HANGING out with a 16-year-old girl who has started drinking in the evenings with her friends, and who has a boyfriend who doesn't respect her, is a daunting prospect.
Yet social care graduate Emma Halpin believes troubled teens benefit hugely from having an adult friend from outside the family. The 21-year-old, from Lusk, is helping at-risk teenagers in her role as a youth advocate with Youth Advocate Programmes Ireland (YAP Ireland).
"I was nervous going out to her house, as I didn't know what to expect," Emma says of meeting up with the first troubled girl she was assigned to give some extra support to.
"She was 16 and was quiet and had requested a 'young and bubbly' advocate, and you want to be what they need," she says.
"In the end we had a lot in common, as we liked the same music and fashion. You get €15 a week to spend on meeting up, so we would go around the shops or go for something to eat or for a walk."
Her role was to listen to and support the teen, whose problematic behaviour included under-age drinking, an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend, and not communicating with her family.
"She had emotional issues and low self-esteem. She wasn't going to school and though both I and her mum encouraged her to go back, in the end we had to accept that she would be happier doing a FAS course. It was towards the end of the seven months I got to spend with her that she opened up about the problems she was having with her boyfriend, who was very controlling and in her space all the time," Emma says.
"Her family were behind her 100pc, but in the end she found it easier to talk to someone outside her family about how her boyfriend was treating her. A youth advocate can visit three or four times a week, while a social worker might only visit three to four times a year."
It was a success story and the teenager is now doing a course she is genuinely interested in, is closer to her mum, and has broken contact with the boy who was causing her stress and emotional distress.
Yet, Emma admits, she has found it harder to support a teenage girl with behavioural problems, and whose outbursts were caused by anger and attention deficit disorder. "I'm still learning how best to respond to some of the problems, but I'm gaining confidence in my ability to be useful," says the graduate in applied social studies and social care.
The YAP Ireland support service is provided for young people aged 10 to 18 who are at high risk of being placed in care or custody. Support of up to 15 hours a week for six months or more with the young person and their family is provided by trained community advocates like Emma.
It has been described as cost-effective, with the average YAP placement of six months costing approximately €10,200 to €11,200, compared to approximately €80,000 per year for private foster care, and up to €4,000 per week for private residential placements.
According to YAP Ireland's 2011 report, this represents savings to the HSE of up to €58,000 for 12 months' foster care, and savings of up to €197,000 for 12 months' private residential care.
Youth advocates like Emma get paid €14 an hour, and the length of time they can work as advocates is two years.
Emma hopes to bring her experience as a youth advocate forward into her future career as a social care worker. "Being an advocate means every case is different, and with my first girl I listened to her emotional problems and lent an ear and was sympathetic," she says.
"In the second case, I was dealing with a teenage girl who had behavioural problems. She was frustrated and angry and had screaming outbursts.
"On top of this, she had attention deficit disorder. Her issues might have been tied in with her mum having addiction problems and with her dad not being on the scene.
"In the end I tried to point out that she was the only person screaming, and to calm her down to the point where she could talk, and where she could decide whether she wanted to have a conversation with me," Emma says.
She unwinds at the end of a day by either going to the gym or by going jogging.
The scheme has provided Emma with a terrific chance to gain experience in her chosen field.
"I don't want to sound goody two shoes, but I'm sensible at heart, and I like having the chance to make a difference to a young person who might otherwise go down a wrong road," she added.
For more information, log on to www.yapireland.ie.