Dr. Hannah Smithson calls for a different approach to research with young people

Dr. Hannah Smithson, director of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, joined MASCLab in order to present her most recent project and to continue fostering a relationship with other departments committed to social impact and change, specifically in the area of youth justice. Dr. Smithson and her team partnered with youth involved with the Justice system to discover what actually matters to them, what they need, or what they feel has been taken from them. The project itself, despite being creative, important, and beautifully done, was not the thing which captured my attention and kept me thinking and writing for days to follow. I left the presentation with a combined sense of optimism and frustration. Optimism because I saw proof of participatory research being beneficial and achievable, and frustration because the juvenile justice system is so deeply flawed it often seems Sisyphean to even attempt changing it. 

Currently, there are approximately 53,000 minors in secure custody as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Bear in mind offenses that may land a child in a secure facility range in severity; from crimes such as persistent truancy or misdemeanor possession to violent interpersonal crime or murder. Once it is determined that a child is to be sentenced to secure custody, he or she may be placed in a group home, treatment facility, juvenile detention facility or in some cases an adult prison. In the United Kingdom there are far fewer minors in custody, with approximately 65,800 arrests resulting in around 1,600 youth sentenced to immediate detention. The likelihood of a minority youth to end up involved with the legal system is far greater than his or her white counterparts, and males are over-represented in both systems. Additionally, a child who comes to the attention of the court is more often than not already involved in other state systems such as child protective services, the foster care system, referral for school related behaviors or mental health concerns. In short, the courts, justice systems and welfare agencies already have been involved in some aspect of the child’s life.

This state or agency involvement may have been a negative experience, and often youth have already developed a mistrust and resentment of agencies and officials that is only confirmed by the juvenile justice process.

As soon as a youth comes into contact with the justice system, he or she begins to lose any agency or input, and the course of action is determined not through collaboration or partnership, but a top-down hierarchical approach in which judges, probation officers, social workers and other agents of the state decide, often with little or no input from the youth or awareness of their needs, what is ‘best’ for them. Add to this already dismissive attitude the harsh and ‘tough on crime’ attitude still in favor in both the US and UK, and we are left with systems not particularly concerned with rehabilitation, treatment, early intervention or support. This is not to suggest that there are no agencies advocating for more positive interventions, nor should we assume that incarceration is the first thing a judge will order. In many cases incarceration only occurs after everything else available has been tried, and the youth continues to re-offend. 

So where does this leave us? Dr. Smithson might suggest that we completely alter our positionality to the problem and stop trying to figure out what to do to these troubled youth without their input but build partnerships in an effort to better understand what to do with them. It is not enough to ask young people what they might want, or have them as an advisory resource; it is necessary to make the radical shift from traditional research methodology to community partnership. It is this shift that actually creates change and fosters a space where the traditionally unheard can recover some agency and power in their lives. 

Dr. Smithson and her team engaged with youth and created the Greater Manchester Youth Justice Youth University Partnership (GMYJUP) http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/mcys/gmyjup/. This partnership supports creative and engaging ideas and programs, attempting to shift focus away from punishment and exclusion towards a more inclusive and humane system of juvenile justice and welfare. 

There are of course any number of stumbling blocks which impede less traditional and more forward-thinking research, programs and attitudes. Institutions and providers are often hesitant to alter their methods or to accept and embrace changes they may not agree with. Dr. Smithson’s talk and obvious passion about the project and subject matter served as an excellent reminder of why we need to foster as many working and interpersonal relationships as possible within our field. It is no longer enough to complete research in a remote, perhaps even removed, manner. True partnerships with those closest to the issues are at the heart of Dr. Smithson’s and GMYJUP work. That these partnerships and community participatory research projects continue to be rare is disheartening, and it becomes even more vital that we commit to changing this landscape. The security and comfort provided by doing things the accepted and ‘right’ way is often difficult to give up, and we are tempted to continue doing things just as they have always been done, not because it is the most appropriate, effective, or beneficial approach, but merely because it is what we know, what we have been taught, and what feels safest to us. Now, more than ever, we must examine the assumptions and methods of traditional research and determine whether some other approach or attitude might be more effective; Dr. Smithson reminded me of this, and of how powerful research can be when conducted not only with academic rigor and strong methodology, but also with passion, commitment, and flexibility. Our skills, our academic and scientific rigor, our chosen research design – they all do us no good if we cling to them without entertaining alternate approaches and viewpoints. Why remain inflexible or ideologically stubborn when every project could be seen as a new opportunity, a different design, a possibility for collaboration, a better way of asking questions or a more effective means of addressing an issue.  

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