Freedom From Symbolic Violence? Facilitators and Barriers to Participatory Practices in Youth Justice

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorSean Creaney,Samantha Burns
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Youth Justice
2024, Vol. 24(1) 31 –52
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14732254231156844
Freedom From Symbolic Violence?
Facilitators and Barriers to
Participatory Practices in
Youth Justice
Sean Creaney and Samantha Burns
The Child First Participation agenda in England marks a paradigm shift in youth justice. This solidifies a
commitment to democratising decision-making processes with children. Drawing on interviews with
children and professionals, this article explores the enablers and constraints to Child First participation
in youth justice services, including how risk-oriented practices, managerialism and neo-liberal mechanisms
constrain positive relationships with children. In this article, Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is
used to explore systemic problems when engaging children in co-producing youth justice interventions. The
article suggests how participatory practices can provide freedom from symbolic violence for both children
and practitioners.
Bourdieu, child first, habitus, participation, risk, symbolic violence, youth justice
Justice-involved children have legal rights to participate in decisions about their care
and supervision needs, which are universal and unconditional under international chil-
dren’s rights legislation (Brown, 2020). In other words, professionals are required to
respect children’s rights to impart ideas and be listened to throughout contact with the
youth justice system, as stated in Article 12 of the UNCRC, (UNICEF 1989). Embracing
children’s voices is a key theme in the General Comment No. 24 on children’s rights in
the justice system (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2019: paras 45 and 46),
and professionals in England have also been encouraged to implement a participation
strategy (Youth Justice Board (YJB), 2016). This involves activating a strengths-based
approach to service design and delivery, by building relationships which enables
the priority of children’s voices throughout assessment, planning and supervision
Corresponding author:
Samantha Burns, Department of Sociology, Durham University, Durham, DH1 3HN, UK.
1156844YJJ0010.1177/14732254231156844Youth JusticeCreaney and Burns
Original Article
32 Youth Justice 24(1)
(YJB, 2021). However, children’s participatory rights are not being fully implemented
due to existing ‘risk’ processes, notably ensuing uncertainty concerning how to manage
‘high risk’ children (Burns and Creaney, 2023; Peer Power/Youth Justice Board, 2021).
Thus, there remains concern about the relative absence of children’s voice and participa-
tion in youth justice service decision-making processes and professional practice.
A review of the Youth Justice System in 2016 recommended that children under super-
vision and subject to mandatory appointments need to be viewed and responded to as
‘children first’ (Taylor, 2016: 48). Furthermore, there was a call to transform responses to
children and enact system change: from ‘justice with some welfare, to a welfare system
with justice’ (Taylor, 2016: 49). Against this backdrop together with criticisms levelled
at the risk paradigm for marginalising the voice of the child and a chorus of calls to be
more rights-focused (Haines and Case, 2015), the Youth Justice Board developed and
launched the Child First agenda (YJB, 2021). The Child First approach promotes con-
structive, non-criminalising and collaborative practices that are socially inclusive and
respectful towards children’s rights (Case and Browning, 2021).
Indeed, children are better able to exert influence when their knowledge and insights
are seen as legitimate and ‘of value’ (Haines and Case, 2015). If children are encouraged
to enter into collaborate partnerships with professionals who strive to connect with the
child, positive outcomes are more likely. Advocates of Child First have drawn on a rich
body of empirical research (see Case, 2018; Haines and Case, 2015; Hampson, 2018;
Smithson et al., 2021) to characterise its potential as an antidote, or at least a persuasive
alternative, to a deficit-based adult-led system, which has been in existence for two dec-
ades as a result of the ‘new’ youth justice formulated in the late 1990s (Goldson, 2000).
Child First provides the foundations for the development of participatory practices,
where children as ‘rights-holders’ (Kilkelly, 2019: 332) are in positions of power and
have influence over processes, respected as ‘experts’ on their own lives, perceived as
capable of meaningfully contributing to discussions on policy and practice matters.
Participation (Article 12 of the UNCRC) refers to children ‘having a say’ in decision-
making processes and being listened to regarding decisions that affect them (UNICEF,
1989). The nature of their behaviour should not be allowed to override the entitlements
to a fair hearing and just treatment which should apply to all children and young people
irrespective of their social circumstances or individual characteristics (Creaney and
Smith, 2023). Collaborative participatory practice, in the sense of fully involving chil-
dren in decisions and processes, is where children are viewed as capable co-producers,
and this article argues that this is a fundamental feature of Child First youth Justice
(Burns and Creaney, 2023; Creaney and Smith, 2023).
First, this article presents a critical perspective on participatory practices in youth jus-
tice, acknowledging the complex challenges involving children in decision-making pro-
cesses. Second, an overview of Bourdieu’s fundamental analytical tools is provided.
Leading on from this, the article proceeds to critically discuss the aims of the study and
methods of data collection, and following this, presents the findings and analysis. It ends
by reflecting upon concluding thoughts, including implications for practice. This article is
concerned with the application of the ‘collaboration’ principle as part of the Child First
approach, which proposes to ‘Encourage children’s active participation, engagement, and

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