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Paper

Troubled and troublesome children: a challenge for professionals

abstract

Background. The paper focuses on a group of children who are involved in serious acts of interpersonal violence but are dealt outside the justice system. These children present with a wide range of risk factors in their lives and are disturbed enough to be a threat to others. Because of severe difficulties in their treatment and placement they pose considerable challenges to social care and youth justice professionals. This leads to their drifting among the various systems of social care and protection, mental health, justice, education or to their loss within the cracks of these systems. As a result, they tend to exhibit further interpersonal violence as a mechanism for self-realization or just survival. Dealing with these children poses a paradox in regards to the need to protect and to respond to them and yet to ensure that they do not harm others in the process of treatment. In keeping in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, these children, as all others, deserve appropriate treatment and rehabilitation. The question emerging is how systems respond to this dual challenge of child protection and society's order. The inevitable tension leads to compromises of care that contribute further to the risk of continuing to pose a threat to other children.

The paper will focus on a study in Greece, as part of a European program (England and Wales, Germany, Greece), funded by the Oak Foundation, looking into children who commit acts of serious interpersonal violence and the challenge they pose to professio­nals. The scope of the study and its results depict the need to reorient preven­tion strategies as well as therapeutic and care provisions to these children and their families within a system that meets these challenges by also providing care to professio­nals.

Purpose. The questions asked in the study were the following: 1) What is the number of these children and what are their characteristics 2) What makes these children difficult to place and to what extent are these challenges attributed to the children themselves, to their families or to the system 3) In the system available, where do these children stand up, and 4) What would be the best possible help for these children according to the opinions of professionals.

The sampling included all agencies, public and private, dealing with vulnerable children up to 18 years of age of the following sectors: Welfare (74), Justice (68), Mental Health (50), NGO/other (10). A total of 202 services were contacted and asked to appoint a key person to coordinate the study in each agency. A specially designed questionnaire was sent to all respondents to be completed by professionals. The information asked pertained to the current number of children in this category that belong to the agency's caseload, their characteristics as well as the difficulties they pose to professionals.

Key findings. From the 89 agencies contacted, 89 (44%) responded, an attrition rate of 56%. Among respondents, 64 (79%) replied that they did not have such cases while 25 (21%) replied positively. A total of 60 children were identified, with a range of one to eight for each agency, 47 (78%) boys and 13 (22%) girls, with an age range from 10 to 17.5 years and a mean of 14.8 years. All children were of Greek ethnicity. One in two children lived at home while one in four lived in a residential care setting and the rest with relatives. Children presented with a high morbidity including, in priority, school problems, poor parenting experiences and possible abuse; one in two participated in a delinquent peer group and one in three lived in a problematic neighbourhood. School problems seem to be associated with learning difficulties, behaviour problems, hyperactivity, neurological impairment, a "high risk" personality and in a few cases substance misuse. In an effort to help the child, a high referral rate to other agencies was found (2.4 referrals per child), most to mental health services. According to professionals, the problems they face are related mainly to the system, followed by those of families and lastly children themselves.

The results confirm the existing knowledge on the links between the prevalence of severe and multiple risk factors in early childhood and the early onset of aggressive, disruptive and antisocial behaviour. Although living mostly with their families, children seem to be "unwanted" both by them, their communities and by the system.

Recommendations. Greece needs a robust re-orientation of its community prevention services with out-reach programs addressed to vulnerable populations and children at risk. Meanwhile, child protection should be professionalized so that it becomes therapeutic while a number of specialized therapeutic units are needed for children with antisocial behaviour. Professionals should be key actors in this system, needing training, care and involvement in the child's decision making process. Prevention of burn out should be incorporated into the system's goals. The urgency of needs sets priority to the application of existing research knowledge and experience and less to further research, a goal to follow the re-organization of the system.

Key references

Agathonos-Georgopoulou, H. (2004). Child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency: Communicating chambers? Psychology 11(2), 141-161 (in Greek).

Agathonos-Georgopoulou, H., Tsibouka, V., & Skoubourdi, A. (2006). Children who commit serious acts of interpersonal violence: A field study in Greece. In A. Hagell & R. Jeyarajah-Dent (Eds.), Children Who Commit Acts of Serious Interpersonal Violence: Messages for Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

English, D. J., Widom, C. S. & Brandford, C., (2002). Childhood Victimization and Delinquency, Adult Criminality and Violent Criminal Behaviour. A Replicaiton and Extension. Final report presented to the National Institute of Justice, Grant No 97-IJ- CX-bo 17.

 

Contacts: Helen Agathonos-Georgopoulou, Consultant, Child Protection, 3 Pandoras, Ekali, Athens 14578, E-mail: Greece, agathonos@hotmail.com, Phone 0030 21 8134972.

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