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Ethnographic perspectives on youth justice supervision and the supervisory relationship



Change log



The supervisory relationship is said to be the key territory in which children draw meaning and benefit from their community supervision experience within the youth justice system. Yet the intricacies of the supervisory relationship and the nature of everyday supervision in which it develops are little researched. It is therefore critical to deepen our understanding of supervisory interactions if we are to identify what is and is not effective, and develop practices to best support desistance accordingly. I sought to do so by means of a 17-month ethnographic study in two youth offending services (YOSs), involving extensive participant observation, interviews with 26 children and 46 YOS professionals, as well as ‘following’ ten of the children during their ‘supervision journeys’. Drawing on both psychosocial and criminological theoretical windows, I examine the nature and meaning of everyday youth justice supervision to the children and professionals involved.

Following introductory chapters which set the scene, the first data chapter comprises an in- depth examination of the children’s backgrounds and characteristics, and the implications of these for their engagement in involuntary supervision and the supervisory relationship. The second two data chapters consider the children’s and professionals’ perspectives, respectively, on what they perceive to ‘help’ in supervision; the chapters include discussion of the children’s narratives of offending, sanctions and ‘self’ and how these things impact on supervision. The final two data chapters provide an exposition of supervisory relationships, the constraints and enablers of their development, and what it meant to have a ‘helping’ relationship. I conclude that relationships with the greatest helping potential are characterised by two things: the human nature of their boundaries, insofar as they necessitate professional engagement that goes beyond the supervisory role; and reciprocity, premised on an attachment of mutual care and communication.

The final chapter draws out implications of the research for theory, policy and practice. I argue that although the supervisory relationship is valorised by both children and professionals as the most helping aspect of supervision, its primacy in practice is militated against by structural, organisational, ideological, financial, political, social and cultural contextual factors. Viewed through the lens of the Taylor Review, a recent major government-hosted appraisal of the youth justice system, the findings give credence to its conclusions and suggest the need to reignite public discussion about whether youth justice services are best configured to support children’s desistance in the current context.





Gelsthorpe, Loraine


Youth justice, Supervision, Desistance, Helping relationship, Psychosocial, Emotional Labour


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
The Dawes Trust