IAN COULTER (Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland)
COMMENDEE 2022-23: Ian is Commended for the impact his talent and commitment has brought to all aspects of his work in Northern Ireland’s Youth Justice Agency, where his approach is widely admired by colleagues, and by the young people and families with whom he works.
Michaela Murray, a Youth Justice Agency Area Manager and Ian’s Line Manager, was the Initial Nominator and praises Ian as a youth justice practitioner at Northern Ireland’s Youth Justice Agency for nearly 20 years where he works directly with children and families to help children avoid further offending. She starts by highlighting some examples of his excellent work, including one young person who seemed beyond help:
‘Ian worked with a young person in residential care who had considerable communication difficulties, experienced severe abuse in his early childhood, and had been through numerous previous care placements. This young person displayed very challenging behaviours which alienated him from his peers and other professionals who found his behaviour very difficult to manage.
‘Ian very skillfully and persistently engaged this young person by providing consistent and unconditional support, sometimes in the most practical ways e.g. taking him to get his hair cut or taking him for a drive when staff contacted Ian to inform him that they were struggling to manage his behaviour and were considering calling the police. Over time this young person developed a very trusting relationship with Ian who was able to work with him in a way that other professionals had not been able, resulting in him managing his care placement much better and avoiding the associated further offending.’
Another example Adele cites is of a mother who telephoned Ian late on a Friday night when her son had breached his bail conditions and was in police custody. ‘Ian contacted the police custody suite and negotiated with police to have the child released into the care of his mother’, says Adele. ‘He then attended an early Saturday morning home visit to help de-escalate tensions in family relationships and reinforce the importance of adherence to bail conditions. This young person has continued to remain in the family home and to adhere to his bail conditions.’
As Adele points out, ‘it must be stressed that the Youth Justice Agency does not provide a formal out-of-hours bail support scheme. Ian was working with a young person who had struggled to engage with and manage a number of Service in the Community placements as a requirement of a Youth Conference Plan.’ With the child ‘on the brink of breaching his Youth Conference Order’, Ian arranged to work alongside this young person ‘to do a ‘litter-pick’ in his local park on a Friday evening’, where he used this activity ‘as an “in situ” opportunity to help this young person to develop his skills in dealing with peer pressure and to encourage him to link with local youth work out-reach services.’
Butler Trust Local Champion Mary Aughey is also Director, Youth Justice Services, at the Youth Justice Agency, and says that as his Director: ‘I have personally witnessed the sterling and committed work he has undertaken with vulnerable/challenging young people in conflict with the law.’ One theme of those praising Ian’s work is his responsiveness, captured in another example cited: ‘Ian sees a need and responds to it to the best of his ability. On one occasion, he was aware that a young person in custody who he had worked with would not receive any family visit over Christmas and he made a 100 mile round trip on Christmas Eve to visit the young person in custody. This typifies Ian and his commitment to young people.’
But as so often, it is the voice of the young people and their families that is most touching. As one young person put it:
‘Ian helps me, he has been here from when I began with the Youth Justice Agency. He’s honest, he tells me how it is and will challenge me about my behaviours. It’s good it gets me to think about what I am doing. He is helping me to think before I act and trying to get me to think of what my mates are asking of me. Ian is working with my mum and dad and my wee brother we are all getting the same information. My relationship with my dad can be difficult but Ian is working with us to try and develop things we can do together to help this. I am going to be with the YJA for a while and I am glad Ian is going to be the worker with me.’
Parents, too, are hugely appreciative of Ian’s work, with one saying ‘Ian worked with my son for years. He was in and out of custody and it was a really hard time for me and my family. Ian was the one consistent person during this time, he worked with us all. He never said we were to blame or that we were bad parents and that we needed to work together to help my son…if it wasn’t for Ian’s involvement and his work I believe my son would be in and out of jail.’ Another parent added:
‘I have nothing but praise for Ian he has come into our home and is helping us to navigate through these challenges without judgement. I am so grateful for all that he does.’
Colleagues wanted to add their own words, too, with a Youth Diversion Officer in the Police Service of Northern Ireland saying ‘It is so evident from watching, listening and talking to all the young people that Ian encounters in his work life, that he does it for the betterment of all them all, to help support and give them the confidence to be and do better. His commitment and tenacity of working with and for young people is unquestionable.’ Meanwhile the Chief Executive at Youth Justice Agency, Stephen Martin, emphasised Ian’s talent and commitment.
Ian himself sums up his approach as ‘looking at the bigger picture for the young person and their family’, adding that ‘one of the most important parts of my work is building a relationship with the young people and families and not judging them.’