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Giving Back: Bridging the gap towards child-friendly justice in closed institutions

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee, in cooperation with Young Perspectives (YOPE), the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency and Educational Institute of the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency, recently started an EU funded project “Giving Back”. The project aims to increase child-friendly treatment of young people in closed institutions by working towards a fixed, compulsory and relevant position of young people with lived experiences in the training of professionals working in closed youth institutions.

Participation of children and young people in the juvenile justice sector is one of the key values of the Council of Europe’s (CoE) guidelines on child-friendly justice. However, participation of children and young people does not come naturally in closed institutions. The unequal relationship and unequal power balance is part of a system in which a staff member embodies the state who has punished the youngster. Next to being responsible for overseeing the sentence (read, punishment) of a young person in a closed institution, staff members also have the official duty of treating and reintegrating youngsters. These ambiguous and seemingly opposing objectives lead to a complex relationship between prison staff and young people. They distort natural learning loops and consequently the voices of young people are hardly heard when it comes to their own treatment in closed institutions.

In the Netherlands, there is experience with a new approach on participation of young people in the training of justice professionals, called Youthlab. This approach, developed by Young Perspectives (YOPE), engages young people with experience of being in prison to train justice professionals working with young offenders. Youthlab has so far focused on training prosecutors, lawyers specialised in assisting young offenders, and probation officers, and less so on professionals working inside youth prisons. This is where Giving Back comes in. What Youthlab has already been able to demonstrate is that participation of young people in the training of justice professionals helps these professionals understand the impact of their interventions from the perspective of those in their care. This approach has provided invaluable insights and in-depth sensitivity for professionals on what matters most: the beneficiaries of their work. Furthermore, it creates responsive systems for closed youth care by enabling a scenario where new (policy) ideas are co-created with those who were or will be subject of it.

Our Aim

The Giving Back project wants to further secure, structurally embed and scale up this method in the Netherlands, top include the training of professionals working with young people inside closed institutions. Simultaneously the project is seeking to introduce and further develop the method in other European countries. Moreover, Giving Back also seeks to emphasize the importance of participation of young people in the juvenile justice sector with a shareable best practice. The project therefore aims to support professionals working inside youth prisons by overcoming the inherent difficult combination of opposing roles and thereby creating a fruitful foundation for a new learning process. The key ingredient of the project is training professionals, to be conducted by YOPE professionals and the Youth Lab lived experience experts; a select group of youth who use their past experience in youth detention to improve the juvenile justice sector. This will result in coordinated trainings by external experts, a ‘safe third party’ that actively supports and involves young people with lived experience to safeguard a solid understanding of the position and circumstance of young people deprived of their liberty. To achieve this, the Giving Back project will be co-directed by a youth board. Next to including young people in the project as trainers of professionals, the projects also wants to include young people at a strategic level and in the steering of the project. In both the Netherlands and the partner country a group of young people will come together to form their own Youthlabs. Two Youthlab members from the partner country and two from the Netherlands will also become members of the youth board. The youth board will be involved at a governance level and participate in decisions that concern the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the project.

Overall, the projects aims to ensure that increased youth participation in the training of justice professionals creates a more child-friendly justice system.

Project Implementation

Funder: European Union

Partners: Young Perspectives (The Netherlands), the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency (The Netherlands) and the Educational Institute of the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency (The Netherlands)

Project period: April 1, 2021 – March 30, 2023 (Extended to 2024)

Budget: € 313,252 total – NHC: € 201,116