student profile: Ms Lyn Stevenson


Thesis work

Thesis title: Multiple jeopardies: is there dignity for adolescents experiencing mental distress in the context of legal settings?

Supervisors: Margot RAWSTHORNE , Donna BAINES

Thesis abstract:

Dignity is the central concept of this research. It is a rich and significant concept interconnected with notions of worth and value (Michael, 2014). Dignity is ultimately important to humans since it forms the foundation of a free, peaceful, just and civilized society. It underpins essential rights to freedom and equality and relates to human autonomy, self-governance and choice (Bonnah, 2016). As a general proposition, scholarship clearly indicates the significance of dignity in young people’s attempts to create places of emotional safety for themselves (Bonnah, 2008, pp. 38-39). By identifying how an adolescent has worked to maintain, retain or reassert their dignity, particularly in circumstances of adversity, or where there is an environment in which adolescents have little or no power to affect what is occurring around them; adolescents’ capacities and strengths are revealed rather than individual dysfunction (Todd and Wade, 2003; Wade, 2007). While legal actors find legal environments comfortable, for adult non-lawyers, the unknowability and uncertainty of legal settings and legal processes can mean their experiences of legal situations are encountered as a location of adversity. For adolescents, who as a group are virtually powerless in legal environments, their legal encounters at least anecdotally, are of a heightened experience of adversity. Indeed, there appears to be, again anecdotally a disconnect between how adolescents experience legal environments and how legal actors perceive their professional practice with adolescents. Scholarship relating to the treatment of adolescents who are not the subject of legal proceedings points to some legal actors viewing adolescents as ‘collateral damage’ (Flynn, Naylor and Arias, 2016), with little or no attention paid to outcomes for adolescents who are not direct clients. Such adolescents may be witnesses, support persons, the children of incarcerated parents, grandchildren involved in succession proceedings, relatives/siblings of children involved in contested adoptions etc. The data surrounding the mental health of adolescents who have legal experiences or who intersect with legal settings tend to support the notion that outcomes for them can be extremely difficult. Adolescents who intersect with legal situations show higher rates of mental distress, and extreme mental distress, compared to their peers in the community who have not had contact with legal environments (Liddle, 2014; Sawyer, Guidolin, Schulz, McGinnes, Zubrick and Baghurst, 2010). Adolescents who have contact with legal settings also have higher prevalence rates for emotionally traumatic experiences (Dierkhising, Woods-Jaeger, Briggs, Lee and Pynoos, 2013), and multiple traumas (Abram, Teplin, Charles, Longworth, McClelland and Dulcan, 2004). In terms of adolescent mental health outcomes, a concern is that the trend for adolescents continuing to express their responses to legal experiences with higher rates of mental distress remains, despite Australia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention maintains a specificity relating to the way in which adolescents’ dignity should be maintained within legal environments. Yet, involvement in legal settings, even when not the subject of legal proceedings, often results in substantial unfavourable outcomes for adolescents including the loss of home, income, relationship, employment, involvement in violence and an increase in mental distress particularly a reduced sense of self-worth and self-confidence (Balmer and Denvir, 2010 as cited in Macourt, 2014), and sometimes extreme mental distress including suicide behaviours (Liddle, 2014; Sawyer, Guidolin, Schulz, McGinnes, Zubrick and Baghurst, 2010). Each of these outcomes marks issues in an adolescents’ dignity experiences in legal settings. The lack of dignity-enhancing experiences among adolescents in legal surroundings may reflect a profound cultural ambivalence about those living with adverse life circumstances, as well as ambivalence about adolescent mental distress. It may also be that legal actors do not currently have the skills and training to interpret the broader structural contexts of adolescents’ life experiences or to see how “some groups are particularly vulnerable to processes of ……. marginalization and exclusion” (Cuneen, White and Richards, 2015, p. 48). At present it remains unclear what might be the underlying mechanisms that contribute to adolescents’ responding to their legal experiences by expressing their mental distress as a means of mediating their internal states. It seems reasonable to assume that the disconnect between adolescents’ experiences and how legal actors perceive their practice is based on legal actors lack of understanding that adolescents’ mental distress, expressed as a range of behaviours, is not always understood as responses to the current legal environment, or previous trauma or the difficult circumstances that have raised the legal proceedings, or the life challenges each adolescents may have previously faced. Instead, it seems, again anecdotally, they are seen as exclusively problematic and may lead to deeper problems for an adolescent. They may also result in practices from legal actors that undermine or harm the dignity of adolescents. While there is general value in understanding the multiplicity of factors that contribute to adolescents’ difficult contact with legal settings, a consideration of adolescents’ individual personal histories and their location in broader social structures provides the opportunity to improve the interactions between legal actors and adolescents. Expanding our knowledge of adolescents’ experiences therefore, would be helpful in understanding how the dignity of adolescents can be protected and maintained in circumstances where adolescents hold little or no power. This discovery-oriented research seeks to explore how adolescents perceive their life circumstances and how they construct themselves, especially if they are experiencing mental distress in circumstances where they have been in contact with legal settings. It also seeks to shed light on how legal actors construct adolescents, especially adolescents who are experiencing mental distress. Narrative data from emerging adults describing their adolescent experiences of legal environments will be compared with legal actors’ descriptions of how they practice with adolescents. Through seeing, recognizing and giving voice to the manifold ways current emerging adults may have worked to preserve their dignity (Coates and Wade, 2007) when they experienced legal contexts as adolescents, there is a balancing of a past vulnerable experiences of now emerging adults against future benefits for adolescents who will find themselves in contact with legal environments. There is also a positive social response to adolescents’ responses to a particular type of adversity, provided via the collection of emerging adults’ narratives of their experiences as adolescents. In the ‘giving of voice’, a connection and belonging takes place (Bonnah, 2016) rather than the “othering” that may have occurred for emerging adults during the legal proceedings in which they have been involved, and during which they may have experienced a very real lack of dignity aware legal practice. Legal actors’ narratives will reveal the basis of their practices and how they deliver their legal services in relation to adolescents, particularly adolescents experiencing mental distress when encountering legal environments. Narrative data will also be collected relating to the education and training for legal actors around working with adolescents, and around their knowledge of their obligations relating to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Social work and law share a common goal in that each person they work with receives an effective and fair resolution of the problems affecting them (Zifcak, 2014). While the principle concern of law is doing justice (Zifcak, 2014), it is also a key issue of social work (O’Hara and Pockett, 2011). There is an overarching advantage of this proposed research in that it will be a collaborative endeavour between social work and the legal profession (Swain, 2014). It is a hopeful reaching out by social work to the law in an effort for the two professions to work in an harmonious rather than discordant relationship (Zifcak, 2014). This research has the potential to form a vital foundation for a novel model of dignity-aware practice for legal practitioners when they work with adolescents. Such a dignity-aware model of legal practice has the potential to diminish the possibility of multiple jeopardies for adolescents intersecting with legal contexts.

Note: This profile is for a student at the University of Sydney. Views presented here are not necessarily those of the University.