Dealing with delinquent children: “Youth welfare should not carry out any punishment”


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Dealing with delinquent children
“Youth welfare should not carry out any punishment”

After the shocking act in Freudenberg, in which two girls killed a twelve-year-old, the Union faction, for example, is calling for the age of criminal responsibility in Germany to be lowered. Psychologist Michael Macsenaere thinks this makes less sense. Pedagogical-therapeutic measures offer greater chances of getting young people who commit crimes “back on the right track,” he says in an interview with The first step is less about coming to terms with the fact than about the strengths of the young people. Children are not criminally responsible. If they commit criminal offences, they face no consequences – at least in terms of criminal law. Instead, the youth welfare offices and family courts are responsible. What happens to the minors there?

Michael Macsenaere: Without a court order, inpatient child and youth welfare is usually initiated, for example home education. With a court order, however, the children can also be placed in so-called closed accommodation day and night. Whether it is residential care or closed accommodation: this means that young people are separated from their peer group, i.e. the group they usually surround themselves with, during this time. In the case of multiple offenders in particular, it is important to get the young people out of their usual setting. Crimes are often committed in groups.

Closed confinement almost sounds like a prison. So does the measure have a punitive character after all?

Michael Macsenaere is Scientific Director at the Institute for Child and Youth Welfare in Mainz.

No, on the contrary. Child and youth welfare should not carry out punishment, but enable young people with educational and therapeutic means to lead a successful life in our society. In the context of a closed accommodation, this unity is used to be able to work intensively with the young person in a pedagogical-therapeutic manner. But in fact the children can’t leave this home for the first few months because there are appropriate security devices on the windows and doors. Only when they have proven themselves will this be relaxed. During closed accommodation, the children and young people are also supported academically in the facility – either in small groups or via flexible online school systems.

How exactly do pedagogical-therapeutic measures for children and young people, who in the worst case have even killed a person, look like?

Children and young people who have killed someone are an absolute exception in child and youth welfare. There are therefore no scientific findings on this clientele – but there are on young people who are often dubbed “system crackers” and several have committed criminal offenses determined by the police. For this group – as the empirical findings show – so-called individual pedagogy is particularly suitable. Here the help takes place in a one-to-one care – in contrast to other inpatient help, where work is usually done in group settings.

What constitutes this individual pedagogy?

There are two essential features in the individual pedagogical work with “system crashers”: First of all, the children and young people are taken out of their previous environment in the sense of a tabula rasa principle in order to break through previous dysfunctional routines and to enable a completely new start. This physical and psychological distance from their previous everyday life, which is as large as possible, is then used, and that sounds unusual at first, to start with the skills and interests of the young people. In a first step, it is not the weaknesses that are put in the foreground, but what the minor is good at. We call this resource orientation – what can the young person achieve constructively?

To what extent is it about coming to terms with their actions?

On the basis developed in the first steps, of course, the deficits are then worked on thoroughly and crimes committed are dealt with.

In your experience, what do children and young people need most in order to change their previous behavior and not to commit crimes again?

I have already mentioned the tabula rasa principle. In addition, they need reliability. It is very important to have a bond with an adult that you can rely on. Sometimes this is a whole new, valuable experience for the young people. That is why the relationship work of a pedagogue is so important, especially at the beginning. It also helps a lot to involve the young person in everything, i.e. not to make decisions over his head. She or he shouldn’t just be told what he’s not allowed to do or where he screwed up. With the opportunity to think, have a say and have a say in decision-making, the young person experiences himself as an actor and also learns to take responsibility for his actions.

But don’t children who break the law need clear rules?

Absolutely: A clear structure is important. However, the children and young people are much more willing to follow these and to get involved in the pedagogical measures if they have the feeling that they are being taken seriously and are being involved. We know from impact research that educational work with young people has almost no chance if they do not feel informed and involved.

The primary aim of the educational measure is to ensure that the children and young people comply with the law in the future and no longer attract criminal attention. What is the success rate of youth welfare?

The few available studies come to rather encouraging results. For the most part, they show good legal and social probation in the long term. And this despite some of the most drastic problems at the beginning of youth welfare.

Do you think it makes sense to lower the age of criminal responsibility?

Due to the lack of reliable scientific studies on this, I cannot give you a well-founded answer. However, if I try to put all the findings available to me into one picture, I would rather not advocate earlier criminal responsibility. For one reason in particular: we have more chances of putting young people back on the right path if we work with them in a pedagogical-therapeutic manner in a protected setting than if we carry out a punishment.

Sarah Platz spoke to Michael Macsenaere

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