Greentown: Reducing the influence of criminal networks over children and families
Who we are
The University of Limerick School of Law is committed to serving the broader community, incorporating a multidisciplinary approach underpinned by high quality research of national and international importance. Our researchers believe that research must have an impact in the real world, providing workable solutions to the increasing legal challenges our society faces. At the heart of our approach is the breaking down of barriers, not only between different academic disciplines, but between the academic and wider community.
Research Evidence into Policy, Programmes and Practice (REPPP) in the School of Law, provides scientific support to the Department of Justice to help support the implementation of the National Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027 and aims to significantly improve the evidence base in relation to youth crime policy making in Ireland.
UL team involved in the initiative Dr Johnny Connolly, Dr Seán Redmond, Dr Catherine Naughton, Dr Jane Mulcahy
What we did
The Greentown project tackles the issue of child exploitation in criminal networks by providing practical scientific support to police and social services, schools, community and voluntary organisations, and producing evidence to inform policy and legislation in this area. A unique partnership between the Department of Justice and the University of Limerick was established to develop an evidence-informed programme capable of dealing with child grooming for crime by coercive criminalised adults.
The project built on doctoral research by Dr Seán Redmond, Principal Investigator of the Greentown project, which focused on an anonymised local area in Ireland (Greentown) examining the involvement of children in burglary and drugs for sale and supply offences. Dr Redmond developed Twinsight, a novel methodological approach to interrogating crime networks. Twinsight enables close examination of a criminal network by interviewing local police who had working knowledge of the individuals involved.
The REPPP team undertook two replication studies, Redtown and Bluetown. These three case studies strengthened the evidence that children were being exploited by coercive adults.
The REPPP team used this initial research to informed the design of a new intervention programme. The programme was designed collaboratively over two years involving scientific experts and front-line professionals. The programme aimed to reduce the influence of crime networks on targeted children and to help them to exit these networks. with Government funding of €4.2million enabling the trialling of the programme in two communities.
To help targeted children, the programme supports Non-Governmental Organisations who are specialists in evidence-based child protection and family intervention to work with vulnerable families to enable pro-social routes out of criminal behaviour and networks.
Original Greentown crime network put together by Garda analysts using crime data. This was the network originally examined for the initial Greentown study. The metodology has been replicated 4 times since.
The Greentown project has had an impact across multiple domains: for targeted children and families, on legislation and policy, and in relation to programme design and operational practice.
Twinsight provides a means for researchers to examine the locus of power and authority within networks and, critically, the crime-grooming relationships between adults and children. This enables more precise disruption of networks by statutory and voluntary partners in the Greentown trial sites. Officers reported a new awareness of the criminal network connections in their area, and they reported the value this evidence has for their policing. The Twinsight tool permits in-depth examination of networks without researchers knowing the identities of the individuals involved and so successfully navigates ethical and data protection compliance requirements. By ensuring the confidentiality of subjects involved, wider application means that researchers can be enabled to investigate complex harms involving illicit networks including child sexual abuse and terrorism without infringing GDPR or jeopardising their safety.
Children and families
Twinsight also provides a means to identify children for referral to the Greentown programme. The programme is already yielding positive results for children engaged in network activity in the two trial locations. One example relates to a 17-year-old boy who was both groomed for crime and had progressed into grooming other children, becoming both victim and perpetrator of violence. The boy’s family had experienced multiple drug-related deaths and his young siblings were delivering drugs packages. The project team worked intensively with the mother and her children. The mother is now employed and the younger siblings’ behaviour has been transformed, thriving in school. The 17-year-old has no new criminal charges; he is employed by a relative. In attributing these improvements to Greentown, local police stated that the programme ‘has done amazing work with the family’.
Legislation and Policy
Greentown has influenced the development of criminal justice legislation and the national strategy for youth justice. The Department of Justice noted that the drafting of the Criminal Justice Bill 2023 had been ‘informed by the Greentown Project’, and particularly its findings ‘that criminal networks in many areas operate coercive control over young children’. The National Youth Justice Strategy (2021-2027) also highlights Greentown, identifying as one of its key actions ‘the implementation of the Greentown pilot programme to support children under coercive control of criminal groups.’ The Department of Justice Plan 2023 similarly states that it will ‘implement the Greentown programme which provides support to the children most at risk of recruitment by organised crime groups.’
Greentown has been disseminated widely, including at the UL hosted 12th International Illicit Network Conference in 2022, and through a feature on the RTÉ Changemakers programme. The project is viewed as an example of best practice and was selected as a core case study for the Irish Universities Association / Campus Engage / Higher Education partnership for engaged researcher training.
Karl Ducque, a project worker from the TRY project in Dublin and Dr Seán Redmond taken from RTÉ Changemakers programme
What we learned
Scope to adapt project methodologies for different jurisdictions and social contexts
- Twinsight will be replicated in Northern Ireland to identify how children are recruited and retained by paramilitary organisations (funded by the North Sound Research Programme).
- Work is ongoing to replicate internationally including partnership with academics in the Netherlands.
- In December 2020, Greentown was awarded first place in the European Crime Prevention Awards with the international panel concluding that ‘the project is well-documented and as a result should be replicable in other EU countries.’
- Greentown design process has been adapted to develop a Local Leadership Programme which extends beyond youth crime, working with community leaders and representatives of statutory bodies to unravel complex community challenges and identify solutions.
The Department of Justice and University of Limerick representing Ireland winning the European Crime Prevention Award 2021
Value of inter-agency cooperation
- The dynamic nature of criminal networks requires an agile, innovative, and adaptable programme to respond to changing environments. In March 2023 a new official data-sharing protocol was developed to enable Greentown to operate efficiently and effectively, permitting information on vulnerable children to be shared between statutory agencies and community-based organisations for operational and evaluation purposes.