‘I was crying nearly every day of the week about my son’
Parents of young offenders find ways to cope through the support of volunteer mentors
Le Chéile’s Anne Conroy. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Clare was so worried about her teenage son when he began to go off the rails during fifth year at school, that she went to the gardaí about him. It was a “most horrible thing to do”, she says. “I really just wanted to know if they could do something to give him a fright because I could see he was going to get himself into an awful lot of trouble if I didn’t do something.”
Not only was he “hanging around with a bad crowd, going drinking and smoking weed”, but he had also developed a fixation with arson. At that stage, his underlying mental health problems had yet to be diagnosed and his mother and step-father were afraid to leave him in the house alone.
On one occasion, he returned half an hour before they got in from work and “he had the house doused in white spirit”, she says. “I was terrified he would do something to himself more than anything.”
They tried to keep him locked in at night but he got out the window. “He would be fascinated by fire and would set things on fire outside the house at night.”
It was arson charges that landed him in court and he was petrified, Clare says. “When he got to court he was so sorry and could not understand why he did what he did.”
However, his referral to the mentoring and youth justice support charity Le Chéile proved to be a turning point – not only for him but also for his family. Trained volunteers develop one-on-one relationships with young offenders – and their parents or carers if they are interested – to help them keep out of further trouble with the law.
By its nature, the work of Le Chéile tends to go unpublicised. It started in north Dublin in 2005, as a pilot project to offer mentoring to young people aged 12–18 years referred by the courts to the probation service. But it was soon seen that offenders’ parents or carers could benefit from having their own mentors.
The effectiveness of this voluntary intervention was highlighted in an independent evaluation of Le Chéile published last year. Reducing Youth Crime in Ireland, by Dr Kieran O’Dwyer, found a 28 per cent reduction in reoffending by young people who availed of the mentoring.
The research also concluded that for every €1 the Government and EU invests in Le Chéile, there is a return of €4.35 – providing evidence that the programme makes both social and economic sense. The proven benefits for offenders include avoiding detention, better health and engagement in education – all of which save the State money.
According to its latest annual report, the charity provided mentoring to 147 young people and to 46 parents in 2016.
“We are a unique service,” says Le Chéile chief executive Anne Conroy. “We are providing a service for a statutory agency, ie the Department of Justice, but volunteers actually deliver the mentoring. That is really important – for both the youth mentoring and parent mentoring.”
Indeed, all the parents interviewed for this article talked about how they feel that volunteers who do this in their spare time really care about them and how it is a totally different relationship than with paid professionals.
New pilot project
Now the charity is about to embark on a new two-year pilot project to offer mentoring to parents or carers of children in detention in Oberstown in north Dublin.
“That is totally innovative,” says Conroy. “We haven’t been able to find anything like that internationally, at least anything researched and written up. It’s a very exciting service to be developing.”
She expects it to be harder to convince these parents or carers to buy into this idea of voluntary community support. In having a young person in Oberstown, rather than on Probation, “the problems have probably got worse and there are more crises involved”.
But at Oberstown, where the approach is very much about care, support and education for young offenders, as outlined in this supplement last October, staff are keen to promote measures that can help the transition back into the community.
A new team of volunteers has been recruited and trained for this work, which is expected to be done mostly in the Dublin area, and individuals are beginning to be matched with referrals.
For all Le Chéile’s mentoring work, which is now available in regions covering about half the country, recruiting suitable volunteers is a challenge, “but we always manage”, says Conroy. However, they are constantly looking for more men.
Conroy believes the huge effort local co-ordinators put into matching volunteers and individuals – finding interests that will connect them – is why there is such a low dropout rate among participants. Some 95 per cent of parents who are offered mentoring take it up and 90 per cent stick with it – a process that usually involves meeting locally every week or two for an average period of 18 months.
Julie, a single mother who has been meeting a mentor for the past year, admits she was apprehensive about the idea at first.
“I don’t go out and I don’t mix with people. But they explained it in a good way that I was able to think about it. They didn’t push me into anything.”
She was “tormented” at the time by the younger of her two sons being charged in connection with an assault and also a break-in, just after he turned 18. “He had three offences; we got through them but it was very tough.”
Her Le Chéile mentor and mentor co-ordinator “really helped me get through a lot of it, as they helped me have time for myself”, says Julie.
“I have a big family, but I keep to myself, we are not a very close family. And there are certain things you can’t tell your friends. I can tell my mentor anything.”
She also sees how valuable her son’s relationship is with his mentor. “It’s good for him to have someone else to talk to apart from me” – her elder son lives abroad. “He had other issues which were bothering him that I didn’t know about and he was able to talk to her about them.”
Now aged 19 and training in construction, “he is behaving himself and staying out of trouble, seeing the error of his ways as they do when they get to a stage”. Julie adds. “It’s all part of growing up I suppose.”
I was crying nearly every day of the week, in despair basically
When Clare started her mentoring at the end of 2014, “we were at the lowest point in our lives”, she says. “I found it very good right from the beginning; the woman assigned to me was a very understanding, very calming person.
“I was in a right state when she met me. I was crying nearly every day of the week, in despair basically.”
The problems with her son had been going on a couple of years and there was nobody else she could confide in.
“We closed ourselves off as a family and said no to invitations. I withdrew from my old friends.”
Clare found immense value in being listened to and talking things through with the mentor. “I went from being a shaking kind of a wreck to being a bit more confident and being able to fight for my son.
“There was a lot of decisions we had to make around that time; I needed the strength and the confidence to take on the mental health system as well as the court appearances. She talked to me and made me more at ease in making decisions.
“All you want to do is to protect your child – that is what you are put there to do. I see a lot of kids, their parents basically just gave up, they had enough of their carry on, and they are lying on the streets as we speak, homeless.”
Even after her son was diagnosed with residual schizophrenia in 2015, it took time for the doctors to find medication that worked for him and Clare had to have him involuntarily admitted to psychiatric hospital on a couple of occasions.
But now she is happy to report that her son is back in education and they are much more stable as a family. She hates to think where they would have ended up without outside help.
“He could be in jail this minute. I knew if he ended up in jail I would lose him; I wouldn’t get him back, he wouldn’t be the same person.”
Instead, his probation case was closed last autumn. “It’s an absolute success because he had other people supporting him outside the family,” she adds. “He copped on to himself.”
Rita felt she was living in a war zone in trying to deal with an abusive husband, a very troubled teenage son and four other children. “I thought I was going insane. I didn’t have any supports.”
Her son was seeing her “through his Dad’s eyes”, he “was very threatening, abusive to me and to his siblings also”.
What was great about Le Chéile was that the co-ordinator seemed to take an interest in me, not just in my troubled teen
He was struggling at school and although Rita had had him assessed, his ADHD was not diagnosed until later, so he was receiving no support. He was hanging around with much older teenagers, dabbling in drugs and kept wrecking things in the house when he didn’t get his own way.
He was only 14 when “unfortunately, well fortunately I suppose, he found himself in great difficulty with the law”. She says “fortunately” because it was then that Le Chéile became involved in both their lives, after he was referred by the probation service. The local co-ordinator assigned mentors to her son and herself.
“What was great about Le Chéile from the get-go was that the co-ordinator seemed to take an interest in me, not just in my troubled teen. When I met my mentor, she came across as a very caring, conscientious mum herself – a real person with a real life. She wasn’t bogged down in bureaucracy. It was a very open relationship; it meant from the start I could bounce off ideas and muddle my way through the whole mayhem that was going on in the house.
“I spent lots of times with her out in restaurants sobbing my heart out. But I always felt she was a great listening ear and she was non-judgmental. It was very useful to have another mother to reassure me ‘that was the right thing to do’ or ‘I would have done the same thing in the circumstances’.
“Domestic abuse is very complex but one of the biggest things with me was that my ex-husband was always berating everything I did – it didn’t seem I could do anything right. So over time I was always doubting myself, no matter how I managed my children.”
Particularly important for Rita was that, through her, the mentor got to know all her children. “Whereas other organisations were only interested in the troubled teen, they didn’t care about anybody else in the family and they were all struggling.”
Four years on and now divorced, Rita says it’s “still a work in progress in terms of the family but I am in a much better place myself. I suppose I am stronger mentally. I am able to manage problems as they arise.”
While she no longer meets her mentor, Rita remains in touch with Le Chéile. As for her son, he managed to stay in school and complete the Leaving Certificate.
“He is doing well; there are some glitches every now and then, but I am no longer worried about him at home. The abuse is very minimal now; if it does occur I can deal with it. And we have a great relationship – we always had really.
“I always loved him to bits,” she adds. “It was just I was always worried that he would do something really bad. But fortunately he turned it right around.”
We’re volunteers, we’re not officialdom, we’re not bureaucracy. What characterises it is a good deal of informality
Parents availing of Le Chéile mentoring are all dealing with complex situations, says a former primary school principal who has been a volunteer mentor for several years.
They are likely to be involved with multiple agencies but the mentors come from a completely different angle.
“We’re volunteers, we’re not officialdom, we’re not bureaucracy. What characterises it is a good deal of informality,” says Alan, who asks that his real name not be used because he is discreet about his voluntary work.
Some people want to work through their situations to find out the best way forward while others are just happy to have a normal conversation for an hour, as an escape from the problems that preoccupy them the rest of the week. The chat always flows easily, he says.
“I find these people are absolutely brilliant conversationalists. They have all had real-life, authentic experiences. They have a high level of insight into life and into the human condition.”
Some might not be highly qualified in terms of educational certificates “but by God they have experienced life at the edge. It is not theoretical.”
Alan admits that before his involvement with Le Chéile, he was inclined to think that young people in trouble with the law had been neglected by their parents. Whereas among the fathers and one grandfather he has worked with, he has found exceptional commitment to their children and a high level of social responsibility.
When you look at the complexities of their lives, a lot of the problems go back to deep scars left in their early years, he remarks.
For his part, Alan has found that the mentoring has given him a different perspective on life and he feels well supported through regular supervision and training days.
Anybody interested in becoming a Le Chéile volunteer should look at lecheile.ie