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Students HC Law visit neighbourhood centre: 'You think that's bizarre? Welcome to our world'

Do young people trust the law? That is what HC Law students are trying to find out. Regular guest speaker and social worker Carlito Jones invited the students to the Bezuidenhout-West neighbourhood centre in The Hague to talk to youth workers and neighbourhood police officers: what do they run into daily? How do they go about their work? And how can you help young people restore their trust in the law?

Some ten students are seated across the three set tables at the neighbourhood centre in The Hague. What do they expect from this evening? Student: ‘I don’t really know what a neighbourhood centre is. Does it really work? Can they help people simply by walking around here and mingling with them?' The students react enthusiastically when two neighbourhood police officers walk in. 'I wonder how they all work together. What goes on in a neighbourhood such as this and who does what and when?'

Youth work is prevention work

Two youth workers are seated at the first table. 'My day is mostly spent applying for grants and having conversations with young people.' They see entire generations of children passing by whose parents also used to visit the neighbourhood centre. 'We organise craft mornings, sports afternoons... But this is not a day care centre,' says youth worker Harold firmly. There is an underlying approach. Language disadvantages, for example. When children attend day care, they are required to speak Dutch. 'We do outreach work: we go out on the streets to make contact with youngsters. They have to get to know us so that they know that they can come to us in return.' Building trust, in other words. 'We also pay attention to groups that are forming and when we notice criminal aspects in a group, for instance, we report it; but our work is mainly preventive. We try to sense at an early stage whether something criminal could be brewing within a group.' So how do you pick up on that, the students wonder. 'Often you see one or two leaders emerging and the others behaving submissively,' Harold explains. 'You then start to unravel this by taking them apart and having the confrontational conversations.'

Unfortunately, you cannot help everyone. The youth workers explain that since the pandemic, there have been many young people who need psychological support. 'We can't give them that, but being able to help them in other ways is very satisfying; for example, by helping them get a job, so they can spend time away from their parents' homes a bit more often.'

Trust is the most important thing

Talking to social workers Carlito and Kamal, a new world opens up for the students. They explain how no working day is ever the same. 'One moment, I'm talking to an unemployed mother, whose husband has decided to walk out on her and the four children that night; then I get a call from another mother: 'Carlito, we haven't had any food for two days' and I quickly rush over to provide them with help from the food bank as soon as possible.

'they don't see themselves as criminals, to them it’s just a game'

That same afternoon I get to play games with the little ones and just now we received a report from a concerned mother saying that a youth cartel has emerged in the neighbourhood.' The students hang on his every word. 'Guess how old these kids are?' '18?' 'No 10 to 12 years.' Carlito laughs when he sees the shocked faces of the students. 'They don't see themselves as criminals, for them this is just a game. Something they see a lot on TV and start imitating.' One question after another is fired at him. 'How do you deal with this? What do you do when you can't help? Where do you draw the boundary between personal life and work? Do you take your work home with you? 'As a social worker, you always take your work home with you. This is work you have to really be passionate about. It has to be in your heart to want to help people. They can call me any time of the day; because I know they will only call me when they actually need me.'

Trust is the most important thing in this job. 'They have to be willing to come to you to open up about their problems so that we can put them in touch with the right agencies that can help them.' Carlito and Kamal come from similar neighbourhoods themselves. 'We speak the same language and that’s why they trust us.' This is not always a given, people are often ashamed of their problems, so they continue to struggle with them for a long time. 'Because they know me, they have the courage to tell me just about everything. 'Carlito, I don't have anything to eat at home. What now?'

Made to live behind bars

A pressing question pops into a student's head: does spending time behind bars have a positive or negative effect on people? Kamal and Carlito cannot give an unequivocal answer to this. In some cases, it works and people get back on the right path. 'After being incarcerated for a long time, you're usually done with it. That's when someone is actually able to make a change.' But they certainly also see the opposite happening. 'Some people’re made to spent time behind bars.' Kamal explains: 'One of the boys had robbed a jeweller and stabbed him in the leg. A week after he was released, he did exactly the same thing again. A friend of mine who was sent back to jail in a similar way said to me: 'I have it better on the inside than on the outside.' There’re simply some people who’re not made to get along in this society. They simply can’t fit in.'

One of the students has trouble understanding something: does it often happen that a man just leaves his family behind? 'Yep,' says Kamal. 'They don't see it as their family. Many of the 'fathers' start multiple 'families' just to go out to get milk or cigarettes one day and never come back.' 'How’s that possible? That's awful,' replies the student. 'You think that's bizarre? Welcome to our world,' laughs Carlito. 'You're welcome to spend a day with us.'

As a neighbourhood officer, your uniform disappears

Two neighbourhood police officers sit at another table. The students wonder how what the best way is to convince young people to accept the help you are offering. 'Gaining trust is extremely important,' explain the officers. 'As a neighbourhood officer, your uniform becomes irrelevant, so to speak. We’re the ears and eyes of the neighbourhood. They tend to steer clear of our colleagues, but we’re welcomed with open arms.' That can also be difficult because it creates a grey area between what young people can and cannot say to you. 'I always remind them: you’re still talking to a policeman. If you’ve committed an offence, I must make a report. They tend to tell us a lot in confidence; sometimes I advise them not to come to me but report it to an authority that can help them.' Neighbourhood officer Eray is also a social media officer. 'This helps tremendously. I operate on their platforms and am almost seen as an influencer. As a result, they’re quick to trust me and also have the confidence to come to me with their problems. For them, it’s easy to approach me because they recognise me from TikTok and Instagram and can simply send me a DM [message on Instagram].'

'I want to make Dutch law more human'

Then the students themselves are asked to explain what drives them. 'What drives you to study law and be here this evening?' They mention that they believe it is very important to understand the social aspect of law. 'Studying law really focuses on the rules and how they’re made and implemented. I think it's important to see and understand what law does for people. Do people really have the feeling that they have been done justice? Do they feel that the law’s there for them?' One student has a clear ambition: she wants to become a prosecutor and make justice more inclusive. 'The Public Prosecutor imposes the punishment on which the judge eventually passes a sentence. In the Netherlands, punishments can be very harsh; working as a prosecutor, I want to make this more humane.'

A key topic of the Honours College course is the trust in judicial institutions. Rogier Hartendorp, associate professor in the social effectiveness of justice, stresses the importance of visits like this for students. 'Trust in government can be examined in different ways, but ultimately this trust takes concrete shape and substance in the actions of police officers, judges, social workers, and all the other people who shape and give substance to the rule of law. For this course, we invite some of these professionals to talk about their work and discuss some of the dilemmas they face with our students. That’s absolutely essential to genuinely understand how trust in institutions is established, can be maintained, but can also be lost.'

Text: Mireille van der Stoep

Images: Monique Shaw

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