Transcript — Preventing pathways to the youth justice system
Hello, and welcome to our Sentencing Matters podcast on youth justice.
Voiceover (music): Sentencing matters - a podcast that informs, engages and advises on sentencing issues in Queensland.
I'm Dan Rogers, a member of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council. The Council's role is to inform, engage, and advise on sentencing matters in Queensland. One way that we do this is through our Sentencing Seminar Series. Our Youth Justice Seminar looked at the journey of a fictitious young person called Jake.
Jake found himself involved in the criminal justice system. Jake's dad, Aiden, is Aboriginal, and lives in a regional centre of Queensland. His parents were in a casual relationship when his mum, Sheree, discovers she's pregnant. Sheree's mother kicks her out, and the couple live in a shared house where alcohol and drugs are heavily consumed and a violent relationship develops. It's clearly not the best start to Jake's life.
When Jake is seven, his parents have separated, and his stepdad is physically and emotionally abusive. Child Safety gets involved after a spate of incidences, and Jake ends up in out of home care. He has anger issues, and he becomes involved in fights. By the time Jake's 10, he's struggling in school, and has a reputation as a difficult kid. While truanting one day, he's caught for shoplifting, which was his first interaction with police.
Step forward to the age of 14, and Jake's only marginally involved with school. He's been in and out of foster care and is now in a residential care facility. He gets into a fight and police are called on potential charges of wilful damage, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Over the next few months, Jake is in and out of trouble with the police, until he is charged with trespassing, possession of a dangerous drug, and wilful damage. At 18, his parents are long gone, he hasn't finished school. He's out of the youth justice system, but has a reasonable juvenile criminal history.
In our Youth Justice Seminar, we had a panel of guests speaking and discussing Jake's life. One of the panel members Cheryl Leavy is joining me for this edition of Sentencing Matters to further discuss Jake's life course from the perspective of the Queensland Family and Child Commission.
Cheryl is the Commission’s Deputy Commissioner and has extensive experience and expertise engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations. She is a Kooma, Traditional Owner, and her country is in southern inland Queensland between Cunnamulla and St George.
Hello Cheryl. It's nice to see you and thank you for joining us in our Sentencing Matters podcast.
Hi Dan. Just listening to that story back again, really moved me. It's incredible how connected we became to that story of Jake during the panel discussion. You've just reminded me again of how moving Jake's story is. It's hard to believe that this story is fictitious, I guess, in so many ways, because it's so close to the experience of too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are growing up in Queensland today. Isn't it?
Look, you're exactly right. It's typical of the tragedy that affects many young people in terms of their life trajectory and the incredibly difficult social environment, which they need to try and grapple with.
I was most keen to talk to you more about the role of the QFCC, and in particular, in the Sentencing Seminar you mentioned a resource that the community can access in order to help people to have difficult conversations with those around them if they have a concern about the welfare, or the safety of a child.
Absolutely. The reason why is because keeping Queensland's children safe is a job for the whole community. Protecting children is absolutely everybody's responsibility. It's everybody's business. It's one of the most important jobs that there is.
Every single child deserves to feel safe. They deserve to feel cared for. They deserve to feel protected. And to my mind, I really love this one, it's a line that a lot of people use, but I feel very strongly connected to this. Every child should be able to reach the fullest of their potential, whatever that is and every one of us has a role in helping to make that happen. That's why the Queensland Family and Child Commission, peak bodies, government, and non-government organisations are all committed to working together.
One of the things that the Queensland Family and Child Commission did was to build a Protecting Children online learning module. It's completely free, and it provides professionals and the community with the information they need to help keep children more than safe. So, if you're worried about a family or child, and you want to do something about it. You don't want to just keep thinking about it, worrying about it, staying up at night worrying about a family that might live next door. It might be a family that's at your school. It might be family that's at your sporting club.
It gives you some ideas on what to do next. It gives you some ideas about even how to think about the situation. What does abuse or neglect even look like? How might a child present? How might their behaviour change a little? You can go online and watch some animated videos that step you through a few different scenarios where you can learn to spot what the behaviour looks like, and you can connect with this resource by going through QFCC's website.
As part of learning your role, there are lots of different options that are available to people. You might provide support to the family. You might do that by deciding to talk to the child. You might decide to talk to the family. It can be really tricky trying to navigate a conversation like that can’t it? It's a very difficult conversation to approach.
And I imagine that for a lot of individuals who are concerned about a particular child, would feel really torn between wanting to do something, and not knowing what to do. But also respecting the privacy of the family unit. Obviously, as you say, there is a duty on us all to do something if we are concerned about the safety of a child, and it sounds like a great resource to help us navigate those really difficult waters.
That's right. It really does help you to come up with some ideas about how you might approach the conversation. What you might say. The key for me is thinking about it from the point of view of the child and the family and being helpful and supportive, as opposed to thinking about it in terms that we might have in the past, in terms of the Australian psyche, of butting in where it's not your business, or dobbing, or that type of thing. It's not about that at all. It's about providing support.
If a child comes to you, for example, and reports that they are feeling abused or neglected, or there's been some kind of incident that they need to reach out about, this online learning module will help you. It will teach you how to approach that conversation. It's really quite simple. There's two things you need to do. One is, thank the child. Thank the child for being brave enough for coming to you and talking to you. It's really important that when you're doing this, you don't get too earnest. You don't come across as being panicked or stressed, or upset, or overwhelmed by the conversation yourself. Modelling being calm and working through the scenario with the child is really the most important thing to do.
The second thing that you should do is get as much information as you can because that information will help to support the child. Ask them open ended questions like, who, what, when, and where. That will also help inform you about what you do next. You might feel like the best thing to do would be to support the family, and to support the family and accessing the support and services that they need. You can direct them to those support services if you think that's necessary.
But, you might also decide that, in this scenario, this is quite serious. My concerns are serious. I'm going to, for example, contact child safety services.
That's an important issue, because at what point should someone in that difficult situation go one step further, and actually report the harm by contacting Child Safety Services?
The child's safety is the most important thing. When you first call Child Safety Services, you don't necessarily need to provide any identifying information at all. You might just be asking for further advice from Child Safety Services about what to do next.
When you're worried about a child suffering abuse or harm though, reporting your concerns to Child Safety Services might be an important step for you to take. They become involved when there is a reasonable suspicion that a child has suffered, is suffering, or is at an unacceptable risk of suffering significant harm, and that there may not be a parent able and willing to protect the child.
Child Safety Services will work with the family and other professionals to make sure that the child is safe and protected.
Dan Rogers: Cheryl, it's really important, isn't it, that, that traditional view that some people hold about not interfering with other people’s business is one that we put aside and accept that we all have responsibility to make that notification, and if there are some relationship consequences between the family and the individual making the complaint, then that's just an unavoidable thing that just must be confronted.
Families often don't reach out for help. Our research shows that there is a stigma around reaching out for help, and families won't do it. That's also part of community culture isn’t it, that you have been talking about.
Not only do we feel that we shouldn't get involved because it's not our business, families will also not identify that they're struggling. They're afraid of the stigma attached to that. So it's really important that some of us are a bit more proactive, and offer our support to families that we identify as maybe struggling a little bit.
What would you say to the families who are reluctant to seek help. I imagine that for those families, there's this misguided understanding that by seeking help, it might cause an intervention that they might not want.
The best ways of keeping a child safe, research shows, is keeping them strong and safe within their family. So that's always the goal of Child Safety Services and everyone working in the sector, keeping families together, and keeping them connected.
I'd like to ask you about a difficult balance. Obviously, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, they deserve to grow up safe in their own families, and in their communities. However, like in all communities, some children live in unsafe situations, and sometimes that leads to their removal from their families, their communities, and importantly, their culture.
We know that separation for culture can be an outcome if a child who is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is removed from their family. What would you say to these young people, and how do we balance that important need to protect those kids, but also be sensitive and respect those cultural considerations?
We know that cultural connectedness is one of the most protective factors to keeping children safe and within their families. Safe and strong within culture. Safe and strong within family. Safe and strong within their communities. So, how do you go about doing that? Well, cultural and community networks support safety for children. A strong and healthy cultural identity promotes healthy development in First Australian children. Research has proven that.
Cheryl, we also heard at the seminar that the Commission is doing some important work in relation to children living in residential care services, but also those children who have contact with the youth justice system, like Jake in the scenario. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
That's right, Dan. The QFCC is working with both government agencies and non-government agencies and from representatives from the residential care services themselves to improve responses for children and young people by reducing unnecessary police call outs to residential care services in Queensland. These are the kind of call outs where, if a child is living in the context of a family, there is no way anyone in the household would have called the police as a reasonable response to whatever the incident is.
When we spoke to children who are living in residential care facilities, this is one of the key issues that they brought to our attention.
We found out that young people are being reported to the police for minor incidents. For minor circumstances, and sometimes, minor offences. They are therefore sometimes being charged for minor offences. The joint agency protocol to reduce unnecessary police call outs to residential care services aims to address these key issues identified by children, young people, and residential care workers themselves that result in these unnecessary contacts so that we can reduce young people’s contact with the entire criminal justice system. Prevention being key here.
This work is the first step in addressing the criminalisation of children living in all out of home care environments, but particularly those living in residential care services in Queensland. The exposure to, and experiences of abuse and neglect make these children, children living in residential care, some of the most vulnerable in Queensland.
I found it really interesting that this protocol is being developed, and I think it's excellent to look at ways in which there can be reduced instances of police interactions with young people and, more importantly, interactions between young people and the criminal justice system.
It is increasingly understood that the earlier a child interacts with the criminal justice system, the sooner it is that that person might, either escalate their offending, or start engaging in what some people call a self-fulfilling prophecy, or labelling theory has a lot to do with it.
I think that's an excellent initiative, and I understand that the commission will have the key stakeholders in the justice system, assist the individuals once they’re at the point of the actual criminal justice system. But how important is it to try and keep kids out of the criminal justice system, or at least delay that as much as possible given the already difficult circumstances that they face?
One thing that we do know, is that the earlier you come into contact, and the more regularly you come into contact, the higher the likelihood, to keep it really simple, that you will formally enter the juvenile justice system. Then, the more contact you have with that system, the higher the likelihood that you will enter the adult system.
If we can clearly identify that this path is being set up for young people, what we really need to do is go all the way back to the beginning of this journey, and prevent contact with the system from ever occurring. If it does occur, the simplest way of putting it is to minimise the impact on the child.
Queensland sentencing laws reflect this, that rehabilitation needs to be really important, because as the Commission knows, a lot of these kids face extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and although it's easy to see the crime, and have a simple view that they should be punished, and convictions recorded, that really fails to address the social consequences of, say, a conviction being recorded, or even just fails to appreciate the circumstances which led that person to come before a court.
That's right. Again, what we know is that children who come into contact with the child protection system and the criminal justice system, have almost invariably experienced some kind of trauma. Their behaviours are often a result of that trauma. In many ways, to continue to come into contact with a systematised way of dealing with children, an institutionalised way of dealing with children, traumatises a child. We need to remove them from those sorts of traumatic environments.
The diversionary options that are available to police, who are called, or to Magistrates of children's courts are most important to minimise the impact of a criminal proceeding on a person and best ensure that, that experience doesn't prejudice their future life, and their employment opportunities, and their capacity to be a productive and useful member of society.
But, sadly, what we know is that it does. Children who come into contact with the criminal justice system, have poorer outcomes across almost every measure. Education, employment, health, and mental health in particular.
That's why the work of the Commission is so important in trying to stop that interaction before it occurs, because the future path of a child, as we saw in the example of Jake, becomes very difficult once you involve authority such as a court, or a police service, because understandably, police can't ignore a complaint and they do have to come and respond. So, that education around the impact of that process is really important.
It’s also important to remember here, that there are rights of children, and there are also rights of victims. We've got two competing rights there. Sometimes the victim, and often the victim, is another child. So, we have to be really careful about making sure that we keep that balanced.
I also want to bring the conversation back full circle, almost. Let's go back to Jake. What might have happened if someone had intervened in Jake's journey very, very early on, and provided the kind of support that Jake's parents needed at the very beginning of their lives as parents? What might have happened if Jake's mum, for example, had a friend who lived next door, or was in a play group with her, or took her child to a park down the street, took their children to the same park, went to the same school, used the same day care? Anybody. Anybody could have taken that step of reaching out and providing support, reaching out and helping to connect Jake's mum to the support services that she needed. That might have completely turned Jake’s life around.
Small actions like that at the beginning, could have a huge impact, because when you read through the rest of Jake's story after his mum first starts to struggle and they end up living in the wrong place, what if someone intervened, and they didn't end up living in that place? They lived in somewhere safer, they could have completely changed the course of Jake’s life. So, destigmatising families who are struggling, and destigmatising how we think about what it means to provide support as opposed to intervening where it's not your business, I think is a really good way to wrap up the conversation.
That's great. Thank you very much Cheryl. We really appreciate you participating in this podcast. I'm certainly going to have a further look at some of those great resources, and I encourage our listeners to do the same. I hope you enjoyed this edition of Sentencing Matters, part of our series on Youth Justice.
To hear other editions in this series, or to view the recording of our Sentencing Seminar on Youth Justice and Jake, head to our website, which is, www.sentencingcouncil.qld.gov.au. Thank you again, Cheryl.