Preventing children from coming in conflict with the law Print E-mail
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Thursday, 27 March 2014 00:00

Contributed by National Committee for Families and Children

The news ticker flashes across the screen – a teenager and his uncle are arrested for breaking into a home and injuring the occupants in the process. Another teenager is accused of assaulting the owner of the neighborhood grocery store. A third teenager has been caught with drugs at school. Their crimes vary from petty to serious offences but the alleged perpetrators have one thing in common – they are minors all under the age of eighteen. This makes them children; and although they have come in conflict with the law, they are still children.  Children who come in conflict with the law are those who are alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law. The concept contravenes with the connotation that many have of children – ‘children’ in our minds are supposed to be innocent and full of promise and hope representing the best of society. The unsettling thought of them as having the capacity to perpetrate crimes often leads people to immediately ascribe adult status to them and advocate for the full administration of the law for their crimes.

But while many debate their criminality at the forefront their stories give insight into deeper societal shortcomings. What we are actually seeing when we glance into the faces of children who come in conflict with the law, are living demonstrations of the gaps in protection for children.

Vulnerable Children
Children are among the most vulnerable population in society as they completely depend on their parents or primary caregivers to provide for their physical and emotional well-being.  The monumental duty of rearing children requires that the parents or caregivers understand and accept their responsibilities and act in the best interest of children amidst many challenging and competing societal factors. In addition to the individual responsibility of parents it is also the role of society at large and by extension policy makers and implementers to create the enabling environment where children can live to fulfill their greatest potential. 

This means that the environment that children are reared in is also a product of many laws and policies interacting with each other to create the context that each child will know as his or her reality. This is reason for continuous reflection on whether or not our systems and structures support parents in fulfilling their responsibilities to children. It also means that if there are inequities in the way support is offered to families these inequities are passed on to the children in these families as well.

Therefore as children you are at the mercy of firstly, your parents and caregivers’ capacity to parent and positively influence your life. Secondly, you are at the mercy of your parents and caregivers’ ability to access the myriad of support services provided to them to reduce the disparities in you receiving your rights and the opportunity to achieve your fullest potential. This is the space you occupy as a child - dependent on others to do what is required of them to help you to transition successfully into adulthood.

Creating a road less traveled
Therefore, we can imagine then that some of these spaces where children are, may actually nurture certain traits and tendencies that will increase their likelihood of coming into conflict with the law.

 If we examine the homes where children live in, many of their experiences become risk factors. For instance if there is poor parenting-child relationships and harsh and inconsistent parenting the child may develop issues with authority figures and have disciplinary problems.

If we examine the schools which are not child-focused or there are organizational weaknesses in the school the child may not have a positive experience and it may result in low achievement and even drop out leaving them susceptible to a life of hustling and crime.

If we examine the communities where children live, we may find that there are gangs operating in the area or there is easy access to drugs and alcohol.

Lastly, if we examine children individually we may find that many have an association with delinquent peers and that there is a level of aggression and impulsivity that may increase likelihood of conflicting with the law.

Therefore it is best practice to ensure that in each context efforts be made to nurture positive traits that will reduce the likelihood of children offending the law. Nurturing these positive traits or “protective factors” can reduce the likelihood of children conflicting with the law and divert them from the path to delinquency. For the most part these protective factors are the basis for a great deal of the work that the various social sector programs strive to accomplish.
Whether is NOPCAN’s efforts to reducing early abuse and trauma, COMPAR who offers parenting support and supervision to families in communities, UNICEF’s work to develop Child-Friendly schools where there are strong bonds between teachers and students and schools function well, or its Samuel Haynes Institute of Learning that encourages positive community involvement; amplifying these protective factors greatly decreases the likelihood of children finding a path to delinquency.

Prevention - un-paving the path to delinquency Undoubtedly then the most effective means of reducing the number of children in conflict with the law is prevention.  Best practice dictates that prevention efforts should take a three tier approach.

Primary prevention efforts are at the foundation of the tier and includes those approaches that aim to prevent children becoming victimized or in conflict with the law before it occurs. Secondary Prevention efforts are at the center of the tier and includes those approaches that focus on children at the highest risk of conflicting with the law. Lastly, tertiary prevention includes those approaches that focus on those children who have already been victimized or in conflict with the law.

Closing the gaps in Protection
When a child comes in conflict with the law it is understood that child should take responsibility for their actions.  However, there are other equally important considerations to make. Firstly, there has to be a space and time and mechanism where societal actors can reflect on their roles in preventing (at all tiers) such incidents. Secondly, this means that a range of state and judicial bodies and institutions, professionals, agencies and civil society organizations must collaborate to offer a better protection system that prevent and decreases the number of children who conflict with the law. Therefore, it cannot be the rhethoric in society that these children be locked up and punished when their situations reflect missed opportunities on the part of many to help guide them unto positive avenues. Neither is it sufficient to focus on punitive measures alone without also looking for opportunities to strengthen ways we can work to prevent such offenses.

When we look into the faces of children who conflict with the law we are seeing our failures as a society.  As unpleasant as that might be, it simply means that it is all of our faults when a child finds a path to delinquency. Therefore it must also be all of our work to ensure that that path is a road less travelled.