Building relationships with ‘difficult-to-engage’ young people: Changing practice, reducing offending

Dr Marg Liddell1* & Dr Diana Johns2

1 RMIT University, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies
2 University of Melbourne, School of Social & Political Sciences


Young people in frequent conflict with the law are typically construed as ‘difficult’: difficult to engage; difficult to work with; difficult to change. Where young people’s challenging behaviours intersect with and/or manifest broader social problems, such difficulty can be exacerbated by negative, unhelpful or even harmful community and justice system interactions. This paper argues for a relationship-focused, social-ecological approach to understanding young people’s offending. This model provides a long-term strategy that supports young people’s positive identity development in their social context. We draw on two studies ‒ an evaluation of a program supporting young people of African refugee background in inner-west Melbourne, and research on young people involved in ‘prolific’ offending in Wales. Strong parallels exist in 1) the young people’s experience of the justice system, 2) their exclusion from mainstream services and 3) effective practice. Our findings illustrate the importance of taking time, building trust, and a positive strengths-based, relational approach to working with young people in their social and community context. We argue these elements are essential to gain access to, engage with and support individuals and communities to create positive outcomes for vulnerable young people involved the criminal justice system.


Marg Liddell PhD, Senior Lecturer in Justice and Legal Studies discipline at RMIT University, Melbourne. Research interests include: vulnerable populations such as Sudanese and Pacific Islander young people; child abuse and child exploitation issues; youth and female offenders.

Diana Johns, PhD, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne,School of Social and Political Sciences. Research interests include: young people in conflict with the law; vulnerable people in the criminal justice system; post-prison reintegration; and youth justice.

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