The Linx project is looking to improve the behaviour of young offenders through helping them come to terms with the domestic violence they have experienced. Vern Pitt reports
Entering a room full of teenage violent offenders isn’t easy at the best of times, but especially when your job is to improve their behaviour. “They’re sitting there chewing their gum with their arms folded and their legs crossed looking at you like ‘come on then what are you going to tell us today?’,” says Jackie Hannah-Holes, a facilitator for the Linx project.
Each course lasts for 12-weeks, during which Hannah-Holes works with young offenders to help them understand the links between their violent behaviour and their background of domestic violence. She encourages them to develop empathy and emotional awareness, and some even end up helping out on other projects.
The Linx project is set to be rolled out in Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. It is run by youth charity The Hampton Trust, which has recently received £800,000 from the National Lottery to create a “programme of national significance” – hence the roll-out.
Taking referrals from youth offending teams, schools and social workers, the project will be working with young people who have committed offences or are at risk of doing so.
Figures released this year show that juvenile re-offending is slowly falling, with 37% of young offenders re-offending within a year. But there is still far to go if the government is to meet its target of a 10% decrease by 2020 from a rate of 38% in 2005.
To meet this target, measures that tackle the causes of crime will inevitably play a significant role. So West Sussex youth offending team turned their attention towards domestic violence.
On average, victims of domestic violence experience 35 incidents of violence before seeking help. And, in 90% of incidents, children are present or in the next room. It comes as no surprise, then, that several studies have shown a correlation between experiencing domestic violence as a child and later violent behaviour, including further domestic violence as an adult. Research by West Sussex Council between 2003 and 2004 revealed that offenders who had witnessed domestic violence had committed more offences than those who had not.
Cycle of trouble
This is a cycle with which 15-year-old William Johnson*, who attended one of Linx’s early pilots, is familiar. “You were in a cycle where you wake up and you have arguments, you go to school and you have arguments and you get home again and you have even more arguments,” Johnson says. He and a sibling were referred to the project after nearly being expelled from school.
When the Wessex Youth Offending Team approached Hampton Trust, teenagers like Johnson were slipping through the net, says domestic abuse manager Chantal Hughes. “There was a boys-to-men programme and a few other things, but nothing targeted specifically at this client group.”
The charity was set the ambitious target of devising a programme that would reduce re-offending by 10%. A framework based on three key areas of clients’ experiences, feelings and actions was developed to be used in different contexts in all sessions, and an empathy wall made of bricks representing life lessons or goals such as positive relationships, equality or self-esteem was built.
“It’s a metaphor,” says Hughes. “So what we are actually saying to the clients is that, if you lose these bricks, the structure in your life is quite fragile which means you are likely to face a custodial sentence.”
The team adopted this approach to overcome literacy barriers and increase engagement. The sessions were largely games- and experience-based, with facilitators then linking back to the principles of the programme.
But even with a programme catering to a gap in the market, it hasn’t always been easy to secure referrals from other agencies. Hughes says she had to do a lot of work educating staff in how to approach the subject of domestic violence in order to identify appropriate candidates. “It’s a bit like asking a young person ‘have you experienced sexual abuse’ and if they answer ‘yes’ you don’t know how to respond. People didn’t really know how to ask the question,” she says.
Programme participants are monitored weekly to see what elements of the project are most helpful, and to identify areas to work on. Facilitators don’t always have to ask to know if people have had a bad week. “Every week, one guy would come into the session with a black eye or a bruise where he had got into a fight,” says Hannah-Holes. “By the end, there were fewer fresh bruises.”
Although the programme failed to meet the target set by West Sussex Council, its value has been recognised and discussions about making it a mandatory course for young offenders who have experienced domestic violence are underway.
Johnson is one person likely to advocate this approach. He is adamant his life would not be the same had he not taken part in the programme. “Honestly, I would be living with my dad and not my mum because she would have just kicked me out,” he says.
*Not his real name
Published in Community Care 3 September 2009 under heading ‘Let’s create a little empathy here’