In the 90’s youth work in the Netherlands had to cope with the first serious cut backs due to changes in the national and local youth policy. For instance: in the 80’s there were more than twenty open youth centres in the city of Rotterdam. At the end of the previous millennium there were only around five left.
Some of the former youth centres changed into semi-commercial cultural centres but most of youth work was practised in community centres as part of a broader offer of activities varying for children up to adults and elderly locals.
Young people were a tough target group for the other visitors ( and other professionals) in these centres and the offer of youth work decreased.
A lot of young people spend their leisure time with their peers on sheltered places in their neighbourhood or in the city centres. Especially the more marginalized young people had no interest in the activities the centre based youth work offered. In the community centres there were mostly strict rules (drafted by adults and sometimes with the only goal to discourage young people to visit these centres) and the offer did not match the interests of the young people.
Young people were a tough target group for the other visitors
This development had several consequences:
As a result the municipalities changed their youth policy: youth workers were urged to work on the streets.
Two forms of youth work became an important instrument for local municipalities to regain their insight in the whereabouts and behaviour (that is: control) of young people: outreaching youth work and detached youth work.
Outreaching youth work tries to persuade the young people to visit the facilities of youth and community work.
Detached youth work is practised at places where people choose to be: streets, bars, schools, shopping centres, etc. They work in the environment of the young people instead of their own environment: the youth centre.
For a lot of youth workers this was quite a change: in their centre based work it were the young people who came to them, now they had to go to their environment. In their centres there were house rules, the atmosphere was primarily influenced by the youth workers and they had instruments to impose sanctions on divergent behaviour.
They could build up a sound relationship with their visitors because they came quite frequently and mostly for a longer period of time ( sometimes even years).
The detached youth worker enters the world of the young people.
Before the first approach:
The detached youth worker enters the world of the young people. That means she/he has to analyse the group and their environment in advance, has to know the background of the group, the group (or street-)culture, behaviour, drug- and/or alcohol use, possible aggression, relation with other actors in the environment, extent of the group, location and time of their whereabouts etc.
All this information is necessary to decide whether it is a proper target group for the worker, if it is safe to approach, what the best times to encounter the group are,…
During the first approaches:
The detached youth worker must be able to choose the most appropriate way of approaching a particular group (based on the previous analysis) and to explain short and simple who she/he is and why she/he is there. It is up to the skills of the youth worker whether or not she/he will be able to establish a productive first contact with the group and will be able to maintain that contact.
Contrary to centre based youth work, the environment of the group plays an important role. Especially in cases where the group is experienced as a nuisance the detached worker must be able to build up a network with relevant actors. Flexibility and community skills on a variety of target groups are essential skills.
During the contacts:
The position of a detached youth worker is vulnerable. The contact might easily be terminated by the young people for reasons not known or because of a sudden lack of trust. Some of the groups a detached worker has to deal with have an aggressive or criminal character. That means that a worker always has to keep his own safety in mind.
The work is more open to public scrutiny as it is mostly in a public setting and expectations can differ very much. A detached youth worker should on one hand become a part of the social and physical environment of the young people but on the other hand needs to keep a professional distance in order to advocate effectively for the young people.
The position of a detached youth worker is vulnerable.
How does a detached youth worker get the skills and competences to fulfil her/his tasks?
The Dutch educational system does not know specialized forms of youth work education. Most of the educational institutes tend to offer very broad curriculums for a wide range of professions in the social domain. Almost all of these professions are practised indoors and the client has to come to the social worker.
The only way to become a detached youth worker in the Netherlands is to gain a lot of practical experience, in the beginning accompanied by an experienced worker (if you are lucky) and look for trainings and courses that are sometimes given by experienced workers. Only a small part of the offer focuses on detached youth work.
The National Youth Institute has a database of effective youth interventions and a few institutes offer youth work study courses
There is a need for professional education for youth workers in general and for detached youth workers especially but unfortunately the tendency is opposite. The same goes for the development of methodologies and the sharing of experiences. This happens mostly only on local or regional level.
On a European Level there are several training possibilities for detached youth workers. A very extensive offer of supporting documentation, tools and trainings can be found on the website of the Federation for detached youth work in the U.K.
Dynamo International coordinates the international network of social street workers who approach various populations in their environment (children, youth and adults). Among others they have published an international handbook on street work, a practical guide for new social street workers and they organize international trainings for street workers with trainers from all over the world. Their publications are downloadable in different languages.
by Dick Smit (2016)
Dick Smit has been working for Stichting JONG for over 20 years as trainer and coach. Currently his function is manager detached youth work in the city of Gouda.
© Paul Posse, Stichting JONG