"I was afraid they wouldn't understand me"
Where can adolescents in contact with law get help?
"Two years ago I had a bad company, I neglected my studies, started drinking and quarreled with my parents about it," says Polina frankly.
At the age of 15, she faced the commission on juvenile affairs and underwent resuscitation after alcohol poisoning. Strict conversations with parents and the juvenile inspector did not help. They needed to use a different approach: to understand the feelings, emotions and causes of such behavior together instead of giving a lecture on the dangers of alcohol. This different approach is used by the teams of specialists working in 4 counseling centers at the social and pedagogical centers (SPC) in Belarus. The teams are supported by UNICEF. In this article you can find information about their work, about who can apply for help and if they managed to help Polina.
Adolescents can act provocatively for a variety of reasons. Unfavorable family environment, conflicts with peers, lack of experience or education.
Children in such a situation do not need pity or lectures from adults. They need real practical help. Programs that will help them realize the true reasons for their behavior, "fit in" with the society and live up to their potential.
UNICEF Belarus is working on the introduction of remedial practices for adolescents. Their main goal is to help build new models of behavior, rehabilitate and not punish.
The psyche of adolescents is not yet fully formed. Therefore, when they confront the justice system at an early age, get punished and thus stigmatized, children can lose not only their freedom, but also their childhood and future.
Now adolescents in a conflict situation can turn to a mediator instead of a court. In some cases the conflict can be resolved without liability being attached to them, yet they will understand the consequences of their actions. Thanks to the joint efforts of the Ministry of Justice, the Mediation and Law Center educational and practical institution, and UNICEF Belarus, the process of mediation (negotiations with the participation of a neutral party – a specialist working at the intersection of law and psychology) was included in the criminal procedure.
And if adolescents need the help of an adult to deal with difficulties, they can contact counseling centers at social and pedagogical centers free of charge.
In 2019, the Teens in Contact with Law joint project was launched by UNICEF Belarus, the Mediation and Law Center and the NGO World Without Borders with the support of the British Embassy.
On the basis of 4 social and pedagogical centers, counseling centers were established for children and adolescents in contact with law (teenagers who broke the law or faced it for other reasons, for example, due to the parents' divorce). They are located at the SPCs of Soligorsk region, Baranovichi, Minsk region and Leninski district of Minsk. The goal of UNICEF Belarus in this field is to develop together with its partners social services for children in contact with law.
The centers have a case management system. This means that a team of specialists, including psychologists and social pedagogues, works individually with boys and girls. "Accompany" them as much as they need. First, they find out what led to such a situation, their life circumstances, and then decide together how to cope with the problems.
In addition, experienced mediators from the Mediation and Law Center trained the staff of the counseling centers. Now teenagers can turn to SPCs to find help in resolving a conflict by extrajudicial means.
As trainers see it
"What was the situation before?" says Alexey Ananenko, chairman of the NGO World without Borders. "A child had a police record, and if they committed a crime, they first went before the prevention council, then they had a session with a psychologist and a social pedagogue, and then the specialists developed a plan of further actions."
Aleksey teaches case management and the Risk and Opportunity Assessment (ROA) methodology to SPC specialists (psychologists and social pedagogues), and then helps to conduct supervision: it is a kind of an advanced training, a meeting to analyze difficult cases and help specialists in difficult situations.
"A homeroom teacher has their own plan: "Ivanov will do some social work in my class. He will water the flowers. I will go to his house every quarter, once a month I will have conversations with him: in September we will talk about the dangers of alcohol, in October – about the dangers of nicotine, right before New Year's celebrations I will tell him how dangerous firecrackers are. I’ll also check what extracurricular activities he has." – "I don't have any," says Ivanov. "Then you will go to my extracurricular class on traffic rules," says the homeroom teacher.
"A psychologist has their own ideas about helping the child: "I will assess his anxiety levels, conduct temperament tests, control class attendance, find him an extracurricular activity. And we will send him to a military sports camp for the whole summer." So basically every specialist uses their experience and knowledge to create a plan for the child. Yet, nobody asks the child what he or she really needs.
"We say that there are no bad children, there are bad things that they do. And actions can almost always be corrected. We need to convince the child that they should do it.
"Our task is not to give a lecture on what has happened, but to encourage the child to understand emotions, feelings, thoughts and other causes of such behavior. In case management there is a step-by-step methodology on how to do this. It is a whole system of sequential actions, starting with preparation and ending with supporting a teenager on the way to change on a regular basis.
"I always tell the specialists who take my training: "You need to understand that you are just giving some advice, while it is the teenager who needs to do everything. Roughly speaking, we just talk and then leave. While the teenager needs to talk to their mother. And they will be alone while experiencing this moment. They need to do homework to come to classes. Also themselves. All we can do is believe in them and support them, but it is up to them to do it."
As adolescents see it
"When I was on my way to the psychologist, I imagined that I would listen to instructions," says Polina. "I was very afraid that they would not understand me. And instead they would scold, blame and criticize me. It turned out that there are very nice people working at the SPC who help you in difficult situations. It was very important for me to receive that kind of attention and understanding. I stopped being afraid to say something wrong here, to confess something, because I knew: here they would support me and not condemn.
"Thanks to the help from the SPC team, I reconsidered my life and attitude to what I did and why I did it. I realized that I could change. My relationship with my parents and teachers has improved a lot.
"I have become more purposeful, more confident person. I have realized that a lot in life depends on me. I am very proud of having refused drinking alcohol and smoking. Believe me, it wasn't easy.
I have also become more responsible, took up my studies and increased my performance in some subjects by several points. I have found something new – dancing. And I really enjoy it. I have changed my company, the people I used to communicate with. Now I am surrounded by people with whom I am on equal terms. They don't bring up the topic of the commission on juvenile affairs – after all, we all make mistakes. I dream of getting a good profession and finding my purpose in life."
As psychologists see it
"We received an offer from UNICEF and the NGO World Without Borders to participate in the Teens in contact with law project," says Anna Ivanova, a psychologist at the SPC of the Leninski district of Minsk. "At first I didn't really believe in the idea of this project. Usually the work with teenagers is built on the following principle: "Petya, go there, do that and then you will be a good boy! All the grown-up people around you will see how good you are and will be glad that you have improved!" It is rather educational work, but not psychological. Because the work of a psychologist ends as soon as they must tell the client how to live and what to do.
"To achieve some results, we need to work with the child on a weekly basis. I must see this child at least once a week and devote due time and attention to them. Back then it was nearly impossible because of the specific character of the SPC's work. And even if we could, we did not have the necessary technology and methods.
"I was impressed by the Risk and Opportunity Assessment (ROA) methodology. Its main idea is that when a child commits an illegal action, they want to fulfill some specific needs. These needs are not abnormal. Usually they are good and natural: a need for security, love, recognition, acceptance, physiological needs. It's just that there are children who manage to fulfill their needs in a socially acceptable way, and there are children who fail to do so. And our task is to make sure that they learn how to do it.
"When working with an adolescent, we don't discuss the offense in detail. We try to find more about their life and family – everything that concerns parents, grandparents, but mostly mom and dad. We look closer at their studies: how they behave at school, how they behave with teachers, classmates, what their academic performance is. An important factor is the environment in which they grow up: where they live, who their friends and close people are, how they affect the teenager. Then we take a look at some personal characteristics: self-esteem, ideas about life, values, attitude to criminal actions. Basically we learn more about the child's life.
"Then comes the motivational part. We help children understand what they really want. After all, when they do something bad, they are sending out a signal to the world: "Guys, this is the only way I can cope with something. I can't do it in any other way." We clarify the needs and interests. And when teenagers start understanding what they need, we help them define their goal and the steps they have to take in order to achieve it.
The kids we work with often say that we are the first ones at school to ask them what they really want. Usually adults around them ask each other what the children want and answer the questions themselves without taking into consideration what the children actually think. But children have so many thoughts, they can want literally anything. And that's exactly where adults should change their attitude.
"We need to use our resources in a way that will actually help children. After all, we can give them faith in themselves, the ability to understand their own desires and needs, the opportunity to unleash their potential – to go and take what they want from life."
Who can apply to the SPC counseling centers?
Adolescents themselves, their parents (or legal representatives), as well as school teachers (psychologists) can apply for help to the counseling centers. It doesn’t matter if the child has already been in contact with law or if it's just a preventive action. If there is a problem, you can seek advice.
The following problems are most common among children: "I have difficulties in relations with classmates (I am not accepted in the class, I am offended and constantly laughed at)"; "my parents do not understand me, they punish me severely"; "teachers do not hear me, consider me a bad person and treat me without respect"; "I feel the lack of love, care, support, attention from my parents"; "I have problems with the police. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I was punished," etc.
Feel free to ask for help
You can meet the specialists individually or together with the family.
Contact phone numbers:
- Leninski district SPC in Minsk: 8 (017) 358-01-11
- Baranovichi SPC: 8 (0163) 657-83-28
- Soligorsk region SPC: 8 (0174) 23-45-16
- Minsk region SPC: 8 (017) 542-04-14