Mark Morrissey, Mercury
13 July, 2017
IT would be difficult to read Anglicare Tasmania’s report Too Hard? Highly Vulnerable Teens in Tasmania and not be profoundly affected.
The report has powerfully and articulately captured the voices and experiences of a group of highly vulnerable young Tasmanians who have fallen through the gaps.
Over the last few years in my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People the needs of this particular cohort of young people have been at the forefront of my mind.
This report is not just another dry hypothetical research paper — it is a report that has captured the lived experiences and voices of these young people who are members of our community, with a right to a better life than many currently have.
I have met many young people across Tasmania with similar experiences to those described in this report. We walk past them in our shopping centres. They couch surf in our suburbs. They sleep rough on our streets. Many are in their early teens. At times, they are younger. Some of these young people have told me that they feel so desperate that they break the law so that they can go to Ashley Youth Detention Centre where they have shelter, food and stability, even if for a short time.
I welcome this report because it provides a unique insight into the complex challenges faced by all involved in trying to better address these young people’s needs, as well as presenting us with a range of solutions and opportunities to break the cycle these young people are in.
From this report, it is clear that we have failed these young people. As the report says at page 37, the young people interviewed powerfully described: “The detrimental impacts of the failure of adults in their lives to protect and care for them. A powerful picture of pervasive, accumulated feelings of abandonment emerged. In contexts — not always violent — in which care and protection were absent, young people described a rapid and very stressful transference to adult roles and activities including care work and independent living. This resulted in young people feeling disconnected from ‘normal life’, out of their depth, adrift and alone.”
The young people interviewed also described how they continue to live their lives in circumstances of high vulnerability while dealing with the impacts of cumulative childhood trauma and feelings of deep distress. These young people experience exclusion from school, homelessness, stigmatisation, poverty, ongoing exposure to violence and abuse, drug and alcohol misuse, mental health issues and at times conflict with the law.
And then, to compound the situation, these young people describe how social institutions such as schools, health services and community sector organisations are often ill-equipped to respond appropriately to their complex needs.
It is important to also consider this report in the context of a young person’s life trajectory — beginning at birth and going forward into adulthood. Early intervention and prevention from before birth onwards is critical.
An investment in the first 1000 days of a child’s life is a much better option than interventions once the damage and trauma has occurred. This report focuses on those who often have not had a good start to life but, as we know, it is never too late to take steps to improve a young person’s trajectory.
This report is correct in stating that for many of our existing services, this group of children and young people are “too hard” to effectively work and engage with. Despite the commitment and dedication of many hard-working professionals, the service system is not structured appropriately to deal with young people such as these.
The Tasmanian Government’s recently announced Youth at Risk Strategy is a positive step forward. But this strategy will require a long-term commitment and adequate resourcing by this and subsequent governments. The operationalisation of this strategy will also require a strong evidence base, backed up by close collaboration with and co-operation by all services involved. And, most importantly, ongoing consultation and meaningful discussions must be regularly held with these young people to ensure what is offered will genuinely meet their needs. We cannot develop an appropriate service system response for these young people without listening to their insights and wisdom.
Research shows that young people must be involved and consulted if we are to develop programs that are effective. The report’s author Dr Catherine Robinson is to be applauded for consulting with both the young people themselves and the agencies who at times struggle to support them.
The issues raised by Anglicare in this report are not new issues. They are also not unique to Tasmania. But they are issues about which we are becoming increasingly aware.
As a community, there is no doubt that we have a clear obligation to do whatever we can to ensure that every Tasmanian child has the same opportunities to reach their full potential.
Our responses to this particular group of children cannot be dismissed with simplistic responses. As Anglicare’s report shows, the issues are much more complex — we need to develop new and better ways of responding to these young people.
There is much work to be done. The current systems and strategies have not worked well for many of these highly vulnerable young people — innovative ways of working with and for them must be found so that they are no longer left in the “too hard” category. To address their holistic needs, these young people need ongoing, intensive support which is tailored to their individual circumstances.
These children deserve and have a right to better care and supports than they have received. This is the challenge that must and can be met.
Mark Morrissey is the Commissioner for Children and Young People.