Advising vulnerable young people

By Mr John Peake, Director of the Law Clinic (University of Bristol Law School).

© David McKelvey

Kate Aubrey-Johnson writes that vulnerable children are not impressed by barristers’ textbooks. But then who would be. Certainly not the majority of young people who are drawn into the criminal justice world.

But the points she makes about the need for youth advocates to be specially trained and equipped with the communication skills needed to engage with vulnerable young people are as valid when advising the majority of young people as when representing those young people who are brought into the youth justice system.

For the first few months of my time as Director of the University of Bristol Law Clinic we were running drop in sessions initially with Creative Youth Network and then in conjunction with Kids Company. Both of these sessions operated from premises in Silver Street in the centre of Bristol but there was a marked disparity between take up. In the three months we were running sessions through Creative Youth we maybe saw two people. In contrast we would normally see at least two young people at each of the weekly Kids Company sessions. Some of the Kids Company young people continue to receive help from the Clinic. So why the difference? 

So much depends as Kate says on the need to build up a strong rapport with the young people. At Creative Youth the majority of the young people using the service or supposed to be using the service congregated outside in the street. They seemed reluctant to come into the CYN premises. In contrast the Kids Company premises were teeming both with support workers and young people. The premises represented a safe haven, a place where the staff were available to help and support as needed but did not judge. Meals and soft drinks were available free of charge. The staff knew they were dealing with vulnerable young people with a multiplicity of needs and problems and did everything they could to break down any actual or perceived barriers.

Early on two pieces of advice were given to us by the staff. Firstly, that the centre of Bristol (ie the Hippodrome area) represented an invisible barrier and many young people would not go beyond this and certainly would not go up Park Street. Thus if we wanted to try and help we had to go to them.

The second piece of advice arose from a meeting that two of the students had with a young person whose support worker was also present. The young person was describing her issues, a young mother who was living apart from her children and who wished to see them. She was pregnant. At one point in the meeting the young person made a comment and there was a momentary fleeting reaction by one of the students. Nothing particularly blatant but something that suggested maybe, disapproval or surprise. Perhaps the opening of their eyes slightly wider or an intake of breath. It was not clear whether this was picked up by the young person but it could have been.

After the meeting had finished the support worker took me to one side and mentioned this reaction on the part of the student and explained how potentially damaging it could have been, both in terms of the young person’s self-confidence and their confidence in the student as potential support or advisor.

The point made by the support worker was entirely correct and properly made. As advisors we need to be aware and alert to the particular situation of the individual. The skills to help people are something we try and develop within the work of the Law Clinic and the nature of the work carried out by the students involves them in meeting and assisting people who are distressed and many of whom are vulnerable.

The young people who seek help with legal problems come from a wide range of backgrounds but at all times it is important they are treated sensitively and with consideration. The role of the advisor is not to judge but to help and advise; to provide support when otherwise there might be nothing. At times this can be difficult but as a life skill, invaluable.

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