Analysis: the latest Greentown studies examine ways to reduce the 'wicked problems' of how Irish crime networks exploit children

By Catherine Naughton and Sean Redmond, University of Limerick

Horrific events have focused our attention on young people caught up in local crime networks. These events also resulted in a renewed interest in a previous Brainstorm article that highlighted the hidden threat of crime gangs to child wellbeing. We now have new evidence of network influence on children in Ireland and we can outline the steps we have taken to use this new scientific evidence to design ways of intervening with children who are embedded in crime networks. 

The Greentown study brought a serious child exploitation issue that was concealed from everyday sight into the open. Importantly, the research, which used local Garda testimony to provide detailed examination of social networks, unearthed the corrosive influences that the network had on certain vulnerable local children's offending patterns.

Young adults within the crime network targeted, groomed and recruited local children into the network. There were obvious gains for children from their involvement in the crime network due to their circumstances, chaotic home lives, involvement in problematic peer groups and being out of school. These included access to drugs, alcohol, money and more intrinsic psychosocial gains such as gaining a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Katharine Swirak from UCC and Dr Sean Redmond from UL on what can be done to prevent youths entering a life of crime

Involvement gave the children what they believed was elevated identity within their community. No longer excluded and invisible, others now both feared and looked up to them. They received rewards and praise for their criminal activity, thereby reinforcing certain behaviours, oddly normalised within the network-bubble.

However, there was also more sinister dynamics. A culture of fear within the network ensured that compliance and loyalty to members higher in a pecking order was a minimum expectation. Non-compliance and disloyalty underpinned by stories of reprisal were widely believed by many neighbourhood residents. While many children were expendable to the network’s operation, some who were considered useful, became embedded and more trusted. These children found it more difficult to leave.

What new evidence has been uncovered?

The Greentown findings are based on one, albeit carefully selected, location in Ireland. This makes it difficult to gauge whether the revelations were specific to Greentown or were also reflective of other towns or cities.

To investigate the size and shape of the problem, the research team conducted a national prevalence study tapping into the tacit knowledge of Juvenile Liaisons Officers (JLOs), specialist Garda members who work with young people in contact with the law. On average, based on responses, children presenting with 'Greentown-like’ features made up one in eight of the JLOs case-load. This equates to approximately 1,000 children across Ireland.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on the Exploitation of Children in the Commission of Offences Bill to prevent adults grooming children to commit crime

While the survey indicated a number of Greentown-like situations, it could not comment in any depth on local context. To provide additional fine-grained examination, the research team undertook two additional case studies within Garda Sub-Districts experiencing disproportionately high levels of serious crime committed by children. One study focussed on an area of Dublin (anonymised as Bluetown) and the other a provincial town (anonymised as Redtown). The studies used the same methodology as the original Greentown research.

The new studies confirmed the presence of crime networks and the exploitation of local vulnerable children with similar backgrounds to those found to be embedded in the Greentown crime network. The additional studies also highlighted sufficient differences in the ways that each network was constituted, how it operated and its relative fragility. The differences clearly suggest that individual examination is required to confidently assess operating strengths and points of vulnerability of a particular network for the purposes of intervention.

The four Greentown studies provide substantive and compelling evidence that adults within local criminal networks are exploiting as many as 1,000 children at any one time throughout Ireland. Children involved can find it extremely difficult to extricate themselves from such circumstances and their ability to exercise free choice is severely compromised. While features of these children’s situations have some resonance with the international research on children and gangs, our studies demonstrate that there is a distinctive character to the Irish phenomenon. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dr Sean Redmond on the first Greentown report into how children become engaged in crime networks in Ireland

Can these 'wicked problems' be solved?

The next task for the research team was to find an appropriate way to intervene without causing additional harm to the children at risk or communities already living in fear. The research team acknowledged that complex problems require well-designed solutions. From our review of the available programmes, we were also convinced that there was no off-the-peg solution and a specific, design-led approach to programme development was needed.

The situations we identified in our research are known in the scientific literature as 'wicked problems'. These are problems which are very difficult to shift or eradicate because they have so many moving parts. In addition, they have the tendency, unlike many simpler problems, to morph, resist, sabotage and fight back when they are disrupted and there is rarely an opportunity for a trial run.

The way to deal with wicked problems in some regards is simple: establish the problem’s size and shape, uncover the mechanisms that make it tick and tailor your solutions to make its sustenance less likely. Nonetheless, numerous solutions are routinely advocated without a detailed appreciation of the phenomenon being engaged. This can be ineffective, inefficient and dangerous.

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on how modern mathematical tools can provide police forces with a greater understanding of how criminal gangs operate

Over two years (2017-2019), we secured the help of over 60 experts, including leading international ‘illicit network’ scientists and Irish discipline experts in policing, child welfare, community activism, youth and policy implementation. We used this expertise to design an approach to reducing the influence of crime networks on children in Ireland and to stress test the emerging ideas with front-line police, social work, probation and youth practitioners, avoiding unnecessary and risky street level experimentation.

It is not possible in this article to cover the detailed deliberative process that took so much of our effort. However, we can discuss our findings and present an outline programme resting around four pillars. 

Network disruption

Tactics suggested for disrupting networks in the literature have variously recommended targeting the top level or the bottom level.

Solutions to protect children involve targeting the small number of middle-ranking recruiters as part of any strategy to stifle the sustainability of what are often multigenerational networks

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, RTÉ Crime Correspondent Paul Reynolds on just what is involved in being a member of a drug dealing or organised crime gang

Community efficacy

Localised crime networks thrive in the vacuum created and sustained by fear and intimidation. Such a regime can result in low reporting of criminal behaviour to the authorities

Solutions involve practically supporting and resourcing existing pro-social community initiatives and, where necessary, seeding new ones. Applied consistently and tirelessly, small wins sustained over a long period offer the prospect of changing a narrative of stoicism, or network-complicity by some obligated community members, to pro-social community activism.

Family efficacy

Network analysis will disclose a relatively small number of children deeply embedded in criminal activity. Our research to date indicates that such children are likely to experience multiple vulnerabilities and are likely not to experience protection from network influence by their family.

Solutions involve intensive high quality intervention, focussed in particular on improving the efficacy of parents or carers. This is a significant challenge, given that adult carers may be clients of a network by virtue of a drugs dependency or debt. Additionally it is likely that embedded families will live in close geographical proximity to, and within easy access of network actors. Nonetheless, an effective intervention yielding results similar to the Irish Bail Supervision Scheme for children, buffered by an effective network disruption strategy will offer new hope for families under siege.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show in 2019, how children as young as 12 years of age Dublin's south inner city are being induced into joining criminal gangs

Pro-Social opportunities 

Our studies have demonstrated that crime networks fulfil psychological, social and economic needs for the children involved. This is in addition to how they use pull (grooming) and push (obligation) dynamics for child recruitment and retention. 

The pro-social opportunity pillar recognises that something positive and meaningful needs to occupy the space created when network activity no longer becomes a viable option for a child. Similar to the community efficacy pillar, this area of programme activity takes as it start point existing opportunities for children to continue education, training or take up employment opportunities, but will seed and support where necessary.

There are numerous examples of individual pillar responses. Based on our evidence, however, we believe that network disruption, improved community efficacy, improved family efficacy or improved pro-social opportunities for children on their own will be insufficient to offset what is often multigenerational and multidimensional oppressive local control by crime networks.

This is the first time that the four domains have been fused together, similar in some ways to a combination therapy for a complex medical condition. While components of combination therapy are fixed, the Greentown programme requires the cooperation of human actors working across the four pillars to make it work. We believe that this level of relentless synchronicity is achievable.

The Greentown Programme has received funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund and we intend to trial the intervention in 2021. 

Dr Catherine Naughton is a Research Fellow on the REPPP project (Research Evidence into Policy Programmes and Practice) and working on the Greentown Project at the School of Law at the University of LimerickDr Sean Redmond is Adjunct Professor of Youth Justice in the School of Law at the University of Limerick. He is a civil servant employed by the Department of Justice seconded to the university. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ