“Youth Justice Practice is Just Messy” Youth Offending Team Practitioners: Culture and Identity

Published 15/06/2015
Type Article
Author(s) Dr Rachel Morris
Corresponding Authors Dr Rachel Morris, Lecturer in Social Policy and Crime, University of York

At a time when the Ministry of Justice has announced a ‘stock take’ (Puffett, 2014) of youth justice it is now more crucial than ever that attention is paid to the organisational culture of youth offending teams (YOTs) and the occupational identity of the practitioners that work within them. The organisational culture of a YOT can have a significant impact on the treatment that young people receive as interpretations on national policy are made on a local and individual level yet it has been a largely under-researched area in comparison to other key criminal justice agencies. This paper seeks to contribute to the limited literature on YOT practice cultures using empirical evidence from ethnographic based doctoral research. It will explore the reasons why practitioners do the job that they do and suggest that this can impact on key elements of YOT practice such as assessment. It is important that a coherent unified YOT practice culture exists within a YOT so that best outcomes for young people can be attained but this paper will present evidence to show that this can be difficult to achieve.

The delivery of youth justice services has an important and long standing relationship with practitioners’ understanding of the philosophy underlying the aims of youth justice work. Youth justice is an ever changing and evolving field of policy and practice. With its close and somewhat unfortunate connections to political and media discourse, the philosophy underpinning youth justice in England is never set. This means that with every reconfiguration of the Youth Justice System (YJS), practitioners’ are expected to adapt and reconfigure with it. The most recent legislative changes to the YJS (Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008; Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) alongside the current period of economic recession have meant another reconfiguration has been necessary. Currently policies in the YJS are underpinned by a risk-based managerialism (Muncie et al., 2002; Pitts, 2003; O’Mahony, 2009; Bateman, 2011; Case & Haines, 2015) yet on a local and individual level such practice does not necessarily follow suit. This is due to the different interpretations local authorities make on policies from the Youth Justice Board (YJB) leading to what many have termed as a ‘postcode lottery’ (Ramsbotham, as cited in Hill, 2012) of youth justice services. The nature of youth justice is like a ‘pick and mix’ (Muncie, 2000:31) despite National Standards (YJB, 2013) being in place; whereby instead of providing a set framework for all work with young people in the system, the shifting philosophical and ideological foundations results in a constant status of central ambiguity (Souhami, 2007; 2014).

For practitioners, this ‘central ambiguity’ results in diverse and conflicting approaches to the delivery of youth justice services. This is further complicated by the multi-agency approach (as placed into statute by section 39.5, Crime and Disorder Act 1998) of YOTs; as there are practitioners from organisations whose ethoses do not naturally blend well together, for example, the police (public protection/justice oriented) versus social services (welfare oriented). The inherent nature of youth justice services is subsequently one of contradiction or as Sarah, a YOT Social Worker described, ‘youth justice practice is just messy.’ To practice in a YOT is to negotiate a consistent state of ambiguity; practitioners have to balance their own beliefs, with that of the team and then situate that in the wider ethos of the YJS. As Souhami (2007:193) states, ‘practitioners’ fluctuating and contradictory understanding of what it was to be an occupational member was brought into focus by the ‘ambiguous organisational position’ that they were required to adopt’. It is therefore important to consider the organisational culture and occupational identity of YOTs and YOT practitioners due to the influence it has on processes such as the writing of assessments and designing of intervention plans, both key elements of YOT practice. Yet such concepts have received little exploration in comparison with some of the other key agencies of criminal justice. There is a vast body of research literature on the organisational culture and occupational identity of police officers (Skolnick, 2008; Reiner, 2010) and over recent years more research has emerged exploring prison officer culture and identity (Crawley, 2004; Liebling et al., 2011) yet agencies such as probation (this has recently started to change, see Mawby & Worrall, 2011) and YOTs have received much
less attention. Anna Souhami’s (2007) seminal work exploring the occupational culture and identity of YOT practitioners has been the most detailed published account to date which focused on exploring the transition of a former social services youth justice team into a multi-agency YOT in 1999/2000. Moreover, Burnett and Appleton (2004) as well as Ellis and Boden (2004) have also explored YOT professional culture yet both concluded that more research was needed in this area to explore key issues such as multi-agency working and the values underpinning team practice. This paper seeks to explore the organisational culture and occupational identity of YOTs and YOT practitioners. It will discuss what does it mean to be a member of a YOT and how do practitioners understand their work, values and identity? It will also consider how explorations of culture and identity can inform an understanding of the relationship between policy and practice.

Research Methods
The findings in this article are drawn from fourteen months of fieldwork undertaken during 2012-13 for doctoral research which explored how the concept of ‘risk’ has impacted on YOT practice. The research was an ethnographic, ‘step-in, step-out’ (Madden, 2010) study which involved five YOTs in the North of England. The study comprised of over 300 hours of participant observation, 30 in-depth interviews with practitioners, documentary analysis of 25 young people’s case files and YOT policy and procedural documents and 8 case studies. The ‘step-in, step out’ approach is what Madden (2010:80) describes as being the short-term and/or not co-resident approach to ethnography. When researching organisations where the time spent in the ‘field’ of study is limited to ‘working hours’ (usually 9am to 5pm) the ‘step-in, step-out’ approach is particularly suitable. Researching organisations can be particularly difficult to undertake given the multiple levels of access that have to be negotiated. Following Buchanan et al.’s (1988:53) advice an opportunistic approach to the fieldwork was adopted; this means that any chances that were offered to collect data were undertaken, in the spirit of being opportunistic. The way that data was collected unfolded as more and more time in ‘the field’ was spent because as Pearson (1993:x) states, ‘there can be few if any hard-and-fast rules for the successful conduct of ethnographic research’. The majority of the 14 months in the field was spent undertaking participant observation in a variety of settings including youth courts and YOT offices, attending team meetings, talking to practitioners and reading documents including YOT policies and procedures as well as young people’s case files. By triangulating these methods, a picture of YOT practice was able to be built up.

YOT Practitioner Occupational Identity
The culture of an organisation can be described as the values shared by individuals that are noticeable in the practices of members of that occupation or organisation. There are many different ways to define culture however for the purposes of this paper Schein’s (2004:11) definition is helpful to set the parameters of interest:

‘the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation, that operate unconsciously and define in a basic taken-for-granted fashion an organisation’s view of itself and its environment.’

In order to account for some of the aspects of YOT practitioner behaviour and how a YOT understands and deals with policy and practice change it is useful to explore the organisation’s culture. It is common place to see in reports about criminal justice agencies comments about the ‘organisational culture’ of the establishment and the attitudes of its officers (particularly in relation to police and prison officers). YOT practitioners work in tempestuous economic, political and social conditions. Working in the criminal justice system (CJS) in roles requiring contact with offenders has often been classed as ‘dirty work’ (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). Police officers (Reiner, 2010), prison officers (Liebling et al., 2011) and most recently probation officers (Mawby & Worrall, 2011) have all been cited as occupations of ‘necessary evil’; positions that involve doing morally questionable work through liaising with stigmatised groups/people, namely offenders. Like the aforementioned occupations, YOT practitioners can also be seen to be doing society’s ‘dirty work’ dealing with children and young people who break the socially constructed mould of what it is to be a ‘good child’ (Davies & Bourhill, 1997). It was clear from the data collected that practitioners often viewed themselves as doing the work that no one else wanted to do, working with young people and families characterised as ‘difficult’ and ‘hard to engage’. This raises the question of why do YOT practitioners do the job they do? It is an important consideration as what became clear during the data collection process is that why a person had become a YOT practitioner often helped to explain why some of them had difficulties with certain policies and practices such as the Scaled Approach (Sutherland, 2009; Morris, 2014). There were several reasons why YOT practitioners had chosen to do the job they do. The ones which this article seeks to highlight are: wanting to make a difference; wanting to do social work with young people in the CJS; and the challenge of working with risk.

Making a Difference
Some YOT practitioners were drawn to the job because they wanted to ‘make a difference’; they held values that resulted in a strong belief in rehabilitation and that young people could change. Similar to Reiner’s (2010:119) theme of ‘mission’ that he observed in relation to police culture, to some YOT practitioners their occupation was more than just a job, it was a vocation. These practitioners acknowledged that they had to deal with a young person’s offending behaviour (usually through processes of responsibilisation – see Kemshall, 2008) however concerns about a young person’s welfare were more likely to take precedence:

‘I really struggle with being a YOT practitioner at times as I have this quite grounded youth work ethos in that I’m very welfare based. For me young people that come through our door are young people, full stop, then some of the issues is that they’ve got offending behaviour.’ (Anna, YOT Worker)

‘It’s the children’s side of it rather than the justice side of it, when we’re talking about where you lean, where you come from, then it’s still very welfary rather than like justice and being process driven.’ (Kate, YOT Worker)

Practitioners who reasoned that it was ‘to make a difference’ as to why they practiced in youth justice were far more likely to be at odds with the system then some of their colleagues (particularly some police officers). Often the practitioners who fell into this category had a youth worker background where their training and experience had been centred on the empowerment of young people. This and these practitioners therefore often found themselves in conflict with practitioners from a probation/police background for example, who had been ‘educated’ and developed a practice which was much more risk-based. YOT practitioners, who are agents of the court, are required to have due regard for the welfare of a child/young person as defined by section 44 of the Children’s and Young Person Act 1933. There has been a longstanding conflict between this and other aspects of the CJS such as public protection and punishment. Anna and Kate both who had training in youth work, talked about having difficulty with the enforcement element of their job, because it goes against their welfare oriented approach to making a difference:

‘One of things that I really struggled with was if they don’t conform, if they don’t make so many appointments, we’ve got to go through breach.’ (Anna, YOT Worker)

‘I don’t like the enforcement side of it; if somebody comes because they have to then that that is a barrier to engagement in the first place.’ (Kate, YOT Worker)

Both practitioners spoke about being ‘creative’ in terms of working around the system to get the best outcomes for the young people they were working with. For Kate, in particular, she felt that if the enforcement process ever did get any more comfortable for her then she would not be being true to herself and her beliefs. Practitioners, who had difficulties with the enforcement side of things and were ‘creative’ in trying to engage young people, often did it at the expense of working with their colleagues as Carrie explains:

‘Some workers are better on breach then others in terms of being quick. Some workers are very laid back, ‘oh yeah he might need breaching for that’ and it’s like no if you don’t breach him now it has a knock on effects for the other kids. This is the problem we’ve got at the moment because this young person wasn’t breached straight away, if he’d been in court like 2 days ago he wouldn’t have committed a burglary last night with another young person and that other young person now wouldn’t be looking at custody.’ (Carrie, YOT Worker)

Carrie, a YOT worker who had a similar view of wanting to help young people like Anna and Kate, strongly felt that another colleague’s reactive rather than proactive approach, what she terms ‘laid back’ had resulted in her young person now being placed in a situation where custody was a likely outcome. She went further to state that there would be a discussion with the management team about it:

‘There will be because I’m not happy about it; I will be discussing it higher because I think another young person wouldn’t have to go to prison if another worker had acted faster which annoys the hell out of me but it is about being on the ball all the time. You have to be kind of paced with it and if you’re not, if you’re a bit more laid back and you think ah it’ll all work out, then this happens.’ (Carrie, YOT Worker)

Social Work with Young People in the CJS
Other practitioners did the job because they were interested in the CJS and social work with young people therefore being a YOT practitioner was the perfect position for them. These practitioners still had a somewhat welfare-oriented approach yet were more interested and accepting of the risk-based approach that the YJS has become enshrined in.

‘The support aspect of it and the affecting change aspect of it is the job role that I like. Obviously it ticks my box in terms of, I like working with young people, I’m interested in why young people offend, why some can go through what we would class as risk factors and don’t offend and some do.’ (Megan, YOT Social Worker)

‘I used to be a part time youth worker for about seven years. Then I thought I wanna go to uni and do social work. I wanted to work with teenagers and have a link to crime so youth justice was the ideal, it worked out perfect really.’ (Sarah, YOT Social Worker)

Those practitioners who were recently social work qualified and were particularly new to the job (less than 5 years’ experience), had been trained to undertake assessments and complete large quantities of paperwork; to them it was a key aspect of the role:

‘I’m a trained qualified social worker, I am welfare based through and through but I’m also working with children who pose a risk to other people, so you cannot avoid risk assessment.’ (Megan, YOT Social Worker)

This acceptance of the need for large quantities of paperwork and, more critically, the riskbased approach which many practitioners who viewed YOT as a vocation considered to be negatively focused, caused the clashes between these two groups of practitioners.2* The different backgrounds, levels of training, experience and qualification were often at the root cause of many of the conflicts witnessed; to several practitioners this had worsened since the introduction of the predominately risk-based scaled approach (Morris, 2014).

The Challenge of Working with Risk
The third reason that practitioners spoke about as being the purpose that they do the work was that they enjoyed the challenge and unpredictable nature of the role. Several practitioners commented that the unpredictability, whilst at times frustrating and causing difficulties, was an element of the job that they enjoyed. They viewed themselves as not being suited to a traditional office based 9-5 job and liked that they were challenged on a daily basis. It can be argued that the challenge and unpredictable nature of the job was also the reason that they stayed in the role as much as they argued it was the reason they had entered the service to begin with. The idea of liking the challenge was also connected to the notion of risk and holding the higher risk cases/young people. Such cases were particularly sought after by those workers, who liked a challenge and wanted to undertake intensive work with young people and families:

‘Being here that long I do all the big cases really, I manage the high risk ones, custody ones, I love it.’ (Sarah, YOT Social Worker)

To those who were not considered to be ‘qualified’ to hold such cases, the wanting of the challenge was the reason why they had undertaken additional training or were actively seeking promotion:

‘I’m hoping there’s a permanent post coming through the system at the moment. I’ll be applying for that, I would really like to continue being [in a qualified post] because it means that we get to work with the more risky young people and more complex needs.’ (Anna, YOT Worker)

For team members of the YOT who were seconded in from other agencies such as the police and probation service, the challenging nature of working with young people was often the reason they cited for having applied for the secondment:

‘An opportunity arose for an internal secondment to be the youth involvement officer so really for 9 years I’ve been working with young people. Once I did that over at the police station I liked it, I had a good rapport with kids, I wasn’t all about lets lock them up, it was the case of what can we do so that they won’t do what they’re doing anymore. A job came up here at the YOT, I applied for it and I just thought I’ve dealt with the younger ones and it was sort of like a step to dealing with the older ones who were actually coming into contact with the system more.’ (Matt, YOT Seconded Police Officer)

Despite initially ‘taking stick’ from his colleagues in the police for ‘getting a nice cushy desk job,’ Matt relished his work as a YOT seconded police officer and was particularly proud of the reputation he had obtained for being successful in working with young people who had sexually offended. By being willing to embrace the challenge of working with young people who have offended, some practitioners were able to have a chance at a second career. This appeared particularly significant amongst some of the seconded probation officers. It was a common theme that they felt as though probation had changed and the way of working that was expected of them now was no longer matching the reason why they had gotten into the occupation to begin with:

‘I much prefer working with young people as a probation officer; certainly in my time of being a probation officer where the philosophy and ethos of the role which traditionally was based on the principle of advice, assist and befriend got replaced with offender management and risk management, protecting the public and victim centralisation, all of which is complete rubbish. For many years prior to probation I was involved in the community voluntary sector, I’ve always worked with children and young people in one form or another so my natural meaning was to aim to work with young people professionally. So hence this and the role of the probation officer in the YOT was far more akin to my feeling of what the role of what a probation officer should be anyway i.e. getting your hands dirty and you know actually daring to go and spend some time with an offender.’ (George, Probation Officer)

George had been seconded to YOT as a probation officer twice within the last nine years. It was a position which he really enjoyed because he preferred ‘getting [his] hands dirty’ something that probation work no longer provided (Mawby & Worrall, 2011). Mawby and Worrall (2011:9) found in their study exploring the occupational culture of probation workers that ‘beneath the surface, was a principled rehabilitative approach to working with offenders and a readiness to move on to other jobs if they were not allowed to work in the way that they wanted.’ This perhaps could explain why several of the seconded probation officers, including George, felt that working in probation was no longer fulfilling and that they needed to take their skills and values elsewhere. Joining the YOT provided such an opportunity.

Discussion and Conclusion
This research has identified that YOT practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life, with the reasons why they do they job they do being varied. The above three groupings are the collation of the most common reasons practitioners discussed being the motivation behind why they do, and for the most part, enjoy the job that they do. It is important that there is a shared orientation to youth offending work; there needs to be a common ‘ideology of unity’ (Crawford, 1994) amongst all practitioners in the YOT so that positive outcomes can be achieved for young people involved in the service. A shared understanding of principles and goals of youth offending team work is also seen as an essential part of team membership (Souhami, 2007:49). This is because, according to Parker (2000:86) by having a shared ethos or common understanding, the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are defined; it sets the boundaries of the team. The problems of having a shared orientation to youth offending work were first identified as YOTs began to be created in 1999/2000 by numerous authors including Souhami (2007), Burnett and Appleton (2004) and Ellis and Boden (2004). Even the Home Office’s own commissioned research into the evaluation of the pilot YOTs found that there were ‘cultural hang-overs’ from previous youth justice practice, including disagreements over the implementation of case working and resistance to management over attempts to introduce evidence-based practice (Holdaway et al., 2001). It is clear that these ‘cultural hang-overs’ (Holdaway et al., 2001) have never disappeared from YOT practice as there are still key unresolved issues within YOT work. What is the purpose of YOT work? Is to prevent offending, to reduce reoffending, to deliver justice, to look out for a young person’s welfare? These common underlying tensions within youth justice policy have helped to create a system whereby the very nature of its work is ‘ambiguous’ (Souhami, 2007). How then are practitioners expected to practice and work with young people if the very nature of their work is undefinable?

Souhami (2007), found that the relationships practitioners have with other agencies in the CJS [which can be varied and still fifteen years post-YOT creation be based upon who you know rather than formal arrangements] and the state plus the values, aims and technologies of their work are all unsettled, creating this ambiguous nature. Most practitioners regardless of their professional or personal background do share common values and views of the reasons why young people offend in the first instance, poverty, poor parenting, lack of boundaries, school exclusion and negative labelling were all commonly cited as the causes of offending. What practitioners disagree upon is the best way to deal with such behaviour and of particular relevance as to whether a risk-led approach is the best way (Morris, 2014). Meyerson (1991:131) argues that:

‘Members who do not agree on clear boundaries, cannot identify shared solutions and do not reconcile contradictory beliefs and multiple identities. Ambiguity is thus ‘normal’: it comprises the ‘essence of their cultural community.’

The ambiguous nature of YOTs, driven by the individualised and indeterminate nature of YOT practice is what makes them unique and arguably successful in what they do. The flexibility that the ambiguity promotes is particularly important given the complex nature of the lives that some of the young people who YOTs come in to contact with have, meaning that YOT practitioners need to be able to adapt and use a mix of styles/ways of practice in order to help them. The reasons why practitioners do the job that they do, in particular where they sit on the welfare vs. justice continuum, influences their practice. The challenge for YOT practitioners is how they reconcile their own professional values and find a common way to work together in the context of a multi-disciplinary team. This challenge is exemplified by Carrie, Anna and Kate in that how without robust, open, discussions of values, professional identity and ideal working relationships, practitioners can become labelled as ‘laid back’ or worse be practicing without a full understanding of the position in which they are operating from.3* As the aims of youth justice policy remain ambiguous (Souhami, 2007), practitioners use their own background and viewpoints on how children in conflict with the law should be treated to construct assessments and devise intervention plans; this means that a consideration of YOT practice cultures is of crucial importance prior to policies and new practices being implemented.

2* Those who considered YOT a vocation and those who were interested in criminal justice/young people and more recently qualified in social work.

3* I am grateful to a reviewer for suggesting these last two sentences.


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