Talking point by Kitty te Riele – The Mercury, August 2017

Meg Webb News and Media, Opinion Pieces and Public Commentary, Young People

IT is always harrowing to read of the experiences of young Tasmanians who have been let down by their families.

It is even more confronting that often these same young people have been let down again by our systems and services.

The report Too hard? Highly vulnerable teens in Tasmania by Anglicare’s Catherine Robinson makes these experiences visible. Showing us the adversity of these young people’s lives is a crucial first step to making better support a priority. And this must be a priority for at least two reasons.

First, in a relatively wealthy society such as ours it is unacceptable that children and young people have such traumatic experiences, simply because of the coincidence of the family into which they were born.

Report author Dr Catherine Robinson with co-ordinator of sport services Mardie Blair. Picture: RICHARD JUPE

Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia ratified more than 25 years ago, states: “Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them”.

Yet, estimates in the Anglicare report suggest every day hundreds of teens in Tasmania are homeless, under Youth Justice supervision, or in need of child protection.

Second, as the report so vividly highlights, too often the complexity of our systems and services can add to children’s trauma and neglect instead of protecting and supporting them.

Of course this is not wilful. However, the way services across government departments and non-government agencies are structured, funded, focused, and located means the safety net for highly vulnerable young Tasmanians simply has too many gaps.

The good news is that it is possible to better support these children and young people by changing the ways that services are set up.

Kayla (a pseudonym), one of the 16 young people who told their life story for the report, was often absent from school because of poor health, which in turn was due to homelessness: “I went to grade 7 and only done half a year because I was really sick [a result of rough sleeping]. And then I’m in grade 8 now and I got kicked out”.

Improving the lives of young people like Kayla is hard. But as a society can we afford (legally, morally, socially as well as economically) to give up and say it is ‘too hard’?

The Anglicare report provides clues to what is possible.

In contrast to Kayla’s experience, schools can be a protective factor in young people’s lives.

As a youth worker in the report said: “the school is sometimes a really safe place for the kids to go”. There are positive signs that this will increasingly be the case across Tasmanian schools.

The 2017-18 Tasmanian Budget included a significant focus on supporting student wellbeing based on the recognition that “wellbeing is critical to ensuring Tasmanian children and young people are successful learners”.

School health nurses, speech pathologists, psychologists and social workers bring professional expertise inside schools that complements the knowledge and skills of teachers.

The renewed focus on engagement programs (such as RADAR and SPACE in the north, and EdZONE in the south) offers valuable specialised support.

These programs are much smaller than most schools, enabling staff to offer more individually tailored support and, crucially, to develop constructive and trusting relationships with young people.

For any young person, school is one of the most important institutions in their life.

This is why the renewed focus on wellbeing and engagement, alongside learning, in Tasmanian schools is so welcome.

But schools cannot do this work alone.

To tighten the safety net for vulnerable children and teenagers, whole of government and interagency initiatives such as the Youth at Risk Strategyand Safe Homes Safe Families are vital and warrant bipartisan support. This is not about multiplying the number of agencies and workers involved in a young person’s life, but rather about better co-ordination among services.

A youth worker in the report explains: “they need one key worker that can organise and support them in organising all these other things for them … they need someone to listen to them, someone to support them in prioritising their needs and for people to work together effectively”. Especially when the rest of their lives is chaotic, the stability of a small number of professionals who know their story can make a world of difference for vulnerable young people.

Finally, everyone in the community can help. Young people like Kayla need us to recognise their life experiences.

For that, I highly recommend reading Too hard? Highly Vulnerable Teens in Tasmania.

Professor Kitty te Riele is the Deputy Director (Research) at the Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment at the University of Tasmania.