Friday, 17 December 2010

PROJECT: Children's Rights Education for Law Enforcement Officals: vormen's lessons learned

Since the end of 2008, vormen has been funded by the Flemish government to act as trainers in children's rights education for law enforcement officials. Our 8-hour training session has been heavily amended throughout time, with results that are now satisfactory to both our participants and ourselves. We would like to share with you the main obstacles we had to overcome.

1. Getting police officers to enroll

From the beginning, we've been working closely together with the different provincial police academies, that are responsible for most in-service trainings provided to police officers. This at least gave us the chance to have our sessions programmed. After some experiments with program descriptions, we decided to phrase our project as "dealing with minors", as this most effectively encourages officers to enroll in our session. In our experience, this formulation works well provided that the announcement of the session also mentions that participants will take a look at the legal framework applicable to "minors" from a children's rights perspective. Emphasis on children's rights was not succesful in attracting participants; emphasis on the legal framework or "dealing with" raised wrong expectations. We are not communication specialists, nor do we find the domestic legal rules the most important aspect of our sessions.

2. Grasping regional fundamental differences in their approach to minors

It soon became clear that every police academy had its own approach to education on "dealing with minors". Some emphasize the legal framework applicable to minors, which turns out civil servants who do things by the book but not necessarily feel how or why to do this. Others work on the attitudinal or cultural dimension, which results in police officers who tend to be kind and patient but are not sure about what they are legally obliged to do. As the coursework of student police officers, analyzed by us in preparation of the sessions, is not substantially different, nor do police academies seem to be aware of their different approaches, we only found out about these differences by actually doing the training sessions at the different police academies and adapting our session programs accordingly.

3. Convincing police officers of our expertise as an external organization

The main obstacle that we have to overcome at the start of each session, is the - understandable - scepsis participants have towards a trainer who has never been on the field. So, much more than with any other target group, we try to team up with a like-minded police officer from the province at issue, ideally both a teacher and still active in the field, to train groups. In our experience, this police officer will not do any actual substantial work beforehand or even during the session, but just his (or - though unfortunately still not very likely - her) mere presence is enough to take away all distrust.

Furthermore it is absolutely vital to take the time in the morning to explain in detail our participatory approach to developing our materials (i.e. how and where we got our knowledge and "tips and tricks"):

  • We organized a "listening round" of almost half a year, cruising the country, absorbing the atmosphere, openly and quietly listening to minors who had been in contact with the police (as victims or suspects), police officers (working in urban and rural contexts, big and small entities, specialized and generalistic units, from various divisions such as traffic, community policing, reception, intervention,...), and other police trainers.

  • We are supported by a feedback group consisting of children, police officers and police academy officials, that consistently gives their take on any materials we've developed.

  • We teach this session with one of their fellow police officers who is still active in the field and who is also an experienced teacher. So even if he is not there for a particular session, we stress that normally we do it together.

  • We constantly adapt the contents and methods of all activities in accordance with feedback given during and after each session.

4. Finding the ideal program for every group


Testing out different activities in different settings, in the course of time we've developed a modular system that covers a whole spectrum of issues on "police and minors". We're always prepared to give any module at a given session, choosing in accordance with the expectations mentioned by participants at the start of the session. We've also prepared a "light version" of all modules, so that we can discuss their essence without going into too much detail.

The modules are:

  • introduction

    • presentation: we, the participants and their expectations, the program

    • situations game: we read out loud a certain situation (case or statement)(eg. "in tiny village X, the police keeps a blog to fill the gap between law enforcement and the police: can they mention a stealing boy's initials and very short home street?"), participants indicate individually if they think it's correct or not - whereby we link every situation to children's rights and a further module of the program of the day

    • numbers game: in pairs, participants need to combine 6 percentages with 6 descriptions of population groups (eg. "minors who have committed a crime") - they almost never get everything right because there's generally a very negative attitude towards young people in society

  • the legal framework: handcuffing, deprivation of liberty, police custody,...

    • starting with a world cafe, whereby all participants can familiarize themselves with each other in small, constantly changing groups, and exchange their practices regarding a certain topic

    • followed by a run-down of every topic, outlining what the law exactly says, and adding an international children's rights perspective: every rule can be interpreted in a children's rights respecting way

  • update on youth protection law (as relevant for law enforcement)

    • based on a case-study and constantly asking for examples from participants' own professional lives

  • what is a "minor"?

    • child development basics, with a special emphasis of teenagers' brain development

    • followed by the notion that realizing children's rights offers the best chance of a child's development"?

  • dealing with minors: some tips and tricks

    • starting with a low-level roleplay, whereby all participants play teenagers (this is the only sure way to really get to empathy) in group "hanging out" or "loitering" in the streets, and we play different "types" of police

    • followed by an always animated discussion on how to deal with minors

  • prejudice (based on gender, ethnicity, religion,...)

    • very sensitive topic, with often defensive reactions

    • we explain how certain ways of thinking are normal, human reflexes (eg. generalizing), but how it already helps if we are aware of these reflexes and try to keep those in mind when reacting

    • we always end with a funny sketch filmed in the Netherlands, apparently necessary to break tension and move on

  • the child as a victim

    • case-study: a child witness of domestic violence, with a filmed testimony by a young man

    • tips and tricks to keep in mind during interventions

  • the child as an offender

    • filmed testimony of teenager who's committed a lot of criminal acts, including toward the police, but now that he's no longer just locked up in some institution but instead gets therapy and can go to school again is firmly determined to stop

    • referring to the child's development and all protective and risk factors influencing this, we reiterate that "to explain does not equal to approve" but that it's really hard, if born without any framework, to just create this framework oneself

The written evaluation forms and verbal and non-verbal reactions throughout the sessions make clear that we do reach our participants and make them rethink their attitudes toward young people. Underlying all our activities are the - often not explicitly stated - very basic thoughts that also minors are human beings just like all of us, and that everybody, especially police officers, have the power to be a force for the good in young people's lives.

Fiona Ang, vormen vzw