Why I work in the youth justice service

Vicky Brennan is a volunteer coordinator in the West Sussex Youth Justice Service. Here she explains what her job is like day-to-day and why she does it.

Vicky Brennan is a volunteer coordinator in the West Sussex Youth Justice Service

I wasn’t expecting to work in a role with children, but after spending two years in New Zealand, a friend who volunteered at the Kings Arms Youth Centre in Petersfield mentioned a job opening and I thought why not. I spent three years here, supporting young carers and children with additional needs.

At this point, I realised how energising it is to work with young people and support them to find things they love doing and being someone they can rely on.

One quote which really stuck with me during this time was “be who you needed when you were younger”.

I still volunteer for the Kings Arms and getting to see some of the young people I mentored five years ago, thriving now, makes it so worthwhile. I can’t imagine working in any other field.

What it’s like to work in the youth justice service

The main bulk of my job is coordinating our wonderful volunteers who support in two statutory roles within the West Sussex Youth Justice Service.

They are ‘appropriate adults’, who support children in police custody if a parent/carer is not deemed appropriate (usually, if they are a victim/witness or unable to attend); and referral order panel members, who facilitate a restorative meeting with the child post-sentencing to talk about what happened and the impact of their actions on the victim/s or community.

This part of my job also involves recruiting and training volunteers into these roles – we couldn’t do any of this without our volunteers! I also get to co-deliver this training to wider agencies.

Welfare of children in custody

Another area of my job is overseeing the welfare of the children who are in police custody, ensuring they understand the process, have had the opportunity to speak to a solicitor and are being treated fairly by the police.

We are seeing a higher number of children who are being criminally exploited. This is usually flagged if the offence involves possession of drugs, money laundering or the possession of a weapon.

If they are arrested with adults and are from out of the area, usually London, this is a warning sign for us. When this happens we ensure that relevant agencies are contacted, and work closely with the police and children’s services to ensure there is a robust release plan in place.

Diversity and challenges

I also get the opportunity to delve into other areas and am grateful for a job with diversity and challenges.

In the two years I’ve worked for the youth justice service, I have held several cases, getting to work directly with children and their families, as well as support with reparation. This is a practical way to repair the harm caused, either directly to the victim or helping the local community (no hi-vis jackets and litter picking).

Read more: My career as a crime and forensic science professor

As a service, we work in a trauma-informed way, led by the wonderful team at Beacon House. This has been a real eye-opener, understanding how early year trauma can have long-lasting effects, which gives a greater understanding as to why some children are pulled into a life of crime.

We’ve also had talks from Junior Smart at St Giles Trust, keeping us informed about exploitation – look him up! The charity is doing amazing work to support people from many walks of life.

Development-wise, I am currently studying for the Youth Justice Effective Practice Certificate, which is another opportunity I am grateful to have been given through work.

Life experience and volunteering

I didn’t have to go to university to do the job I am doing but the criminology and forensic studies degree I finished back in 2011 definitely sparked my interest working within the Criminal Justice System.

I attended Alton College prior to this but didn’t really know what I wanted to do career wise. Although university felt like the right thing to do at the time, over the past ten years I have realised that life experiences and volunteering are just as significant as a qualification.

Challenges of the job

The most challenging thing is getting my brain to switch off after a day when a vulnerable child has been in custody, particularly when they are from out of the area and you know they are being exploited.

There are always some cases where you wonder how they are getting on and whether they are safe.

I am lucky that there are two of us who do my role and being able to support each other is really invaluable. In fact, the whole team at YJS are amazing, always there to lift spirits and check in on each other.

Volunteer – and do what you love

It’s not all about studying! Something I say to prospective volunteers straight out of university who want to get into the field as soon as possible is to spend time working in other areas and build up confidence and skills by volunteering. Employers rate this just as highly as qualifications.

You don’t have to stick with a job that makes you unhappy. I spent many years working in retail, which had a massive impact on my mental health due to the pressures of working long hours and a bullying culture within management. When you have a knot in your stomach at the thought of going to work you know it’s time to leave. Don’t be afraid to change direction – if you are passionate about something, it will work out. Find a place where there is mutual respect, compassion and enjoyment!

Advice to my younger self

Stop worrying what people think and to remember that those who are unkind are probably fighting their own battles, so continue to be kind and don’t be afraid to be yourself. It’s better than trying to be someone you’re not.

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