Working together to support children at risk and children in conflict with the law
In the western city of Debar the police arrested 15 year old Emir for possession of drugs and diligently referred the case to the juvenile court in the neighbouring city of Gostivar. Four months later, the Centre for Social Work in Debar received a formal letter from the same court requesting an urgent psychological assessment of the child and an evaluation of his family and education history.
Ismail Mersimoski has dedicated his entire working career to children at risk. With only four employees – two professional social workers, one psychologist and one pedagogue – his small department is responsible for supporting a variety of cases, ranging from domestic violence, trafficking, children without parental care, to children at risk and in conflict with the law. The Centre for Social Work in Debar provides services for a total population of 25,400 spread across Debar, the municipality of Centar Zupa and 39 mountainous villages. In the absence of local juvenile court all local justice cases are transferred to the court in Gostivar.
“The main issue in the past was a lack of coordination in our own backyard. I must admit that at that time our department, the police, the court, the schools and the local government used to work in parallel silos when dealing with a child at risk or in conflict the law,” continues Ismail.
Law and policy is not the only answer to achieving justice for children - the strength and ability of the system and those who work in it, is the key to effective implementation
One of the challenges after adopting the Juvenile Justice Law in 2009, was the fact that professionals lacked the means and resources, and often awareness and knowledge, to fully implement the new legal requirements. While the legislative code emphasized restorative justice over punishment, two years ago the administration of the child justice system was not fully consistent with the requirements laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For this reason, the EU funded (€700,000) and UNICEF co-funded (€100,000) and implemented Justice for Children project incorporated a capacity building component as one of its three pillars supporting justice for children reform. Through capacity building efforts that brought together key actors from different agencies and organisations, the Justice for Children project set out to improve the coordination among all involved in the justice for children process and to ensure the restorative approach is put in practice so children like Emir are given a chance to correct their wrong and given support to regain a constructive role in society.
The inter-agency workshops focused on five main areas of justice for children: children at risk; diversion and restorative justice; children as victims and witnesses; trial and sentencing; and how to put justice for children in practice.
“In a mixed team, together with public prosecutors, judges, civil society leaders and mediators, I had a unique opportunity to learn the main principles of restorative justice from all perspectives; understand other agencies’ challenges, and together with all participants examine solutions that would improve our work for children at risk and in conflict with the law,” says Ismail.
These gatherings were also an opportunity to involve future trainers on justice for children, to be part of the design phase of a comprehensive training programme that has started to roll out to a wider audience. Ismail being one of trainers.
He joined the group of 13 experts from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Skopje Police Station, Centres for Social Work, Chambers of Mediators, Macedonian Bar Association and NGO representatives at the training of trainers workshop. This training – guided by participants’ needs and concrete experiences - enabled Ismail and the group to further design and conduct workshops for other practitioners.
After completing the series of training workshops, when Ismail returned home he organized a meeting with the local police department to share knowledge and suggest ways to improve their collaboration and work practices.