Restorative Justice Week 2016 - A Volunteer’s experience of working with the Youth Justice Agency in Banbridge

Date published: 23 November 2016

Restorative practice is at the core of all that the Youth Justice Agency delivers for young people who offend, for their victims, and indeed for the communities within which they reside.

Grainne O'Neill
Grainne O’Neill receives her Youth Justice Agency “Commendation for contribution to Volunteering” certificate from Justice Minister Claire Sugden

Many of these restorative and reparative activities are delivered through the use of Volunteers and today, as part of Restorative Justice Week 2016, we have an opportunity to hear of the experiences of one such person, Grainne O’Neil, who is from Lurgan but who works as a Volunteer with the Youth Justice Agency’s Southern Area Team, based in Banbridge.

Grainne was commended for her contribution to volunteering at the Youth Justice Agency’s annual volunteer awards 2016, and was presented with her certificate by Justice Minister Claire Sugden. At an evening reception held in June, the Justice Minister acknowledged the valuable role that volunteers like Grainne play in helping divert young people from crime and said:

“Volunteers are positive role models for young people, assisting them in making good choices about their lives and diverting them from crime. They can really help young people develop the skills and maturity they need as they move towards adulthood”.

Grainne’s experience of working as a volunteer with the Youth Justice Agency is illustrated below in Q&A format:-

What did you know about the Youth Justice Agency (YJA) prior to becoming a volunteer?

Prior to volunteering with the YJA, I did some research into Northern Ireland’s youth justice system and found that the YJA’s approach places a strong emphasis on restorative practice.  Young people who become known to the YJA will be given the opportunity to take steps to prevent further crimes occurring in ways that are meaningful to them, as well as the victim. Personally, I do not feel that a punitive punishment system is successful in preventing further crime occurring. Therefore, I particularly liked how the YJA attempts to tackle the underlining causes of the young person’s offending behaviour (e.g. providing support for substance addiction). They see beyond a ‘victim-offender’ binary approach, which I feel is essential, as many young people who offend may also be viewed as ‘victims’ in their own right, due to their socio-economic situation or previous life experiences.

Why did you want to volunteer with children referred to YJA?

As a part-time youth worker and social work student, I have always been passionate about supporting and connecting with young people.  In particular, young people who may not have had the best start in life and as a result have become marginalised within society.  I was drawn to the emphasis the YJA placed upon integrating young people back into the community and I felt optimistic that I could utilise some of the contacts I have made in the local community to help with this. I reckoned that witnessing young people take steps to turn their life around and knowing that you have played a small part in this process of change would have been an extremely rewarding feeling. Reflecting on this, I would concur that it most definitely is!

How would you describe your volunteering experience with the YJA?

During my training to become a volunteer I was quite anxious that the work would be ‘top heavy’ and demanding emotionally.  Whilst volunteering has definitely challenged me in many ways, it is actually a lot more fun that I imagined! I enjoy interacting with the young people and finding out their interests and then brainstorming fun and meaningful activities we could do together.  We are given a modest budget and this gives us the flexibility of doing things together that we both enjoy, such as going to the cinema, gym or going out together for a meal.  Through volunteering, I have found that sometimes the simplest things, such as a long car journey, can provide the best opportunity to build a rapport with young people.

What skills have you developed during your volunteering with the YJA?

Volunteering with the YJA has increased my confidence in supporting young people with complex issues.  I have learned the importance of finding balance between being non-judgmental and tactfully encouraging young people to understand how harmful behaviour can affect themselves and others. The YJA team have been supportive from the onset and volunteering has also encouraged me to work as part a team within a large organisation.  Through time, I have also learned the importance of flexibility.  As a volunteer with the YJA, it is likely that you be supporting young people who live quite chaotic lives.  Therefore, take each session as it comes and expect the unexpected.  Don’t take it personally if a young person cancels your session last minute, just rearrange another date and pick up where you left off!

Do you think the YJA is making a difference to the lives of young people, the families and community in general?

The YJA aims to divert young people away from crime through early intervention and diversionary means.  Its focuses on maximising social inclusion, such as the mentoring programme that I am involved with.  Furthermore, its strong ties with local community and youth organisations and its commitment to working in partnership with wider agencies provides a holistic response to offending behaviour. I would add, however, that supporting desistance from crime should not solely be the responsibility of the criminal justice system, but one for the whole of society and higher power structures, in terms of what funding is provided. However, from my experience as a volunteer with the YJA, I would confidently say that the organisation makes a difference to the lives of the young people it supports.

Notes to editors: 

  • Restorative Justice Week 2016 runs from 21-25 November 2016
  • Grainne O’Neil received a commendation for her contribution to volunteering at the Youth Justice Agency’s annual volunteer awards evening reception held in Lisburn on 29 June 2016
  • Grainne was presented with her award by Justice Minister Claire Sugden
  • Media enquiries should be directed to George Lowry on 028 9031 6421 or 07717 732691. Alternatively email

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