By Nina Maxwell (CASCADE), and Callum Bruce-Philips and Stephanie McArdle from Peer Action Collective

The Youth Charter comes from a two-year Health and Care Research Wales funded study that examined how young people are criminally exploited in Wales. The study found that young people are often unaware they are being used and reluctant to accept that the people they consider to be friends or even ‘family’ would manipulate them in this way.

At a time when young people are moving towards independence, they can be targeted by drug dealers and groomed by the promise of friendship, a sense of belonging and the promise of easy money. Our interviews with young people and parents showed how quickly this turns sour. Young people are distanced from the people who truly care about them. They are trapped by the exploiters through violence or the threat of violence towards themselves or their families. Young people may feel helpless and unable to seek help for fear of what will happen to them.

Existing stereotypes and service responses can push young people further and further towards the people exploiting them. Negative views of drug dealers may mean that young people are seen as criminals rather than victims of criminal exploitation. When young people present to services as ‘streetwise’ and adept at ‘playing the system’ this can strengthen negative stereotypes. Exploiters use violence, fear and the culture against ‘snitching’ to force young people into silence. This provides professionals with the challenge of how to engage with young people and how to gain their trust.

Drawing on these findings, we worked with the Peer Action Collective to develop a Youth Charter. The Peer Action Collective based in Media Academy Cymru is a group of 12 peer researchers with experiences of the criminal justice system, being looked after or from any community overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Since joining the Peer Action Collective, they have interviewed 647 young people from across Wales about their experiences of violence and engaged in social action activities to protect young people.

On their visit to SPARK the group reflected on the question ‘how do young people want professionals to engage with them?’. This led to a list of the important features of good engagement. We then grouped the features thematically which led to 19 statements. The charter aligns with the values of youth work which seeks to help develop young peoples’ skills and attitudes, as opposed to just ‘fixing’ their perceived ‘bad behaviour’, which is often a result of their past lived experiences and trauma. In particular, the charter aligns with building relationships between young people and professionals based on trust, respect and (in most cases) on a voluntary basis to empower them to have a say on the issues affecting them and their peers. It also aligns with the principles of informing young people of their rights and the responsibilities of the adults in their lives and maintaining those rights.

The Youth Charter can be found here: Youth Charter