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8 January 2004 Edition

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Giving children of ex-prisoners a voice

BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN

Tar Anall Youth Development Unit project coordinator Jeannette Keenan (front and centre) is pictured with some of the young people in the project who received certificates of achievement

Tar Anall Youth Development Unit project coordinator Jeannette Keenan (front and centre) is pictured with some of the young people in the project who received certificates of achievement

Tar Anall was first founded as a drop-in centre for republican ex-prisoners and their families in Belfast in 1995, but since then the organisation has continued to modify and expand its services. The new Youth Development Unit is just one part of what's on offer. Tar Anall also provides a wide variety of interlinked services, including family and individual counselling, practical assistance, a stress clinic, alternative therapies such as massage and reflexology, and training and education units.

The Youth Development Unit is designed to empower young people who have been affected by imprisonment, bereavement in the political conflict of the last three decades, says project co-ordinator Jeannette Keenan.

The project, specifically designed for the children of ex-prisoners, is aimed at enabling young people between the ages of 13-25 develop their social confidence, self-awareness and team building skills.

"This project is particularly good," explains Keenan, "because we build a relationship with the parents as well as the child or young adult. That would be unusual in terms of normal youth work.

"But Tar Anall takes a holistic approach. We reach out to the entire family through our Family Support Unit while the Youth Development Unit is there to work with young people on their own. They need to do some of the work on their own, outside of their families."

So why a youth group specifically for the children of ex-prisoners? How is the family dynamic different?

"The children of ex-prisoners are more disaffected than a child in a so-called 'normal' family," says Keenan. "They have more things to think about, more opportunities to feel fear outside of their own community, and are more directly affected by the legacy of the conflict.

"The label of being a republican child from a republican family shouldn't be a negative thing, but at times it is, even within your own community. Thirty years ago it wouldn't have been, but sometimes it is now, and that causes problems in the community, within the family, for the young person themselves in the way that they feel about themselves.

"The young person has been given this label that they didn't have anything to do with. On occasion, they will rebel against that and go to the very opposite end of the scale. That's when we see young people getting involved in risky behaviour and sometimes even in anti-social activity.

"Outsiders may look at projects like this and say, 'but sure, in ten years time there won't be ex-prisoners'. But that's because they don't understand the legacy of trauma and how trauma can manifest itself intergenerationally. It's internalised, deeply embedded in the fabric of the family and the community which surrounds it.

"We know that there are going to be definite needs for the next generation, but we can't predict how long those needs are going to continue because we don't know how many different generations will be affected. We'll have to wait and see. But we do know that a lot of the difficulties young people are experiencing now are the same as 20 years ago.

"The most common example is a parent — say a father — who has been in prison, and he comes home after being away for a number of years. Meanwhile, the mammy has been raising the family on her own. She runs the house, controls the money, she does everything on her own. She is the first line of support for her kids.

"Then the daddy comes back. The mother has to share her attention with him. The kids have to get to know him again. They may feel torn between their loyalty to their mother and their loyalty to their father because there is this strange balance thing that goes on.

"The entire family has to build up a whole new set of relationships and it sounds like a happy story with a happy ending but it's not. It's a lot of hard work. And no one comes and says to young people 'when you're daddy gets out of prison its going to be really hard for a while...'

"No one tells them they might feel resentful or that they might also feel guilty because they feel resentful. Suddenly, they have to share the bathroom or settee with this other person. He comes in and he thinks that he's the boss and he wants to organise everything...

"Five or ten years may pass and that difficulty doesn't go away because the family doesn't know how to resolve that issue. So the resentment remains, and if they don't discuss it, it gets worse. And what people don't realise is that you need to learn how to discuss issues like that. So who comes along and helps you?"

Tar Anall's Youth Development Unit gives children of ex-prisoners an external outlet separate from the family unit and allows them to be with other young people who have similar feelings and experiences. They have the chance to express and release their feelings in a safe, supportive environment.

Keenan says it was always the project's intention that the young people participating would ultimately run their own programme.

"The project is only in its infancy, but the plan is that during the first year the young people participating will get support and ideas from the adult support staff involved. But during the course of the second year, the young people will come up with their own ideas and start to run the projects themselves. We will simply facilitate and assist them as needed. By the third year, we hope they will be running the Unit on their own and create a Youth Advisory Group.

"We already have an IT team, which learn new skills and produce their own bulletin. We have another group of young people who are working on a mosaic. We have a third group who are working on a drama project and they are already working on a short film which we hope to screen in the spring of next year. We have no idea what it will be about, and we're already very excited about seeing it.

"We've had young people who have gone on to specific training courses — with the idea being that they will then become volunteers in the project. At our recent open day we gave certificates to five young people. Three of those were sports coaching awards — which means they are trained to work with young people in all areas of sport and one specific to Gaelic training.

"The other two certificates were given to two young people who received accreditation as peer educators within the community, which is specific to sexual health. Next year, they are going to work along with two people from that field and take a boys' group and a girls' group separately, to do a ten-week education project in sexual health."

The project also affords young people the opportunity to take a deeper and more long term look at the legacy of imprisonment and political struggle and its impact on themselves and their family. Keenan points out that even children born after a parent's release from prison can still be deeply affected by the family dynamic.

"We're discovering, through anecdotal evidence, that children who had not even been born when the parent was in jail can still suffer from some of the difficulties that the parents had to face. It's not a regular family unit.

"It can take years and years for parents to realise that they need counselling. A child could be ten years old before the parents understand that they had grown apart, were thrown together again and had to start from scratch. Suddenly, they had to build a relationship while raising a child at the same time.

"So another thing the project is going to try and do over the next two years is try and record as much anecdotal evidence - primarily from young people and the possibly another generation of young people who are now adults — and try to look at what young people have had to adapt to, what their emotions are right now. It's an effort to try and establish what a lot of the practical difficulties are in being a prisoner's child.

"For example, we know that discrimination exists with children of political ex-prisoners. We know there are certain areas of work where security clearance is required and we know that, although it might not be written on paper, there is a practice of discriminating against the children of prisoners.

"We also know that if that young person still lives in the house where the ex-prisoner lives, then the chances are much greater that they will be discriminated against in terms of security clearance. They will be viewed as an extension of the parent's past.

"We need to record that evidence and help young people highlight it. We'll use that information to lobby for change and make sure it is something that cannot happen in the future, so that a young person who still lives with an ex-prisoner parent, for example, cannot be stopped from going on holidays to America with their parent, that kind of thing. We also want young people to be aware that this could happen to them.

"We hope to produce a document which, hopefully, young people will research themselves. It will be produced alongside children's rights groups. We want to make sure they know what their rights are and hope to have a working group of young people who will lobby for anti-discriminatory practices in that area. That would be fantastic.

"Tar Anall had the foresight to set up a very specific project targeted at a very specific group trying to deal with transition into peace. It will provide a voice for our young people. Working with children's rights organisations will be a big part of that. We need to bring this information to those groups, and this is only a first step towards addressing larger and deeper needs.

"This project is really about creating a voice for young people from ex-prisoner families and empowering them to make changes in employment practices, in work practice and in attitudes. It's about human rights for young people and children. We may even examine justice issues for children globally."

• Anybody interested in the project or in taking part in the research can call Jeanette at (90) 323631 or email her at: [email protected]

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

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