If I had a dollar for every time I have had this type of comment thrown at me… I would be earning more than the crappy wages youth workers earn at any rate! But seriously folks, we have all heard / read these comments from time to time whenever the subject of juvenile crime comes up haven’t we? And usually they appear when we are in the middle of a “youth crime wave” or some such.
Half of my trouble is, I agree with many of the ideas in the above comment. I agree that criminal behaviours often stem from a lack of consequences in young lives, I agree there is no respect, and I agree that “giving them excuses and a hug” is not going to resolve anything. It’s probably because I agree that I get so hurt and frustrated when I see the comments.
To explain properly, let me introduce you to Lulu.
Lulu must be around 3 years old now. She is a tri-coloured border collie cross with a magnetic personality, a doll face and a sweet disposition. For reasons totally unrelated to any of those things, she is a very special dog.
When Lulu was a pup, she worked pretty intensively with a very young man who had been referred to me as “one of the most damaged kids in NSW”. Hell of a title to have at 9 years of age. This young man chose Lulu and she chose him. They spent time together several times a week, one on one, for a few months. Very emotionally charged work for a young pup.
It was a struggle for Lulu to stay sane in this period. Dogs are masters at taking on the emotions of those around them. Lulu got burnt out. Very burnt out. Her eyes changed colour, she became snappy and unpredictable. She couldn’t get along with the other dogs and wanted no human interaction. She was given nearly 12 months off work altogether. I smothered her with love and attention. I set things up so that she could be around the pack but not have to interact with them all the time. I gave her one special companion who was super submissive. I interceded in Lulu’s arguments with the pack leadership when she had transgressed. In short I did everything I could think of and eventually she came back to us as a loving, biddable dog.
That Lulu did that work willingly, that she was able, eventually, to cope emotionally and that she did so much good for a special young man, are all reasons why Lulu gets special treatment in our pack.
These days, Lulu is a study in contradictions. Lulu loves to be a part of the group, and she is a loner who likes to do her own thing. Lulu is highly social and always looking for physical affection and she is just as happy being left to her own devices and ignored. Lulu is a clever dog who learns quickly and displays a distinct flair for self-control and she is also hard to engage and even harder to motivate to do the right thing. Sounds like a fun dog huh?
Now, from the very beginning I made “mistakes” with Lulu. Because of the work she did as a young pup with the kid I described above, Lulu was exposed to a whole lot more than I would normally ever expose a pup to. More need, more emotion, more time in work, more time away from her pack. I do not normally choose that for a pup and I wouldn’t have chosen it for Lulu but a young man really needed her.
So there are some aspects to Lulu’s behaviour now that I can attribute to her work as a pup. She didn’t get a great grounding in discipline before she started really working. This means that discipline is something Lulu has to think about, not something that comes naturally. She has to think about wanting to do what I am asking her to do. I have to inspire that desire before I ever get a disciplined response from her.
Lulu also has some explicit self-care needs and habits that she is highly aware of. She needs time on her own to process emotion, she needs time with the pack to re-balance herself. Lulu needs to feel in control to feel safe, and she needs strong leadership to show her that her security can be relied on.
Most of all, Lulu needs a pack and a leader who understands that she needs different things at different times and that the consequences to her actions need to be appropriate at that time. Thankfully for her, she has that.
Imagine that she didn’t though? Imagine that having lived through an emotionally overwhelming experience, having survived a trauma that it was beyond her to understand or control, imagine that she didn’t get understanding and consideration from her pack and her leaders?
Wow, in that circumstance, she might have turned into a real pain in the arse. She might have been hard to manage, even violent. She might have no respect for authority and become a real loner because no one understood her. If those things had happened, she might have started missing out on some of the benefits of living in a pack. She wouldn’t get her share of food or a warm safe place to sleep with everyone else. And when that started to happen, she might have needed to started stealing food wherever she could, and trying to intimidate other younger dogs into letting her use their bed. It could have been awful!
Again with obvious parallels I’m afraid. Lulu’s lived experience is not all that dissimilar from the lived experience of many of the kids I work with. The kids these comments are made about.
So at what point, exactly, did the life experiences of these kids become a “problem” that the kid themselves needed to be “responsible” for? And at what point, exactly, did the way they were treated / cared for / given consequences become something the young person themselves could control?
The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind, the answer is that the response to trauma in our community is far more a causal to a child’s life choices than the original trauma ever will be. In english? The way we as a community respond to the most vulnerable children among us, has more of an effect on that child’s life than any trauma they will / have ever experienced.
What happened to the child is not as important to their future life choices, as what supports they get to recover from what happened. No / inappropriate / unsympathetic supports will result in poor life outcomes, for the community and for the child.
Lulu is one of my most highly prized treasures. She stands tall amongst her pack and she offers the most special brand of therapy to all the kids she comes into contact with. That is a product of the way her pack works to understand and support her needs. Her pack gains the most from her strength. When we talk about youth crime being a community problem, this is what we mean. Youth crime isn’t a product of bad kids. Youth crime is a product of poor community responses to their most vulnerable members. The community has the most to gain and the most to lose.
Another reason Lulu is so special to me, is that she reminds every day of the young boy she took into her care as a pup. What a special young man. He is beset with devils in his life and I am not sure he will ever be free of them. Our care system is broken and this young man has no happy-ever-after to report because the system is too broken to offer that. But he is still alive, still trying and still learning to believe.