Relational security: conceptualization and operationalization in small-scale, strengths-based, community-embedded youth justice facilities

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Given the developmental vulnerability of justice-involved youth, providing a safe environment in secure facilities is a paramount, yet challenging task. Within this complexity, a sound security framework is key. The security framework exists on three dimensions: physical, procedural and relational security. Existing knowledge points at the importance of a shift in focus on physical and procedural security towards relational security as the core of the security framework. At the same time there is a dearth of knowledge on relational security, particularly in the context of youth justice. This paper explores relational security and its working mechanisms in practice. Methods: This paper draws on findings of a comprehensive three-year evaluation of three small-scale, community-embedded facilities that are grounded in relational security. The approach of the evaluation was derived from action research, involving a cyclic process alternating between action, research and critical reflection, while engaging all stakeholders in the research process. The action research cycle involved qualitative research (a total of 63 semi-structured interviews) incorporating the perspective of staff, youth and parents. Results: Relational security is grounded in three distinct, but interrelated, elements – staff’s basic attitude, a constructive alliance between staff and youth, staff presence – and promotes a safe and therapeutic environment through several mechanisms. Conclusions: Relational security can be defined in a practical conceptualization; outlining a way of working that guides staff in how to establish a safe and therapeutic environment in secure facilities. This conceptualization finds support in the well-established literature covering the therapeutic alliance and can be substantiated by two aligning theories concerning youth justice strategies: social-ecological theory and self-determination theory. Relational security is not only a way of working, but also a way of being. It encompasses a vision about security and mentality towards justice-involved youth that sees them not merely as ‘risks to be managed’, but primarly as ‘resources to be developed’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number99
JournalChild and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023


  • Dynamic security
  • Forensic youth care
  • Institutional violence
  • Justice-involved young people
  • Prison
  • Relational security
  • Youth development
  • Youth justice

Cite this