As part of our series about different types of youth work, this week we have an interview with Sam Ross – a youth justice worker who’s also known as the Teenage Whisperer.
1. What type of youth work do you do?
For the last ten years or so I’ve been working as a youth justice worker, which simply put means that I work with young people involved in the criminal justice system. I supervise young offenders serving their sentences in the community and also meet with and support those serving sentences in young offenders institutes and secure children’s homes.
The overriding aim is to rehabilitate them and help them to stop offending, by helping them to examine their thinking and their actions, and helping them address underlying issues and circumstances that increases the likelihood of their offending (e.g. drug and alcohol use, being the victims of abuse, housing issues, not being in any education, training or employment etc).
2. What do you do in an average week?
Too much, but at least boredom never sets in! In a typical week I would be meeting with young people serving sentences in the community, completing initial assessments or working through the issues or re-offending risk factors that have been identified. So I could be delivering sessions on peer pressure, anger, victim awareness, and alcohol and drug use to name a few.
This could involve playing pool to get the defrost process going, watching film clips and discussing, playing a game to get them thinking, using art as a form of communication, motivational interviewing or kicking a football around. Sessions can also involve helping them access other agencies like setting up and attending an appointment with supported housing, prospective colleges or helping them make benefits applications.
A fair bit of time is also spent on the phone or in person liaising with other agencies to coordinate our efforts to offer a cohesive joined-up approach for the young person. This might take place in schools, colleges, young offenders institutes, secure children’s homes, community children’s homes, foster carers, anywhere really. I’ll be regularly meeting with and touching base throughout the week with parents or carers, social workers, teachers, school support staff, housing officers, youth workers, the police, health staff (covering physical and mental health issues), children’s home staff and other Youth Offending Team staff.
Another part of my role involves being on a rota to attend court when a young person has been arrested, charged and has been kept in a police cell overnight (or at the weekend until the Monday) waiting to attend court. This is usually because they are a persistent young offender and/or the offence which they have been charged with is very serious. They are then transferred to the court cells, where I meet with them and liaise with lawyers and court staff to see if it is possible to successfully address the court’s concerns about granting them bail by offering a bail support package. This involves meeting with the young person multiple times a week and beginning to address their issues. The rationale is that young people are statistically less likely to re-offend if their needs are addressed in the community rather than in the secure estate (i.e. prison or secure unit).
And no view of my work would be complete without mention of the absurd amount of time I have to spend in front of a computer logging in minute detail what I am planning on doing with a young person and then what I actually did. Add to this a multitude of risk assessments and you have RSI! The assessments and logging of info is very important but there are times when ridiculous is the only word to describe it! A clear view of the bigger picture is definitely needed at these times.
Oh, and sometimes I am called on to write a Pre Sentence Report for court which gives them the background to a young person and their offences so that the magistrates or judge can make an informed decision about what sentence to pass.
So as you can see it is very varied and often manic, but very rewarding.
3. How long have you been doing youth justice work?
Over ten years now. I’m no longer doing it full time as I’m currently working on my website www.teenagewhisperer.co.uk offering advice on how to practically engage teens, particularly the most challenging disengaged ones.
4. What other types of youth work have you done previously?
Prior to working with young offenders I worked in a secondary school with kids with behavioural difficulties who were at risk of exclusion. I’d support them in the classroom alongside the teacher and also work with them one-on-one.
5 What age range do you work with?
In the UK the age of criminal responsibility is 10 and the youth justice system applies from then up until they turn 18, and I’ve worked with all ages, and yes even 10 year old kids.
6. What’s unique about being a youth justice worker?
You’re working in a statutory legal framework yet trying to marry that with a compassionate helping style and they often don’t seem like a match made in heaven. Youth work often is a voluntary thing, where involvement isn’t coerced, where youth workers are seen as purely helpers. In youth justice you are inevitably seen as a tool of the state, which you are. This can cause young people to avoid engaging with you which so often stands in the way of them trusting you and opening up, letting you see their pain and vulnerabilities which can be so important to the rehabilitative process. So there’s a sense of at least initially being unwanted by many, which can be quite unusual for youth work where kids are usually more willing!
7. What are some of the good things about your type of youth work?
Well there’s never a dull moment that’s for sure. You’re constantly on the move, going different places, meeting new people.
For me anyway, I love the work precisely because it is so challenging. You’re never running on autopilot (or at least never should be) as you are constantly trying to work out the young people you are working with, working out what makes them tick, why they are behaving the way they are. I’ve said this before, but no-one behaves badly from a place of wholeness and it’s about working out along with a young person what the sources of their behaviour are and trying to rectify the situation, heal wounds, change some of their autopilot responses. And no two kids are the same, so even once you know what the issue is your way of helping them will vary each and every time.
This type of youth work is never emotionally dull either. You laugh, you cry, you bang your head off the wall in despair, you lie awake in the small hours worrying sometimes and sometimes you get such breakthroughs you literally punch the air in joy and start dancing… until your manager walks into the room and starts laughing at you!
8. What are some of the challenges of being a youth justice worker?
Well I’ve already touched on the challenge of working with young people who don’t want to work with you. You have to develop a mighty thick skin if you’re going to survive. If you faint if someone swears at you you’re going to spend a significant amount of time on the floor. You also have to have a self-confidence and be self-assured because if you have a weakness you can be sure they will find it!
Switching off can also be hard. When your heart is breaking at the circumstances of some young people’s lives it can be difficult to temporarily forget about it and get on with the business of your own life.
You will also without any shadow of a doubt be overworked. You have to be organised, focused and well-motivated to survive and always clear in your mind as to why you are doing this work. You have to really care about the young people you work with if you are going to make a difference and if you are going to survive the many challenges and stresses that will daily come your way.
And ultimately you have to accept that success is not an on-off-switch but more of a dimmer. For some the turning on process doesn’t happen and you see their face in the paper a number of years down the line. For others you see the whole process or more likely you see the beginning of it in your time working with them and never know how it ends as they age out the youth justice system. You just have to have faith and hope.
9. Why are you passionate about youth justice work?
Quite simply there is something inside of me that aches for the forgotten, the dumped, the rejected, the broken. And that is what each and every one of the young people I have the privilege of working with is – they are in some way, broken. They are broken first and foremost, offenders later.
We are all in our own ways broken. For some our little bits of brokenness manifest themselves as being a moan, others eating too much, others drinking too much, others being lazy, others working out too much and so the list could go on. None of us is perfect and I think it is so easy to self-righteously forget this when thinking about our troubled youth who manifest their brokenness in offending. They are often far more broken than ourselves, broken by others’ abuse or neglect, broken by the consequences of their own decisions. And to be this broken before they even hit 18 kills a little piece of me. They should be in their prime, the world their oyster, not their prison. So I have to do what I can to see their potential and help them see theirs. To help them see that their yesterday does not have to be their unrelenting tomorrow. To see that someone cares to the bottom of their heart and cares enough not to walk by and call them scum but to stop and help them up.
I believe everyone was put on this earth for a reason, and this is mine. If I didn’t work to help these young people, in practice and through Teenage Whisperer I would feel greatly impoverished.
10. What would you recommend for someone wanting to become a youth justice worker?
Start. Sounds simple, almost banal, but really, just start. If you are passionate about working with troubled teens then start working to help their situation in whatever way you can.
Youth Offending Teams in England and Wales always have opportunities for volunteers. It might be driving a young person to an appointment or supervising them as they complete a reparation task, like repainting someone’s wall they’ve graffitied. Or being on a restorative justice panel helping to decide how to help a young person to repair the harm they have done. This could then lead on to paid work if you were interested, your direct experience would make you stand out as an applicant.
If you’re not in England and Wales you could get in contact with your local childrens’ social services department for pointers as to who to contact. Or just do a Google search for juvenile / young offenders and your local area and see what comes up. Alternatively get in touch with charities that work with troubled teens in general or offenders in particular and see what you can do for them.
You really can’t go far wrong starting with voluntary work. It tests your appetite for it and it gives you a wealth of experience that will count for a lot when it comes to making job or training course applications. And don’t be put off if the work isn’t directly with young people. If you show willingness and make your desires known you will hopefully get to where you want to be. I know plenty of admin workers in organisations who have successfully made the sideways step.
11. Is there any special training or qualifications required?
I can only really speak from a British perspective on this one. You can start working at the lowest level in a Youth Offending Team with a handful of GCSEs, supporting the work of qualified workers. Youth Offending Teams are multidisciplinary taking in probation workers, social workers, healthcare workers, qualified youth workers and the police so you could get qualified in these areas with degrees etc. before specialising in youth justice and getting the Professional Certificate in Effective Practice in Youth Justice.
I think the bottom line is that if you have the passion and a desire to gain knowledge and experience there could be a place for you. Some of the best workers I know are the ‘lower level’ ones, so don’t let a lack of degrees etc put you off. The most important qualifications are compassion and determination.
12. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Doing this work breaks you down and builds you up all at the same time. You are daily shown in overdone technicolour what life is for some people and it catches your breath. You are daily shown in overdone technicolour what life should be about, and you breathe. There is so much to teach young people in this role, but they don’t half teach you too. They daily teach me the importance of humility, compassion, thankfulness, perseverance and about hope. This work largely makes me who I am and I am a better person for it and for knowing these young people. It really is a form of youth work that blesses and is a blessing.
Sam Ross, popularly known as the ‘Teenage Whisperer’ is an expert in connecting with and helping the most challenging, disengaged and troubled teens to turn their lives around. She has worked in both educational and youth justice settings, both with young people and their parents or carers. Really understanding teens is the beginning, middle and end of her work and she helps professionals and parents achieve this through her website, providing advice, insight and resources: www.teenagewhisperer.co.uk You can also connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Please feel free to use the comments below if you have any questions about being a youth justice worker. If you have experience doing youth justice work, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments as well.
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