Supporting young people to make positive life choices
By Maya Kurtsikidze
Irakli* is walking through fallen autumn leaves in one of the parks of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to meet his social worker. He will never forget the November day, a year ago, when he and his cousin were messing around in the streets and threw a stone at the window of a bus. As the bus window shattered, so did Irakli’s life as he knew it.
He was 16 years old at the time and used to spend a lot of time in the streets. Irakli experienced psychological violence at home and had problems related to self-control. He also had difficulties in fully understanding his actions and the damage he was causing to others and to himself.
But on that November day, Irakli realized his life could change dramatically for the worse. He was old enough to face criminal charges and could well have ended up in detention. But Irakli was referred to the Diversion and Mediation Programme instead.
A diversion is an alternative measure to criminal prosecution, which means that a criminal prosecution is terminated against a juvenile after meeting certain criteria. A diversion agreement is implemented instead where a young person is involved in various rehabilitation programmes. An individual assessment report of the juvenile is conducted by his or her social worker and sent to the Centre for Crime Prevention at the Ministry of Justice. At the Centre, another important process called mediation begins where a neutral person, a mediator, becomes involved in the case. The goal of the mediator is to establish contact between the juvenile and the victim (if they wish to do so), and to assist both parties in reconciliation.
“This was a chance for me to change my life in a better way,” says Irakli. He used that chance, which is given only once to children who come into contact with the law.
A six-month diversion agreement was signed and Irakli was enrolled into various education and social programmes. He started to work with a non-governmental organization supporting the digitalization of books in the subjects of travel and great discoveries. He was reading and selecting text for online platforms. This helped to expose him to new books to read and improved his computer skills.
Irakli talking with his social worker, Natia Aliashvili, at the Tbilisi Mediation House.
There were other programmes, like restorative justice, that helped him to fully realize the damage caused by his actions. This included psychological consultation and changing behaviours to live a healthy lifestyle. Social workers also supported Irakli in improving his relationship with his family. But what Irakli liked most was working in a charity canteen that helps socially vulnerable elderly people. Irakli helped charity staff serve the elderly and bring food to their tables.
“I felt lots of warmth from them,” recalls Irakli. He is quiet and humble and smiles when praised. “After some time, I realized that my life had to take a different direction. I could become better,” he adds.
The Diversion and Mediation Programme has been implemented throughout the country with the support of UNICEF and the European Union since 2010. Over 2,700 young people like Irakli have participated in the programme so far, but for the programme to succeed in the long-term, work must continue to strengthen the skills of professionals involved.
“The Diversion and Mediation Programme is very important because it prevents stigmatization of the child and positively influences public safety due to the decreased rate of re-offending,” says Teona Kuchava, Juvenile Justice Programme Officer at UNICEF. “But the quality monitoring mechanism should further be strengthened, as should cooperation and coordination among all agencies involved at central and local levels. The number of social workers needs to also increase, along with the number of programmes tailored for individual needs.”
Irakli is now in his final grade at school and wants to take a culinary course. Though the Diversion Programme has now ended, he still maintains contact with his social worker.
“The Diversion Programme was everything for me. It changed my life,” says Irakli, “I do everything I can now to become a good person.”
Irakli reflects on how his life has changed for the better since that November day when he broke the law, as he walks through a park in Tbilisi.