Working with young offenders is difficult at the best of times, but problems can be complicated further when an offender has learning disabilities, writes Mark Drinkwater.
Practitioner Declan Henry, social worker
Field Young offenders
Location South east England
Client Frank*, a 15-year-old boy with autism who is on a court order.
Case history Frank has a fierce temper and a history of striking pupils and teachers. After one serious incident, the parents of the victim insisted on a prosecution because it was the second time Frank had assaulted them. Frank received a court order where he is supervised by the youth offending team’s social worker for 12 months.
Dilemma Frank needs to unlearn his volatile and aggressive responses. However, Frank has learning disabilities, so a standard approach might be too complex for him to understand.
Risk factor Frank’s learning disabilities place him at a higher risk of re-offending.
Outcome Despite a difficult start, the social worker persists by spending additional time with him. This intensive support pays off and, with a tailored response, Frank learns about his offending behaviour and stays out of further trouble.
*Not his real name
Declan Henry, a social worker in a youth offending team, describes the case. “Frank came to us on a court order after being found guilty of actual bodily harm,” he says. “He had explosive episodes every couple of months where he would strike out at pupils or adults. When he lost his temper, he really lost it, and he had received several warnings from the police after violent incidents.”
Initial supervision sessions with Frank were fraught and Henry sensed anger and hostility. They met once a week, and in early sessions the boy displayed little eye contact or verbal communication. Like many young people with autism, Frank had low self-confidence and impaired social skills.
Henry recalls that it wasn’t only Frank’s learning difficulties that hindered progress. Every other month, his parents sat in on supervision sessions. “His mother would do all the talking. She would never let him speak for himself,” he says.
Henry felt that it was important to give Frank his “own voice”, and as part of the assessment process he took Frank outside the school environment to spend time at the local library to assess his levels of ability. Henry’s assessment confirmed Frank’s levels of literacy and understanding as far below the average for his age.
Over time, sessions improved and Henry was able to help Frank focus on issues around his thoughts and behaviour by working on anger management, conflict resolution and problem-solving. “He had learned some bad habits and we tried to help him unlearn them,” he says.
While much of the work was carried out outside of the home and school environment, Henry ensured that he worked closely with the family and regularly informed the school about the type of offending intervention work they were doing.
Henry established a good rapport with Frank and helped him to face up to his aggression. “One of the greatest challenges with young offenders is that they resist change,” he says. “With Frank, we had to double the work because he didn’t have the same awareness for changing his behaviour.”
It was clear that Frank found it difficult to retain and recall new information
To address this, Henry chose an intervention tailored to Frank’s abilities. “We used a technique called Teen Talk,” he says. “It’s a series of exercises designed to help young people address their offending behaviour and their thought patterns. We had to simplify them by breaking them down into small chunks and repeating them.”
These exercises helped Frank think about situations and how to resolve them, other than through conflict. They also enabled him to gain an awareness of how his actions affected others, something Henry says is often difficult for people with autism.
Over 12 months, there was a marked decrease in the frequency and intensity of aggressive outbursts. “We made a lot of progress with him, but it was hard work. The youth offending team has limited resources and a young person with special needs takes up a lot of time,” he says.
Henry is pleased with the outcomes. “A year is a long time, but in that time we managed to keep him out of trouble,” he says. “Without the intervention, he might have gone on to do something much worse.”
WEIGHING UP THE RISKS
Arguments for taking the risk
● Aggression was escalating
Frank’s aggressive behaviour had been escalating. For the safety of Frank and other pupils, it was important that his behaviour was challenged through an appropriate intervention.
● Regular dialogue with school
Henry was confident that he could make progress through persistence and spending significant time with Frank in a neutral location. Henry regularly informed the school about the case work.
● Tailored interventions
By adapting existing resources, Henry was able to tailor interventions to Frank’s abilities. He reasoned that these empowering techniques would have a positive and enduring impact.
Arguments against taking the risk
● Understanding the consequences
The additional time spent with Frank could count for little if he is unable to comprehend the consequences of his actions on others.
● Possible duplication of effort
With different agencies involved, there is always a risk of misunderstandings or duplication of effort. Without proper co-ordination and communication, this could lead to confusion about roles and responsibilities in Frank’s support.
● Is follow-up support available?
Any improvements in Frank’s behaviour may only be temporary if not followed up afterwards by the school or other support services.
Practitioner: Shellie Keen, youth justice consultant
The fact that Frank has completed his court order without further offending speaks volumes. It’s a measure not only of the ability that Frank has but also of the hard work that Henry put in.
Given Frank’s learning difficulties extra care and sensitivity was required. It is difficult to establish an individual’s learning styles and abilities. In cases such as this, the right resources must be found to meet those individual needs.
Teen Talk was suitable for use with Frank in that it is a visual resource that can instigate conversation while work continues to address issues related to offending behaviour.
It’s encouraging that Declan took the time to meet Frank in the library. This environment was more conducive to engaging Frank than the school (where the incident happened) or his home (where his mother will want to speak on his behalf).
Consideration could have been given to using a restorative approach where Frank could have met the victim in a controlled environment. Restorative meetings require careful preparation but can bring about positive change by allowing individuals to express to each other how what has happened has affected them and to identify ways of repairing harm caused.
● Read our expert guide on autism
This article is published in the 4 March 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Violence had to be unlearned”