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Views of vulnerable children must guide justice policy and services

“I want a life for myself and I want a job when I get out of [Banksia Hill] cos I’m sick of it. Like, this life we live is not sustainable, if you get what I mean. Like, we can’t keep going the way we go. You can’t keep on doing crime, cos this is the way we end up, in here.”

This is the voice of a young person who at the time was detained at Banksia Hill Detention Centre in Canning Vale.

When I read this quote I can hear the exasperation in her voice, the deep dissatisfaction about where her life is, and her desire to create a better future.

Recently I have read many similar quotes that are now part of a report on a consultation my office ran with 92 young people in detention or sentenced to a community supervision order, Speaking Out About Youth Justice.

These young people are in most instances victims themselves – of terrible neglect, family violence, emotional abuse or a range of other traumas that have led them to require intervention by government agencies.

Given the significant adversity these young people have experienced, the enduring resilience they exhibited through the consultation is remarkable. Many are in a fight for their survival.

But this resilience alone is not enough for them to break free from the cycle of disadvantage they face.

There has been much public commentary recently about children and young people in contact with the justice system, the issues they experience and what is required to reverse some of the concerning trends.

What has been missing from the recent debate and, more importantly, from policy and service reform, is the views of children and young people themselves.

I do not condone illegal or anti-social behaviour and it is important for young people, like everyone else, to repay the community for any offence they commit, but this must be achieved by addressing the underlying causes of their behaviour.

The young people that participated in the youth justice consultation clearly identified family dysfunction – particularly ingrained criminal activity, alcohol and drug abuse, a lack of structure and boundaries, family violence and mental health issues – as the main reason they became involved in crime.

Young people’s voices tell us that we must work far more intensively with struggling and dysfunctional families from the earliest stages of a child’s life.

These supports must be comprehensive and include mental health, drug and alcohol, and parenting services – they must reach out into families’ homes and not rely on struggling parents to initiate contact.

The proposed mapping of parent services to be undertaken by the new Centre for Parenting Excellence will be very important in ensuring good, effective services reach the families that need them most – currently this is not the case.

In the consultation young people also described the supports they need to overcome their offending behaviour.

One of the key supports they said they need is long-term, positive relationships with adults they can trust, which is completely missing in many of their lives.

Role models and mentors were identified as crucial, and the young people could clearly articulate what makes a good role model.

It is essential young people in the justice system have regular contact with professional adults they can relate to and trust, and these staff must be adequately trained and supported to manage the often difficult and challenging behaviours presented to them.

Once a young person comes to the attention of justice agencies, every individual contact they have with adults (including police, court and justice staff) must be focussed on rehabilitation.

The final point I wish to make is the value of taking the time to listen to these young people.

In the course of these consultations it was remarkable how, with some empathy and persistence from staff, young people were willing to open up and speak candidly about their lives.

These young people want to be heard, and they want to be provided the opportunity and a clear pathway out of their troubles.

Responding to young people’s insights in this complex area will deliver an improved justice system and a safer society for all of us.

Colin Pettit, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA

*As submitted to WA Today 7 December 2016


The full report of Speaking Out About Youth Justice is available here.