How systemic inequality prevents children from accessing their rights

Published: Friday, September 29th, 2023


This is a blog by our Communications and Events Coordinator, Keeva Baxter.

 

Last week Why me? collaborated with expert trainers Tim Chapman and Annemieke Wolthuis to deliver a training course on ‘Restorative Justice from a Children’s Rights Perspective’. The course was an insightful process of learning and provoked many deeper conversations about systemic discrimination, power in the restorative process, the impact of trauma and the areas where criminal justice professionals can do more. One crucial takeaway was around how entrenched inequality affects how children in contact with the justice system access their rights, and further conversation is needed in this area. This blog explores the themes that arose across the two-day training and how systemic inequality was a central thread running throughout. 

Children’s rights

When working with children, it is paramount that we see them as bearers of rights, and give them age-appropriate levels of responsibility and decision-making. Listening and seriously considering what children have to say about the decisions that affect them is one way to ensure that their needs are being met. Whilst their wishes may not always be able to be accommodated, explaining why something isn’t in their best interests and giving reasons for your decision can help them to still feel heard and respected. 

Power

During the training we discussed how Restorative Justice involves a transfer of power to people who have been harmed by crime, allowing them to have their say and to get the outcomes they need to move on. One key consideration is the fact that often our toughest opposition often comes from those who are trying to protect people affected by crime too, for example victim support services and police. Whilst we are aiming for the same thing, some activists are concerned about the implementation of Restorative Justice.

It is important to acknowledge that we as Restorative Justice professionals hold a lot of power too and the restorative process requires letting go of some of that power, allowing participants to feel in control and ensuring that the conflict is not ‘stolen’ from those involved.

Labelling

During the training course we discussed the issue of labelling and how this affects the people who take part in the process. The binary labels of ‘harmed’ and ‘harmer’ fail to portray the overlap and complexity that often exists between ‘victim’ and ‘offender’, particularly in the case of young people. We must understand that the young person who is coming to us as the ‘harmer’ in this instance has almost certainly been the victim of injustice and crime themselves, likely many times. At Why me? we aim to move away from these binary labels by using the phrase ‘people affected by crime’. Alternatively we use ‘victims of crime’ or ‘people affected by crime’ to distinguish the person from the act itself. 

The recent shift away from labelling children in contact with the criminal justice system as ‘offenders’ is indicative of a wider movement towards more trauma-informed working. Whilst this shift is positive, it doesn’t apply equally to all, and discrimination and inequality still prevent many children from accessing the support they need. 

Adultification

One barrier to creating a ‘child-friendly’ justice system is the adultification of many children involved with it, particularly those from minoritised communities. We know that young Black children are often subject to adultification bias, where they are seen and portrayed as older than they actually are. This means that rather than understanding that they are young and considering their maturity and the role of their environment, they are seen as rational adults who are making a decision to commit a crime. Adultification of these children often means that they are treated with measures designed for adults. It also means that their needs, rights and safeguarding considerations are less likely to be acknowledged and respected. 

This was exemplified in the case of ‘Child Q’, a young Black girl who was strip searched at her school last year with no appropriate adult present. It is often in these circumstances that rhetoric around gangs is also brought into the conversation, labelling young people as gang members simply due to their race and age. 

This adultification places unrealistic expectations on children from minoritised communities in regards to their behaviour and maturity. The expectations of these children are far higher than if they were White. By acknowledging and highlighting this issue, we can begin to identify it in our working environment and work towards preventing it from happening in the restorative field. 

The diversity of safe spaces

On top of this, we discussed how restorative practitioners need to create safe and comfortable spaces for participants. However, as Restorative Justice in the UK is a predominantly White field, this limits the diversity of the spaces we can hold. If people cannot see themselves in those supporting them, they may find it harder to share and be open and vulnerable. This is particularly pertinent for young people – walking into a room that they are unfamiliar with, surrounded by adults that they feel are not like them or on their side, can lead to them feeling unsafe, unable to express their needs and opinions.

Therefore, we must work harder to diversify the field and create spaces which accommodate participants’ cultural backgrounds. When setting up a preparatory meeting or restorative conference, consider who or what participants might want in the room to make them feel safe.

Ultimately, the discussions prompted by the children’s rights training course demonstrated that there is still much to be done to create equity and safety in the restorative field. Whilst Government action is undoubtedly needed to tackle the systemic inequality across the justice system, it is important that we continue the conversation about what changes we can make in the restorative sector to ensure that children, and adults alike, can access their rights. 

© 2024 Why me? Charity no. 1137123. Company no. 6992709.