By KIERAN FINNANE
As the Royal Commission into Child Protection and Youth Detention in the Northern Territory proceeds, major reform of both systems is underway. Youth justice has been moved out of Corrections into the Department of Territory Families where it will be integrated with the full array of family and community services, including an overhauled child protection system.
“Give us 12 months and you’ll see a completely different philosophy in this space of youth justice and child protection,” says Deputy CEO of Territory Families, Jeanette Kerr.
Corrections officers still working in juvenile detention centres will be transitioned out and replaced by youth justice officers and youth workers, recruited and trained by Territory Families. This should be accomplished within six months, perhaps a little longer, says Ms Kerr.
They will initially be based in existing facilities but, while there will always be a need for secure custodial settings, the focus will be on education and training, not punishment. There will also be an effort to keep children who are detained as close to family and community as possible.
Ms Kerr has taken leave from her position as Assistant Commissioner of Police to manage the operations side of Territory Families as the new agency is built. The CEO, Ken Davies, is responsible for overall strategy. He is also the lead CEO of a cluster of agencies, called Children and Families, that aligns Territory Families with Health, Education, Police, and Housing.
“This will make it easier for us all to work in a coordinated way.
“With youth justice, detention of course is a last resort, but you need viable alternatives. There are some out there that are brilliant, others that probably don’t have a good evidence base. It’s about us looking for other alternatives, like supported bail programs, supported accommodation programs, training pathways, ‘through care’ from youth justice back into community, into work, education, something productive.
“So if a child leaves detention, we’ll be there, wrapping around them, making sure they’ve got support. There’ll be a plan. If they have to come back into the child protection system, so be it, but their case managers and program supports will come with them.
“Child protection case workers will support young people in the youth justice system. If they are in detention they’ll work to to get them out, and into supported accommodation, supported bail programs, community sentencing options perhaps. If they go back into the youth justice system, they’ll have their original caseworkers and relationships following them.
Left: Hope for a different future. Image from the Alice Springs protest that followed the ABC’s Four Corners expose of the NT’s harsh juvenile justice system, prompting the Royal Commission. Photo by ERWIN CHLANDA.
“But there will be a very strong focus up front on early intervention, trying to stop kids getting into the child protection system and youth justice system in the first place. This is a huge philosophical shift, a good one, more just. It will mean that fewer children will be incarcerated.
“I say again, there have to be viable alternatives, but if we just keep locking kids up, we just keep growing the business of locking kids up.”
Ms Kerr gives an example of young people on the street who come to the notice of police – “they might be skylarking”. In the past there might have been a referral to the Department of Children and Families. If no maltreatment of the young person was found, at least not to a level of neglect, and there was no misdemeanour, then the case got closed off.
Now Territory Families is going to focus more on the front end, do more holistic assessments, look for alternative programs for kids before they get into trouble, look at daily support before they come into the protection system.
How early will interventions be taking place? Congress has stressed that early childhood is the key.
“Absolutely!” says Ms Kerr. “There’s talk about programs for mums with first babies or all mums with babies, community education around alcohol use and pregnancy. We know we have a huge problem of children with FASD.”
At this time of tight budgets for the whole of government, won’t the new approaches require a lot of resources, need a lot more people?
“A lot of people are already there!” says Ms Kerr. “It’s a matter of stopping duplication, bureaucracy, red tape, garnering energy and resources and putting them back on the front line.
“This is a real opportunity. More numbers don’t do a better job, it’s about innovation, training, professional development, spending money on programs that work, and fostering a better workforce culture.”
And it’s also not all about what the department can do on its own. They will be heavily involved in co-creation of programs and initiatives with non-government organisations (NGOs).
“There are so many capable NGOs out there with a huge amount of experience working in the field, some of them for decades. We need to leverage off that knowledge and off local knowledge.”
There will be a very strong emphasis on evaluation, which will go hand in hand with a strong focus on fiscal management – “making sure we spend our money well”.
Programs and initiates will be evidence based.
“When there’s a new initiative, we’ll have the evaluation framework set up before the initiative goes live, so that we are not chasing our tails after it’s been going for a while, trying to work out if it works or not. We’ll keep what works, keep working on testing what’s promising, and things that aren’t working or are duplicated, we’ll shed.
“We’ll work with NGOs that can demonstrate evaluated results or help them set up evaluation frameworks, help them collect the data, not data for data’s sake, but data that identifies the outcome sought.”
Ms Kerr says there is a lot of good will in the community and amongst NGOs towards this new way of doing business. Within the department, the focus is on “the future and positives”:
“It will take some time to shift the culture within a huge agency with a lot of people. We can talk about trust and transparency but we have to prove it to our staff, that we’ve got their back, we will support them.
“We want them to go out and do these things in a new way and if someone makes a mistake, we’ll look at it and fix it as best we can, as quickly as we can. We won’t take a punitive approach. Acknowledging mistakes should be seen as an opportunity, to see how to do it better next time. That’s a significant mindset shift for agencies that work in high risk areas.”
On this site: ‘Out of home care’ system broken, Royal Commission told by KIERAN FINNANE
In The Saturday Paper: NT royal commission and the youth justice system by KIERAN FINNANE
Major reforms underway in youth justice, child protection
By KIERAN FINNANE