Handling stolen property –

family conference

Young Persons Probation 

Handling Stolen Property

Family Conference

In this case, Ross, a teenager, was before the Children Court on charges of handling stolen property. The offences related to the theft of car keys from a woman, Ms. D, who was attending a church service.

When Ms. D realised that her keys were gone, she was afraid to leave the Church in case her car was stolen. She rang her daughter to collect a second set of keys from home and meet her in the church car park. In the meantime, Ross and an older male had gone to the car park and were pressing the key fob in the hope of identifying and stealing the car. Ross left and returned a short time later with the intention of stealing the car. He found, however, that it was gone. The Gardaí were patrolling the area and observed Ross acting suspiciously. He was arrested as he was found in possession of the car keys. The older male was never identified or caught.

Ross pleaded guilty at the first opportunity at the Children Court. Under the Children Act 2001, the Judge considered Ross suitable for a family conference: he pleaded guilty, accepted responsibility for his behaviour and had no other outstanding Court matters or new charges. He also had a supportive parent, who accompanied him to Court. Usually, children who are entrenched in a local criminal culture or have other outstanding charges are not considered suitable for family conferences. The Judge also expressed hope that the victim would participate in the family conference.

Ross and his parents agreed to engage in the conference with Ms. D, the prosecuting Garda, a Senior Probation Officer (who chaired the conference) and Ross’s Probation Officer. Ross’s Probation Officer undertook preparation meetings with Ross and his family; the Senior Probation Officer was responsible for preparation with Ms. D. This division of tasks arose because of the need to ensure that there was enough time for preparation with the victim, who engaged deeply with the process.

Prior to the conference, Ross and Ms. D were fully prepared, both in terms of their expectations of the conference and the questions to be asked. His Probation Officer met Ross and one of his parents together three times before the conference. At these meetings, the Probation Officer used the restorative conference questions to explore what happened, who was harmed and what their thoughts were about the offence, and to explore ways to make amends. It was also an opportunity for Ross’s parent to express their thoughts and consider how Ross might make amends with his own family for the distress and anxiety caused. The Senior Probation Officer met Ms. D once prior to the conference, explaining the process and discussing both the impact of the offence and the victim’s thoughts as to how Ross could demonstrate his remorse.

The conference requires the full participation and engagement of the young person, his family, the victim and (in this case) the prosecuting Garda to come to a resolution that meets the needs of both the victim and the young person. Ross described how he had wandered in to the Church, as he was bored. He admitted that, when he came across the keys, his immediate response was to take them and to try to get into the car. He denied that he had planned to steal a car but once the keys were there ‘for the taking’, he did not think about the owner or the consequences for himself.

Ms. D spoke about her shock when she realised the keys were gone. She was initially relieved to see that her car was in the car park when she went outside, but then became very fearful and distressed at the thought that someone had targeted her and might do so again.

After hearing Ross’s version of events, Ms. D said that she was reassured that he had not identified her as someone he specifically wanted to harm, but that it was actually an opportunistic offence. The prosecuting Garda also played an active role, talking to Ross about his work, his commitment to community protection and the challenges for Gardaí in providing effective, timely responses to all crimes. He said that Ross’s unthinking behaviour placed pressure on Garda resources and harmed someone in his own community. After this conversation, there was a real sense that Ross saw the person behind the police uniform.

Following this discussion, Ross, his parent and the Probation Officer had ‘time out’ to reflect on what was said and review the reparative actions that had been discussed during preparation and during the meeting. The agreed actions were:

  • Ross would write a letter of apology to Ms. D that the prosecuting Garda would give to her;
  • Ross was to donate €50 to a charity chosen by Ms. D, a drug treatment facility;
  • Ross was to paint his sister’s and mother’s bedrooms and would show before and after pictures to the Court; and,
  • to support his own development, Ross would apply to a Community-Based Organisation for a place on their training programme, and complete a drug awareness course.

Ross completed all the agreed actions, and a final report was presented to the Court outlining the progress Ross made during the adjournment. The Judge finalised the matters by way of a strike out, meaning that Ross did not have a criminal conviction.

The conference highlighted how offending can be addressed in a practical way for children and a meaningful way for their victims and parents. It demonstrates that, if children and their parents can overcome the shame and embarrassment of meeting the victim, positive outcomes can occur for all.

The victim seemed to benefit from meeting Ross and his parent. The discussion they had was sincere and resolution driven. The victim believed that Ross was remorseful and wished him well in the future. All parties reported having a positive experience.

From a practitioner’s perspective, it is vitally important to prepare from the time the case is referred, as well as during the process and in completing the work at the end. It is also crucial that participants are clear about the process. Most children and their parents are not familiar with restorative language, so the process must be explained simply. Finally, not all people are suitable to participate in a family conference, so it must not be forced upon them, or it can have a negative outcome for all.