ENCOUNTERING THE LAW: A SOCIAL WORK PERSPECTIVE

by Emer Ingoldsby, Principal Social Worker, Stewarts Hospital Services Ltd, Palmerstown

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As a social worker working with teenagers and young adults for the past thirteen years, I have had various experiences where clients have brushed with the law to different degrees. The incidents involved cover a broad range of alleged offences, such as:

  • Loitering
  • Trespassing
  • Breach of the peace
  • Drunk and disorderly offences
  • Theft and shoplifting
  • Burglary
  • Breaking and entering
  • Vandalism
  • Sexual assault
  • Stolen vehicle / motor offences.

What tends to happen is that the social worker learns that a client is ‘in trouble’, informed by the client, a parent or carer, or a staff member who has received this information. It has rarely, if ever, been the case that the initial information has come from the Gardaí. More often than not, the incidents in question occur at weekends and come to light a few days later, or in many cases just prior to a court appearance—when someone panics and urgently seeks some sort of a report, at the last minute.

I have noticed that the clients involved have been somewhat vulnerable due to other issues, rather than being intentionally delinquent or deliberately setting out to break the law.

Some teenagers with a learning disability have, through peer pressure or their own attempts to gain attention or street credibility, succumbed to dares or threats. At times they may have been scapegoated by others to take the rap for certain illegal activities. Many have had no realisation of the possible consequences and have had difficulty coping with the whole process of being apprehended by the Gardaí, being interviewed and charged and appearing in court.

Levels of understanding, communication and literacy skills are certainly issues to consider in these matters. I have dealt with a number of young offenders who had no real understanding of what was happening or of the true implications of being arrested. It has been difficult to get accurate accounts of what may have happened if someone gets confused about the sequence of events, can’t remember names or places, or is unable to read or to tell time. Yet, some of these clients would have signed statements or papers and even given DNA samples without appropriate advice or support. The issue of consent here is important.

Alcohol has regularly been a trigger or contributing factor, with unpleasant and even traumatic consequences for an individual who ends up with much more than a hangover to deal with.

For the social worker, putting the jigsaw together can prove frustrating, time consuming and difficult at times. To establish facts and perhaps to embark on a damage limitation exercise for the client is not always straightforward or easy.

Difficulty in providing support

Most of us know how difficult it is to make or maintain contact with the appropriate Gardaí involved in a case, especially if a client isn’t sure who it was they had spoken to, where they are based or when they are on duty. It seems that often the legal professions do not realise that the offender has special needs. The opportunity is missed at a crucial stage of the proceedings to establish links with the reliable informant/advocate who can assist with enquiries and support the client, clarifying his situation and needs. (I have had no females to date with alleged offences).

I have had experience in situations where clients have seen solicitors, but have been unable to do themselves justice in giving a true picture of their circumstances or history. I have personally had to attract attention from a judge in court, to intervene when a client just gave his status as ‘unemployed’, as those before him had done.

With one client who repeatedly re-offended and ended up in prison a number of times, I had the experience of working with a judge who at all times was interested, supportive, understanding, helpful and sympathetic. This was evident in her treatment of the individual, his family and the agencies involved—and in her explanations and enforcement of the law. This was a great learning experience and a true example of working in partnership for the benefit of all concerned.

The homeless

I have worked with a number of clients who have committed offences while homeless. These have ranged from stealing, either to find food or to feed an addiction. I have had situations where young men have become aggressive or violent through fear or alcohol, and who have reacted inappropriately when confronted or ‘caught in the act’. One client was only apprehended when he tried to return a stolen Pass card to a handbag in a room, having tried the ATM with no success. On being seen to appear suspicious, he was chased by a security man. The subsequent chain of events might have been comical, except that he committed a number of other offences through his fear and aggression, as he tried to get out of the situation.

Homelessness is a contributing problem which needs to be addressed. If someone cannot avail of a suitable residential or day service, or opts out for whatever reason, he may very well need support in accessing generic services, such as housing and accommodation. The general system can be daunting and confusing, with red tape and complex criteria to be met. In my experience, many young men with a learning disability have lacked the necessary skills to negotiate with community welfare officers, local authorities or hostels.

The pressure of meeting certain criteria, dealing with paperwork, and even finding accommodation in unfamiliar areas, takes it toll. These clients are vulnerable on the streets and can end up begging, loitering, sleeping rough, stealing and getting into bad company. They may also be subjected to abuse, resorting to crime to survive and, in extreme cases, selling themselves for the price of a B&B, a meal or protection on the street.

The very nature of mobility on the street and lack of contact with an agency can make it difficult to keep track of someone and their criminal record. Some clients have accumulated charges through non-compliance or non-attendance at court without even realising it.

I have also had a number of experiences in dealing with the probation and prison services, when a client has been convicted. Some of these experiences have been positive, some negative. They have necessitated my ensuring that relevant information reaches the appropriate personnel. I have also had to highlight the communication and comprehension deficits or difficulties of some vulnerable clients, who have required extra time/resources, or a familiar person to assist and support them through the legal processes. I have rarely found that such additional requirements are forthcoming unless I advocate for them.

Need for partnership

Rather than being critical of what has often happened, I would like to highlight the need for greater partnership, and for joint education and training between the legal professionals, Gardai and services for our clients who have a learning disability. Perhaps then, the Gardaí or prison officers would more readily identify specific problems or needs at an early stage and seek the relevant expertise or channels to facilitate a better, clearer and fairer approach to vulnerable offenders.

Our prison population houses many young men with a learning disability, whether formally assessed as such or not. I have experienced cases where I have had great difficulty and frustration in getting to speak to someone in authority within the prison, in order to flag an individual’s specific needs, or that they were at particular risk and would benefit from the support of the prison medical or welfare services. In one instance, which tested my resources, patience and determination, I had to make over a dozen phone calls, in order to find the location of a client and his status in relation to remand and sentencing.

Many of our clients who are perpetrators of crime also become victims of the system themselves. Other individuals with a learning disability, those who suffer as victims of crime in the first instance, have equally important and specific needs. But that is another story.

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