Highly vulnerable teens in Tasmania are an issue beyond politics
Over the past year, I have been doing just that. With Anglicare Tasmania I’ve worked on Too hard? Highly vulnerable teens in Tasmania, a report which seeks to describe and make sense of the realities of young Tasmanians often seen as too hard to help.
In contact with child protection and youth justice services, police and homelessness services, this is a group of young people aged 10-17 whose complex needs overwhelm the capacity of any one service.
In mapping the lives of these teens and through in-depth interviews with a range of workers who directly support them, the project illustrates trajectories of high vulnerability.
This begins in early childhood and only deepens in adolescence.
The project makes a case that these young Tasmanians are in urgent need of support of services with the capacity for intensive, relationship-based, therapeutic care.
It is a significant challenge to fully understand the intensity of suffering and trauma in the lives of these children, and the burden of adult responsibilities they bear.
Eventually, at between 10 and 13 years, young participants in my research described reaching breaking points at which their mental and physical health began deteriorating dramatically.
They would eventually run away and live precariously to escape family violence, abuse and neglect.
As one young person described it, “I just couldn’t take it anymore”.
The descriptions the young people gave of their lives were resoundingly confirmed through my interviews with a wide range of people who work with them in both the government and non-government sectors.
These service providers described the inadequate service response to the profound complex trauma and neglect they saw these young people experiencing.
They spoke of a dire mismatch between the long-term, therapeutic, relational care needed and the current reality of revolving referrals between short term and uncoordinated interventions.
So here’s the problem: if you are a Tasmanian child aged 10-17 who is not able to receive care through your family, what do you do? Where do you go? Who do you go to?
The Tasmanian community might expect that Child Safety Services would provide the holistic response needed by highly vulnerable teens.
However, what emerged in my discussions, including with Child Safety staff, was that there are not adequate placement options in out-of-home care for children in this age group and circumstances. Without such options, there is little incentive for concerned adults to seek child protection orders for them.
In the absence of a Child Safety Response, there are some homelessness services which provide support and accommodation for a limited time — but only from 13 years old.
These children don’t fit the criteria to access mental health support through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, and there is no residential drug and alcohol detoxification and rehabilitation service available for them.
Many service providers — including early intervention police, youth justice workers and youth workers — felt they just helped these young people lurch between crisis after crisis.
With such glaring gaps in specialist support, service providers felt unsupported in their own professional practice and were often distressed witnesses to young people’s long-term cycles of homelessness and suffering.
Our safety nets are too thin.
If we don’t want to see highly vulnerable teens hit the ground, then we need to listen again to what it is they need to be held safe.
What I heard and what the research report clearly documents, is young people’s overwhelming need for care.
When care and protection, for whatever complex reasons, are not available within families, they need to be provided and fully resourced in a way that works for vulnerable teens.
Our response should not be driven by political cycles, contracting processes or bureaucratic politics.
To be clear, what I’m talking about here is fulfilling our obligations to provide, not just daily care and shelter, but a loving home in its fullest sense to the children and young people in our community.
We need a new suite of innovative care services available to young people regardless of their child protection status. This will include both medium and long-term trauma-informed residential care services as well as long-term, assertive and therapeutic outreach.
The development of a service system actually aligned to the high needs of young people is reliant on leadership, good policy development and service innovation.
The Tasmanian community and State Government need to be genuinely responsible and accountable for the care needs of these young Tasmanians.
Let’s stop criminalising kids for the personal and systemic harm that adults inflict, and start acting like a community that takes care of its own.
Dr Catherine Robinson is a Social Researcher at the Social Action and Research Centre, Anglicare Tasmania