How Covid changed everything

Joanne Bakare works as a Senior Caseworker on our London Custody Suite Project helping divert young people held in police custody away from future involvement with the police.  Many of them are at a very vulnerable point in their lives and need the support of someone like Joanne to help them get back on track.  This is a talk she gave to Farrer and Co on how the pandemic has affected the lives of her young clients. 

"I am a custody suite worker helping young people who are often called the hardest to reach in society. They are given many labels – gang members, perpetrators, some regard them as the ‘scum of society’. However, when I step into their space, I see the starting point of something new. 

Before Covid, one of my target aims would have been getting one of my young clients engaged in education, training and/or employment. However, the pandemic changed this overnight. Where do young people go when we are told not to work? And where do people with criminal records look for jobs when many employers are shedding staff through redundancy? 

Back in April, my main concern was to ensure my young clients stuck to the lockdown rules. It was hard. For some, money from selling drugs was the main source of income in the household. No money meant no food and rent arrears. No sales meant no money to pay your debts, including the debt bondage trap that gangs exploit young people into. 

Covid gave some young people a perfect ‘excuse’ not to go out on the road (i.e dealings) and start focussing on progressing their lives in a more positive way. For others it offered an opportunity to go out and be untouchable. Mental and emotional health issues rapidly became amplified especially if you were trapped with an abuser or some who was happy to be violent towards you. 

Some became suicidal. My role changed day to day. I had to be their support system – part social worker and mental health support. I couldn’t allow anything going on for me personally to stop what I was doing. I took and made calls every day without fail. 
My job is never boring – even in lockdown both consistency and adaptability is everything.

One client who was being supported by his Mum before lockdown was suddenly on his own unable to support himself. I ended up being his weekly shopper and conducting cooking lessons with him over Zoom.

But the criminal gangs also adapted quickly too, taking advantage of social media to gain access to young people who were now going to be at home and looking to fill their time. Despite what was often said, the dealing never stopped and illegal raves and parties have become the new norm. Although stabbings slowed for a while we are worried that reprisals for old grudges and scores are simply on hold for a while and will re-emerge. 

At the time of writing this, restrictions have relaxed in London but we are seeing the fall out from where dealers lost money and there are drug shortages. Some drug users have panic brought amidst fears of another lockdown. There is a lot of tension around and old conflicts are bubbling to the surface. 

Working within and around custody suite settings means that I am working with direct cause and effect. I step in because those who are there have been arrested are at a unique point of vulnerability. I see it as my responsibility to elevate them. People say we offer support, and yes we do but the term support doesn’t take into account the amount of time I have to put in.

There are no quick-fixes and you can be working with someone for a very long time before you see big picture changes. 

Everyone is different. Support for one client might mean relocating them and helping them rebuild their life somewhere new. Support for another might mean visiting them at home for several hours nearly every day. It might mean getting a young person to see for themselves that they have been exploited.  

Nothing can be done in just one meeting. It takes time to build rapport to the point where a young person will even trust you enough to tell you their reality. 

One thing about what I do is that it takes time. But the results – always life-changing and sometimes lifesaving - make it worthwhile."