What works?

Unpacking the ‘black box’ of the frontline professional’s and young person’s relationships to youth justice settings is essential writes Deirdre Fullerton, who reviews the international research evidence

In 2018, the REPPP project commenced a study to assemble and synthesise the international research evidence on a policy led youth justice question focusing on the professional relationship between the practitioner (i.e. youth justice worker (YJW) or juvenile liaison officer (JLO)) and the young person in Garda Youth Diversion Projects (GYDPs). As participation in the projects is voluntary, the successful engagement of the young person is central to the success of the service. Thus, our study aimed to identify the features of effective relationships between frontline youth professionals and young people that bring about positive change in behaviour and circumstances.

Drawing on both qualitative and quantitative research studies that explore young people’s and practitioners’ experiences of the professional relationship within different contexts, the review places the lens on the features considered important for effective relationships, the benefits of these relationships and how to enable them.

The review process followed a modified version of the EMMIE protocol used by the UK What Works Network and the College of Police Crime Reduction Toolkit designed to describe the available evidence on effectiveness (E), as well as the mechanisms (M) and moderators (M) important for implementation (I). The review also sought evidence on the economic cost (E) of providing such services.

Our working description of the professional relationship for this review was ‘relationships as a vehicle for achieving positive change in behaviour or circumstances involving youth professionals and young people’. In line with best practice, the first stage of our study involved consulting with key stakeholders (i.e. JLOs and YJWs working with the GYDPs) to refine our working description and to tease out the review questions. Using an online survey, we also sought their views on the role of the professional relationship with young people.

The survey was completed by 189 practitioners (137 YJWs and 52 JLOs) representing projects from across Ireland. Whilst a small number suggested some minor amendments to our working description of the relationship, many offered their support for the review.

In their response to the open question on the features of an effective relationship, both JLOs and YJWs identified specific qualities of the frontline professional including: empathy, genuineness, fairness, respectful, approachable, non-judgemental, flexible, trustworthy, and being a good listener. They also described features of the relationship that they considered important to forging the relationship that included good communication, openness, truthfulness, consistency, support, and safety. A small number made reference to the benefits of the young person having ‘one trusted adult’ to rely on, and others expanded on how the personal qualities of the frontline worker can affect the relationship.

“Young people pick up very quickly on how genuine and committed you are about your role or if you are only going through the motions of your job.” (JLO)

The international literature echoed many of the features described by the practitioners in our survey. In this literature, the professional relationship is recognised as central to providing effective interventions, with some describing it as ‘the active ingredient’ on which the effectiveness of all other programme elements depend. In our review, we examined over 60 research papers that documented the relationship within different settings (e.g. youth justice/probation, positive youth development, mentoring and social work). Such studies stress the importance of supportive relationships and identified many of the features described by the practitioners as important. We grouped such features into four domains: interpersonal factors; approach; support; and settings and contexts. (A full report on the review will be available in Autumn 2019).

Much of the international literature focuses on describing the features of the relationship rather than demonstrating their effectiveness or detailing the mechanisms that bring about positive change. Thus, in order to provide a more robust evidence base, three researchers from the REPPP team have commenced a collaborative project with 16 GYDPs from across Ireland to build on effective relationships from a practice perspective. Together, they will be co-designing, documenting and evaluating a relational model for youth justice. The findings of both the evidence review and the action research will be shared with the practitioners, policy makers and academics on an ongoing basis.

Deirdre Fullerton is a Research Psychologist, REPPP, School of Law, University of Limerick

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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