CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

 

I am delighted to be here today to open this conference which is focused on tackling the problem of the influence of criminal networks on vulnerable children. This conference has been organised by University of Limerick and the REPPP project. As you will be aware the Research Evidence into Policy, Programmes and Practice project is a strategic partnership between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the School of Law, University of Limerick to improve the evidence base for policy making in the youth justice area. The work that the REPPP project is doing in the area of the influence of crime networks on children is just one of a number of projects that it is involved in at present, and I’m glad to say that the Department of Justice and Equality is providing support and funding for some of these projects.

 

As you will be aware the problem of the influence of crime networks on children in Ireland was highlighted in the Greentown study undertaken by Dr Sean Redmond in 2015. The study focussed on a real location based outside Dublin given the anonymous name ‘Greentown’ and identified a criminal network centred around a core, dominant, family and kinship grouping. This study found plausible evidence that this network negatively influenced the criminal behaviour of children by enticing them into the network with alcohol, drugs and increased status in the neighbourhood.

 

We know that this problem affects only a minority of children involved in serious and prolific crime such as burglary and illicit drugs sales. However, we also know that many of these children can be trapped in coercive relationships with adult criminals. These children often find it very difficult, if not impossible, to break free from these coercive relationships.

 

The phenomenon we are looking at here involves the grooming of children to carry out crimes. This issue has also been raised recently in the 10th Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection. Dr Geoffrey Shannon suggests that current Irish law may need to be strengthened in this area. While our Criminal Law does include some provisions which target persons who encourage or assist others to commit offences I am certainly prepared to consider any improvements that we can make in this regard. I will of course look closely at Dr Shannon’s recommendations as well as future outputs from the important research work, which is ongoing here in the University of Limerick under the REPPP project.

 

Needless to say, I am very glad to support the further work that is now being taken forward in relation to the recommendations in the original Greentown study. This work is all linked to the part of the Youth justice Action Plan 2014-2018 which aims to improve our evidence base for policy making in the area of youth crime, and has a special focus on serious crime. I might take this opportunity to also mention that I’m publishing the 2016 Progress Report on this Action Plan today.

 

This progress report sets out the progress achieved in 2016 across a number of goals and objectives aimed at delivering better outcomes for children who get into trouble with the law. The report reflects a range of work being delivered which has enabled the number of children under 18 in detention to be continually maintained at a low level, and to divert many young offenders away from crime towards more pro-social choices. An Implementation Team, headed by the Irish Youth Justice Service, and which includes representation from An Garda Síochána, the Probation Service, the Irish Prison Service, Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) and Oberstown Children Detention Campus oversees the implementation of the Action Plan. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the State agencies involved and community sector for the continued progress being achieved in this area.

 

Returning to the Greentown study and the work being carried out at present. This involves a three pronged approach as follows:

  1. Completion of national survey of Garda Juvenile Liaison officers to determine the numbers of children who may be affected by the activities of criminal networks in Ireland
  2. The holding of this expert design conference to develop a new intervention programme to help children escape the influence of criminal networks and engage in pro-social activities and
  3. Funding to test the new intervention programme when developed in a local community in Ireland

 

I would like to briefly speak on each of the three elements of this important work.

·       National Survey of Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers

We have a youth justice system in Ireland that compares very favourably with other jurisdictions. We rarely use detention for young people, but at the same time, perhaps counterintuitively, we have also seen a reduction in the number of young people involved in offending behaviour over the last few years. Like many other countries, we have strong evidence to demonstrate that most young people who offend do so once or twice. The vast majority simply grow out of crime by the time they reach young adulthood. For these young people it is appropriate to keep them out of the criminal justice system as far as possible, safe in the knowledge that they are very likely to develop as responsible citizens.

 

However, we also know that a small minority of all young people, possibly two per cent, are responsible for over fifty per cent of all youth crime.

 

We know from the report of the National Survey of Juvenile Liaison Officers that I am launching here today that many of these children could be embedded in the same kinds of crime networks and subject to the same types of influence as the children identified in the Greentown study undertaken in 2015. The Greentown study, which was limited to one anonymised locality in Ireland, was the first of its kind to uncover the problem of children’s involvement in criminal networks. However, despite anecdotal reports to suggest that the phenomenon was more widespread, we needed solid evidence to know whether the problem was limited to Greentown or extended beyond.

 

The national survey has accomplished this task.

 

The national survey indicates that a minority (1:8) of young people involved in the Diversion Programme, approximately 1,000 children across the State, may be exposed to the same malign influence as that found in Greentown. I thank Dr Catherine Naughton the author of the survey report, the research team at the School of Law in Limerick University and above all the specialist Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers who were the key respondents to the survey, for helping to disclose this important new evidence. Studies like this help us to get a better idea of the size and shape of the problem that we have to deal with.

 

·       Expert design team conference

As Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality with responsibility for youth justice matters, I am determined that not only do we need to gauge the extent of the ‘Greentown’ problem, but we also have to do something about it. The Department of Justice and Equality has funded the University of Limerick to undertake further research to further improve our knowledge and understanding about the troubling phenomenon of criminal network influence on children. Furthermore, at our request the university are also bringing together the best expertise to design new ways of dealing with the situation. We need a programme that can frustrate the activities of criminal networks while simultaneously applying appropriate therapeutic and support measures to motivate the children involved into pro-social activity and enhance their personal development.

 

Unsurprisingly, there is no existing programme to take simply off the peg, so an expert design team has been assembled to build our own evidence informed programme in Ireland. I am grateful for the support of our Irish experts across academia, child welfare, youth justice, law enforcement and community development, for supporting this effort. I am also particularly grateful for our expert visitors who have travelled to join us for this event from the United Kingdom, Canada and United States. The design effort we are involved in gives us the best chance of developing an effective world class response to this troubling problem.

 

·       Funding for implementing the designed intervention programme

Once the newly designed intervention programme is fully developed we then need to take the next step in terms of implementing it. With this in mind I am delighted to announce that my colleague Katherine Zappone T.D., Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, has been successful in securing the necessary funds to see the new intervention programme, when it is ready, put into operation on the ground. A total of €1.2 million in funding has been allocated from Dormant Accounts for this project and will help ensure that once this expertly designed programme is developed, it can be trialled and thoroughly evaluated in a real community setting.

 

Taken together these broad actions underline that we are keen not only to improve our knowledge about how to intervene most effectively in these situations, but also to act and make a real difference for children who are caught up in criminal networks.

 

It is not surprising to me that the work that is going on here in this regard in the University of Limerick is attracting widespread international interest. The approach is innovative and the expertise is top class and I look forward to seeing the result of your efforts early in 2018. I would like to also add that I am very pleased to see University of Limerick and the Department of Justice and Equality working so closely on this issue and this goes to demonstrate once again the benefits of a partnership approach.

 

Finally, in terms of our progress to date and by reference to international comparators, Ireland actually has a very good story to tell in the area of youth justice.  In comparison with other EU Member States, we have comparatively low numbers of children in care or in detention.  This research project is itself evidence of our capacity to innovate and to keep our practices and the issues that arise in the field under continuing review. However, the challenge is always to identify what more we can do and what new approach we can take to diverting children and young people from crime and anti-social behaviour. This is an issue that has my personal commitment and in which I have a deep political interest. The current Youth Justice Action Plan expires at the end of 2018 and this gives me an opportunity as the responsible Minister to step back and look afresh at what we are doing.  This includes the review of the Children Act 2001, to which we are already committed.  During 2018 I want to engage with Justice and Youth agencies, with practitioners and experts such as yourselves and with civil society groups in asking:

 

I look forward to you joining us in this strategic review of our work and benefitting from the expertise that is available both nationally and internationally.

 

Thank you for the invitation to come here today and I wish you a fruitful two days here in UL.

ENDS