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Look Who's Coming To Dinner: Cops Invite Themselves To Homes Of Young Criminals

In Switzerland, police officers and educators invite themselves to dine with kids under investigation, and their families, in a new effort to get both parent and child to understand the consequences of criminal behavior.

Swiss police (Kecko)
Swiss police (Kecko)
Catherine Cossy

ZURICH - You have to picture the scene. It's still early in the evening. The teenager is slouching a bit in his chair, avoiding eye-contact with his parents. The atmosphere is tense. Drinks and food have been served to the two guests who have taken a place at the family dinner table. Though the basics of the visitors are already known, everyone is now waiting for them to explain the exact purpose of their presence.

"My son hasn't done anything serious," the mother slips in once again. That's Martin Niederer's cue. He introduces himself: he's a police officer, a member of the Zurich juvenile division; his fellow guest is a representative of the prosecuting authorities. Niederer then asks the youngster to tell as accurately as possible what he did to find himself in the sights of justice.

The young man in question - in 90% of cases, they are boys - complies because he knows that this would be even more unpleasant if the two visitors were to tell the story in his place.

In Zurich, the police juvenile department and the youth court have been working together for the past two years on a new project. A policeman and an educator - responsible for conducting a background check on the juvenile delinquent's friends and relatives - go to the families of minors under investigation for violent behavior, including assault and battery, robbery, and other such crimes.

The purpose of this process? "We want to reach parents and get them involved in the proceedings. And also encourage them to take things into their own hands when it comes to the education of their children," says Niederer, who has participated in 25 such visits.

As it turns out, parents have usually heard only their kid's side of the story, that is, a somewhat watered-down version of what happened. For example, they know that things got heated on a Saturday night, and that a few punches and kicks were thrown. That the police came and that they asked a few questions.

"We don't know his friends'

The parents are usually in for a big surprise, and discover an altogether less inoffensive reality. Behind his small glasses, the 30-something, blue-eyed Niederer explains how it usually goes down. "When the son finishes his story, the father and the mother have a wide-eyed expression on their face. The mask disappears. Almost every time, that's when a visible change occurs. The parents, who were very suspicious at first, gradually open up and become more willing to discuss the problems they face with their son. ‘He always does what he wants anyway" and ‘We don't know who his friends are," are among the comments we hear most often."

Of course, the parents have been informed of the ongoing investigation, and were asked to show up – sometimes on several occasions -- at the police station. "But most of the time, we've got the feeling that they're not grasping just how serious the situation is. This may come from the way they were presented the facts, but it is mostly a psychological barrier. They want to believe that nothing really happened," the policeman says.

This protective shell is now shattered to pieces. Once the conversation is engaged, Martin Niederer, who practices martial arts, takes the opportunity to explain before the whole family the consequences of the blows that were dealt. Often, the young person went for the head, or even kept on hitting someone who had already fallen to the ground. In some cases, the injuries sustained are severe enough for the delinquent to be later sentenced to preventive detention.

"We give examples of cases that really happened, and it's all the more striking. Almost all the kids say they were unaware of how dangerous their actions were." The presence of siblings can also have a favorable effect. It is not uncommon for a big brother to assume a very active role. He sometimes knows more about the situation than the parents, and will better be able talk to his younger brother.

Going to the juvenile deliquents' homes is what makes this project original. "Everywhere, people agreed to welcome us, and some families had even prepared a meal for us. Both parents were always there, even in the case of divorced or fighting couples. It was a surprise to us. I mean, the State is basically sitting in your living room," jokes Niederer.

But the State is not there for investigation purposes. There will be no questioning of the young defendant. These visits are not seen as an intrusion into the private sphere. On the contrary, the parents – often of foreign origin - tend to greatly appreciate their presence.

Taking a first look back on the 25 home visits that took place over the past two years, it turns out that the families feel they have been taken seriously and are grateful that someone took the trouble to visit them. This helps build trust and eases the implementation of measures that can be ordered by the court: institutionalization of the child, therapy, family follow-ups, etc.

The City of Zurich has to decide in early 2012 if this project will continue. Martin Niederer, the only policeman in the juvenile division to conduct these visits, would love to be able to convince other colleagues to join him. Why is he putting so much effort in moving away from the classic image of a cop? "I really believe that for once, we can still change the way things are with young people."

Read the original article in French

Photo – Kecko

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