances with the law.
 
We all know that we don't accept a troubled kid into our program and simply tell him to behave like a normal, moral and obedient kid (a complex oxymoron). There is a period when we are figuring each other out. There is a period when we are working together on some targets and tasks, there is a period of trial and error, there is a period of trial runs where he is trying to fly solo with his newly gained insight and skills ... and eventually there is a time when we have passed responsibility back to him. At what point are we going to lay criminal charges?
 
BG
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I work in a special care unit for teenage girls in Ireland. I guess when it comes to the question posted "should youngsters in care be charged" I would say depending on the situation. We have clients who assault staff just because they believe they can. These teenage girls are in the unit as a last resort--to make positive life changes, etc. Most of these girls are high-risk individuals who cannot keep themselves safe. Some of them may be very proactive in their aggression--calculating, knows exactly what they are doing. Others may be reactive. Learned behaviour can be unlearned--modified, managed. But some of these girls chooses not to change because for them being aggressive and abusive is the only way they can get attention or to get what they want. As I have mentioned, they assault because they believe that staff cannot hit them back. Despite countless life space interviews and informing them that their behaviour is unacceptable, these youth still continue to assault.
 
One staff member went home with a broken nose and nearly choked to death, the other was bitten and one more kicked at the back of the knee. The youth was aware of what she was doing and made continuous threat to staff members about the damage that she can do and that next time, she will murder the staff. These girls are only one step from going to prison but were given a chance to manage their behaviour. Yes we need to establish rapport and yes we need to to show them that we care. At the end of the day, we are not their parents but care workers. If we are to make them live a normal life, we also need to show them that assault in the outside world--for us the everyday world we live in will result to being incarcerated.

Emie
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I need to comment on some of the replies!
 
Maddy, while I admire your optimism, I need to ask, "Do you honestly believe there are no situations where kids should be charged?" Your final statement, " Do you play for the team that believes that all children are born with inherent goodness, or sin?" Can you clarify what you mean by that? I truly hope we all come into this field believing in the inherent goodness of children, however, there truly are kids who are beyond our scope of help.
 
Whether it's Fetal alcohol, severe abuse that leads to severe personality disorder or family genes. Those with Fetal alcohol (depending on severity) require constant maintenance for their lifetime because they will NEVER develope certain tools needed to function in our society. Personality disorder, schizophenia, psychosis, bi-polar require mental health intervention. As a Child Care Worker, I would never presume to believe I can help some of these kids without consultaion from a medical expert, i.e. psychologist or psychiatrist. I am a behavioral expert and can be a great resource when offering behavioral techniques in conjunction with others.

However, to believe that by unconditional caring I can "help" them, I would have burned out a long time ago and probably done damage to some kids as well!
 
John B. At our centre, you can't even get an interview if you don't have a diploma in Child Care or related sciences i.e. psychology. I do interviews from time to time and even people with a criminal justice background don't get hired because they don't have that behavioral intervention teaching that is so important when working with our kids.
 
B.G. We are not allowed to say no to any child in need. They come to us, we can assess and refer but if a placement is not available, we are it! We develop individual programs based on their need while they are with us: one to one or other specialized interventions. Meanwhile, we work with other resources to find them placements that would best meet their needs as soon as possible.
 
I consider myself fortunate to work where I do. The average years of employment at our centre is between 2 and 25 years! The majority being in the upper years! Knowledge is passed down to newer employees and they in turn teach what they have learned. We welcome students from Child Care Programs such as Grant MacEwen and the University of Alberta. I like to call us a teaching residential program. We have even had students from Holland come for field placements that last a year. They get a real education and eye opening experiences! Alot of upper management people have worked at our centre also, prior to moving up and on. They understand what is needed to not only look after the children we deal with but also the staff needs.
I realize that other programs here and around the world are not as lucky however, it has been the staff that have made our centre into what it is today with commitment, speaking up for the rights of the kids in our care and our own rights as Child Care Workers.
 
Do no further harm.
Shawn Lechelt
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Good afternoon:
There are a couple of questions I ask before even entertaining the idea of having a youth charged with a crime. 1. How old is the youth, not only is age but developmental level? 2. What is the duration, intensity and frequency of the behavior and has it escheated or diminished over time and with interventions? 3. Is this behavior related to a mental health issue, emotional disturbance? 4. Is this a copied behavior that may be tolerated in the home to a lesser degree?
 
I am not opposed to having older youth charged. We do this frequently with youth who may meet the criteria. By so doing you are documenting the level of damage to property and harm to self or others. In most cases the court will ask what we think would be the most appropriate consequence and follow our recommendation. This may also be important if it is necessary to make a future determination of an appropriate placement.
 
Here is the sad part of all this talk of charges, it may be that the only means of getting the services the youth needs is through the juvenile justice system. While this is all wrong in approach and philosophy it may be the case never the less. I just had this happen once more this last week. We have a young person who was seriously abused when a child get a hold of some scissors. After a great deal of time trying to talk them in to handing the scissors over the police had to intervene and take them away safely. During the next four hours we tried to stabilize them at the hospital. The police had to restrain the youth 4 more times, this is a big kid. After all this the hospital and the mental health worker could not come to the conclusion that a psych bed is necessary for safety reasons. The police then offered to place the youth in detention. I said no, kids like this need to be in a mental health placement. The police offered to have her charged since she resisted and was combative with them on 5 different occasions during this ordeal. I am glad to report that we did get her in to a psych hospital bed and did not have to have her charged or placed in detention. If we had not gotten this bed I believe we would have had to place her in detention just to maintain her safety. This does happen. No it is not good, but it is reality.
 
Larry James
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I’d like to pick up on John Young’s query and subsequent responses about getting kids charged. It was one I had to grapple with on a fairly regular basis as a manager in residential school and secure accommodation settings. I’ll start by saying that there are a few situations where I think we have little option but to involve the police and to get kids charged; situations where there has been a deliberate and serious attempt to hurt a member of staff and where we have responsibilities as citizens to ensure that such offences are appropriately marked.
 
However, these situations are few and far between in most facilities. What we generally face is low level intimidation or the odd blow struck in anger or distress. Unpalatable though these may be I’m not sure police involvement is the answer. Here’s a few reasons why;
 
The desire to have kids charged is often framed in terms of it being in a kid’s best interests (although if we were to be honest it’s also often based on a more primitive desire for retribution of some sort). It’s also based on a well-entrenched but mistaken view of the value and importance of deterrence - kids need to begin to learn the consequences of their actions to be able to cope with the realities of adult life so the refrain goes. However, all the literature in our field tells us that the kids we work with don’t respond to simple cause and effect approaches (if indeed any of us do). Behaviours are more deeply rooted than that.
Getting kids charged doesn’t confront them with the consequences of their actions. In Scotland, a charge results in referral to the Children’s Reporter. If a kid is already in a residential facility the likelihood is they will remain there, picking up more and more charges perhaps but with no tangible change to their circumstances or their behaviours. So nobody is happy. Kids are criminalised and angry at staff for doing this to them and staff are increasingly impotent over what to do next - they've shot their bolt to little avail. (The issue of kids becoming criminalised in care settings is a very real one in Scotland, where many of those deemed to be persistent offenders - silly though this definition itself may be - fit this bill as a result of charges picked up in care. And once a kid has a series of charges behind them they begin to feel that they are destined to take the next step in the criminal justice system. So rather than stopping them, the accumulation of charges can in fact propel them further through the system).
 
Another problem I have with getting kids charged is that it separates the care from the control functions in bringing up kids. It passes over the control to police and external authorities and so diminishes the importance of staff taking and modelling appropriate control. Rather than buttressing staff’s control and authority, police involvement is more likely to undermine it.
 
Involving the police can also leave situations hanging and unresolved. It can serve to avoid or inhibit the powerful moments in the aftermath of a situation where adult and kid can discuss and resolve situations and move forward together. That outcome empowers staff more than the felt need to bring in an external authority.
 
None of this is to diminish the feelings of powerlessness and abuse staff can feel in many situations they encounter. The desire to get kids charged stems from these very real feelings of powerlessness. It doesn’t do anything to remedy them. This has to come at an earlier point. Staff should not be put in a position where they feel they are punchbags, with no right to self-defence in aggressive or violent situations. They need to feel empowered to deal authoritatively and at an appropriate point with situations, before these become violent and abusive. Factors such as superficial perceptions of children’s rights, de-escalation taken to the point of capitulation, our fixation with child protection, and defensive organisational responses contribute to the current state where staff feel victimised and downtrodden and have nothing left in the locker other than to phone the police. This is rarely in their interests or those of the kids.
 
Mark Smith
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