Diversion Programme Giving Adolescents Second Chances
CASTRIES - The group of 20, mainly boys, pay close attention to their facilitator as she speaks on this afternoon’s topic, which is on the importance of self-esteem.
Sitting around her, all of the “students” in the class are under the age of 16 – when compulsory education ends – but this room upstairs the Probation and Parole Department in the busy streets of Castries, St Lucia, is no ordinary classroom.
Instead it is the place where adolescents enrolled in the government-run Court Diversion Programme report daily between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a day of life-skills learning, motivational talks, skills-building classes and, for some, academic support towards attaining certification in traditional subjects such as Mathematics and English.
Most of the 100 children who are currently enrolled in the programme were referred by the Family Court after minor brushes with the law, while some were introduced after being deemed as “trouble-makers” and suspended from school. Among the group are also those who police officers or parents brought into the department because it was thought they were developing habits which could eventually lead them into conflict with the law.
A small fraction of the group is also made up of adolescents who were brought in as a pre-emptive action – part of a policy by the Community Development Department to remove school-aged children from off the blocks, where they risk being recruited into gangs or criminal activity, and to place them in the programme where they are given positive direction.
“Our focus is behaviour management. We do a lot of group counselling, a lot of life-skills. The majority of these young people are being diverted away from crime. We do have some who succumb to the pressures of the block but by and large we have been successful in steering them from trouble,” says Yolanda Jules-Louis, acting Director of Probation and Parole Services.
Adolescents being saved from crime
Jules-Louis reveals the UNICEF-supported programme, which has gone national now after being first piloted to children in the urban corridor, is saving scores of adolescents, mainly boys, from a stint in the juvenile detention centres because the courts had very little options.
“After being charged they would be taken before the juvenile court and once convicted, before sentencing, a probation report would be ordered by the court. The recommendation from the Probation Department would be made and if it was a situation where that particular juvenile needed to be removed from his current environment, he would be committed to the St Lucia Boys’ Training Centre or sometimes the courts would issue a fixed personal order and place that juvenile with an individual who the court deemed suitable to take care of that juvenile away from his current environment,” she states.
“This programme has given the courts some latitude while at the same time giving juveniles that much-needed second-chance in life,” the official continues.
Court fully embracing programme.
“The Courts are now fully utilising the Court Diversion Programme, including as a part of bail conditions, even before sentencing. Those who are waiting to be tried are sent here and the report we produce is taken into consideration before the court makes its final determination on the fate of the juvenile,” she adds.
Administrator Rita Dyer says other government departments are also cooperating with the Probation Department and pointed to the collaboration with the Community Development Department which has a good idea of the troublesome communities across the island.
“Through this collaboration with them where they divert children who gravitate towards the block, we’ve become a proactive safety net to capture potential trouble makers who would have been left to exist on the block and face all its various temptations had it not been for the programme,” Dyer asserts.
VOICES OF CHILDREN
What adolescents say about the programme?
* Not their real names
Stephen – 15
I was sent to the programme after I was suspended from school for fighting. It has mostly helped me to manage my anger because I used to get vex really fast but not anymore. It gives me a chance to stay out of trouble and that is why I don’t even go on the block now. I’m just trying to stay level and learn some more from the programme.
Justin – 17 (past)
I was sent here through the courts. I got in a little situation defending myself and ended up injuring someone. That was when I was 15. I spend some time at the Boys’ Training Centre for that but ended up here in the programme. I find it is a good programme because I used the time I was here to better myself and now I’m studying the professional area I always wanted to be in. This programme has really helped me a lot to look at life differently. If I was faced with the same situation that got me in trouble I would handle things a lot different.
The Diversion Programme has made me a better person. In addition to teaching me job preparation and exposing me to skills like cake baking and so I am also learning a lot about self -discipline. I think a lot of other young girls could benefit from something like this and I’m glad my parents brought me here.
I got suspended from school just before I was supposed to do my CXCs (Caribbean Examination Council exams) and my father brought me here. I have been here about a year now and I’m getting help with my lessons and will be doing the CXCs soon. I have a little pressure on the blocks because people think it’s a police thing, that I’m only in the programme because of the police, but I don’t let that bother me. I’m getting some life-skills and another chance to do my exams so it’s all good.
I got expelled from school because my anger used to get me in a lot of fights. Right now I’m getting a chance to do Maths and English. That is going okay, plus the classes also teach you how to deal with other people and not be so quick to get angry. I think after this programme I will be a better person.