Report on Youth At-Risk Cafe Conversation, September 26th, 2017 

The second Café Conversation for personnel working on the frontline with young people at-risk was held Tuesday, 26th September last in the Harbour View Business Centre, Dun Laoghaire. The event was co-sponsored by Dun Loghaire Rathdown Drug and Alcohol Task Force, Southside Partnership and Dublin & Dun Laoghaire Education Training Board. The event was facilitated by CAN (Community Action Network).

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   The Café Conversation was the second in a series; the first was held in May last and adopted a World Café approach through which several themes emerged from what participants were most interested in talking about. At last Tuesday’s conversation, a more structured approach was used, although an open conversation method was deployed. The overall theme was: Exploring the challenge of engaging excluded or disaffected youth when they feel disconnected from the projects and services that wish to help them improve their lives.

Following an introduction to the event and format, proceedings opened with small group, facilitated conversation  – at café tables – exploring the key concerns that arise for practitioners in “Youth Engagement”. In the course of the conversation each group agreed three concerns / questions that were posted around the venue’s walls and everybody was encouraged to take a walk around and view these.

   The second part of the morning consisted a facilitated conversation, involving two resource people who were invited to address the concerns raised and to contribute their insights, based on their considerable years of experience in working with youth at-riskOur two resource people were Donacadh Hurley and Alan Hendrick. Donacadh, has worked in Ballymun for over twenty years, where he was involved in setting up and leading outreach projects. Alan set up and leads Smyly’s After Care service (for young people leaving the care of the State) in Dun Laoghaire and has experience of working in residential and neighbourhood youthwork.

  Donnacadh used the metaphor of a bridge in highlighting the distance that often exists between workers and young people at-risk, and that the bridge was a two-way system: the worker can’t simply wait around for the young people to cross and come into their centres, or projects or services, but that fundamentally they need to cross that bridge and enter the world of the young person, to meet them where they are at, and to develop long-term relationships. He advocated the importance of peers in developing these contacts, including young adults who previously found themselves in difficult situations, such as being homeless, drug using and in prison, and who often have a lot to offer young people on the margins, particularly in terms of bringing them into services.

  Alan, also brought emphasis to the importance of relationships, stressing that the relationship was everything: in his experience, many young people who grow up in State care lack stable, adult relationships as they themselves move to adulthood, and that the after care relationship that the worker builds with them can be crucial in helping them to make this journey. He also stressed that often the worker needs to identify basic, tangible things to help build the relationship, such as going for coffee, having a burger with them and so forth.  He considered the lack of provision of single housing units for young people as impeding his particular work but also as a more general obstacle to working with young people at-risk, taking account that being at-risk often means they are out of home, or living in huge unsatisfactory home and community conditions.

  Following the conversations with Donnacadh and Alan, participants returned to small table discussions, and grouped around a number of themes such as outreach work, substance misuse, the care system, education and training, collaboration with parents and building community support and partnerships.

 The key points that arose throughout the whole morning’s discussion include:


The situation of young people at-risk and trying to engage them

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Being at-risk was considered multi-faceted, with both public and hidden dimensions. Some young people are out of school, getting involved in criminality, substance misuse, hanging around corners and becoming a nuisance to other community members. Their situation – as a group - is often well known, but individually, sometimes little is known about what they are going through, as they make the difficult journey to independence and adulthood, and indeed although they may be perceived as a group member, groups have internal conflicts and dynamics especially around peer pressure, bullying, and exclusion.

  Also, other young people have serious needs that are not so publicly noticeable, such as living in families where hidden neglect and abuse has taken place over time, without any public manifestations, and again some young people may be individually disadvantaged as a result of learning disabilities, autism or mental health issues and are struggling on their own, in the midst of other disadvantages, in trying to assert their independence and autonomy.

   The challenge of identifying young people at risk was referenced and it was highlighted that in some instances being at-risk was often over shadowed by other issues, such as parental addiction or mental health, marital conflict and domestic violence, and in the midst of various family interventions, the young person may find it difficult to find a voice.

   In the discussion, it was frequently stated that young people may not be aware of their needs, or of their risky predicaments and indeed they might quite easily react negatively to being referred to as being “at-risk”. This could be carried as a label making it even more difficult to engage them; indeed, some young people get annoyed when they see they are being targeted by too many services. There was a sense that young people’s non-engagement  may be wrongly perceived as apathetic and showing poor motivation, although many participants had a strong resonance with the bridge metaphor as used by Donnacadh, and its value in trying to make sense of the distance that can exist between the young person and the worker, reinforcing that the world of the young person – on the other side of the bridge – has its own inherent value and meaning and that the worker often needs to get in touch with this world, before they can effectively reach out to the young person. It was also suggested that workers and agencies needed to re-frame the presentation of their services, from their side of the ‘bridge’, making their centres more drop-in friendly and paying particular attention to reception areas as this is where first impressions are formed.  Social media as a method of engagement and contact was also highlighted a positive medium through which to engage with young people. 


The importance of relationship-building

Throughout the various discussions there was a lot of reference to ‘back to basics’ in relationship-building, and in making relationships centre stage to engaging with young people.  It was widely agreed that relationship-building had to happen over time and that the worker needed to be prepared for multiple rejections, to be aware and conscious of barriers to relationship-building, to hold their nerve, to be flexible, and to be prepared to invest small things over time, such as birthday cards, being available and consistent, being willing to work within a harm-reduction model, and building a sense of solidarity and empathy. It was stressed that youth at-risk will often feel they have been badly let-down by the adults in their lives and their working models of what adults do could be negative – a point emphasized by Alan; he underlined that young people in the after-care system are often completely disconnected from their families of origin, and angry about being brought up in care and anxious to create distance between them and anybody associated with their care. Thus, it is going to take an accumulation of small actions over time to convince the young person that the worker is sincere and can be trusted, it was also felt that the need for this long-term approach had to be affirmed, especially by agencies who employ front-line workers; the agencies also needed to be flexible and to develop an understanding of what it takes to build and develop this work, and the workers should not always feel the need to convince their employers that this work is worthwhile, even though the evidence of engagement is not always immediately tangible.

Worker knowledge, skill and capacities to engage

It was emphasized that frontline workers are often perceived as not having the skills to work with young people at-risk, especially with those with special needs, such as autism, mental health and addictions, and that they are also unfamiliar with outreach work. There was a lot of focus on the need for upskilling workers on the frontline, in both specialist skills, as required and also in developing skills around outreach engagement; indeed, it was suggested that an investment into outreach services was needed and also that a ‘Jigsaw’-type youth mental health service should be established. It was also felt that streetwork, outreach and other developmental approaches do not lend easily to managerial systems of accountability; many workers feel pressured to respond to other demands, such as numbers participating in specific activities and that managerial and monitoring systems don’t easily provide a framework for valuing what it takes to build engagement.


Developing an integrated approach with services and families

The need for working partnerships across services, other projects and families was emphasized throughout the discussion. On the one hand while it was felt important to have targeted programmes, it was equally important to have a relationship with mainstream services – such as youthwork, education, training and housing services – so that the young people can achieve a more normal, integration within the community. The worker also needed to know who were the key community leaders and resources, and to build their credibility and knowledge about the community’s resources, strengths and weaknesses.

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  It was also felt that relationships with families, preferably built and developed from an early stage, provide a necessary resource to support the youth at-risk long term. In this regard connections with early intervention and programmes for strengthening family capacities were emphasized, and also that families and family members should be encouraged to become engaged with various community and youth activities that surround and support the young person in growing up.

  Finally, there was some discussion about the role and purpose/benefit of the Youth at Risk Network with the suggestion that it could have the potential to build connections, attract resources, develop partnerships and initiate cooperative strategies. The idea of hosting informal area-based network discussions as a response to particular issues was also referenced, although as of yet the mechanics of doing this has not been discussed.


For your Diary

Cafe Conversation

Youth & the Cannabis issue

The next Cafe conversation is due to be held on Thursday, November 23rd, Harbour View Business Centre, 10.00am-1.00pm. This Cafe will explore issues arising in direct work with youth who habitually use cannabis.

If you wish to make a contribution to planning this event, thereby getting involved in the formal establishment of a Youth At-Risk network, we have set a planning event for Tuesday, October, 24th 2.00-3.30pm, in the Boardroom, Southside Partnership.



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