How our most troubled young people are falling through the cracks … and some possible answers



In the most extreme cases, troubled young people in Alice Springs can be surrounded by a dizzying number of services: they may have a primary case manager with an NGO; a bed and an assigned worker at ASYASS; a youth outreach worker (YORET) managing their parole amongst a case-load of 30 or so; they may be in a domestic violence program with Tangentyere and a substance misuse program with DASA; they may have St Joe’s College attempting an at-home pickup every day; be in a diversionary program with The Gap Youth Centre; be seeing a psychologist at Congress; and have a Territory Families Child Protection Case Worker that oversees all of this from afar.

But, I know from experience, it isn’t uncommon for a week to go by without anybody sighting them and that’s not through a lack of trying.

This isn’t to say that those programs are completely ineffective – they may enjoy good engagement and do meaningful work, but many who are most at risk, of harm and of contact with Youth Justice, who have high needs and may be recidivist offenders are falling through the cracks.

The young people concerned here are often highly transient – constantly on the move and staying between numerous homes. This may be to avoid certain homes where trouble is brewing or seek out others where a payment has come in so therefore the power is on and there’s more food to go around.

They are also constantly motivated by a desire to maintain contact and strong relationships with numerous family members. The same motives have many spontaneously jumping in a car and disappearing out bush.

If these young people don’t feel compelled to reach out to a service of their own volition, it is incredibly difficult to locate them, let alone have them engage with you.

We are failing them and at the same time not making headway on what many consider to be the town’s number one issue – youth-led antisocial and criminal activity.

Maybe it’s time to think beyond our usual responses.

These photographs were taken at the Meeting Place, behind Adelaide House, right in the centre of town. Run by volunteers it demonstrated the demand for a drop-in centre in the CBD as soon as it opened its doors. It could be a hive of activity; it could also be a place for young people to sleep safely (see at top and below). 

To work with troubled youth in any setting we need to acknowledge the real agency they have and accept that coaxing them into doing anything they don’t want to do is an uphill battle and usually fruitless.

Anyone who’s worked as a carer in residential care homes will know this too well. Despite there being an expectation or “rule” that the young people in care “must” go to school or be home at a certain hour, if they decide they want to skip school or walk out the door in the middle of the night, they will do so almost invariably, despite all efforts by the carers to stop them.

People are often amazed and appalled to hear how a young vulnerable person is “allowed” to make such decisions, but this is the point: As you cannot, for good reasons including legal ones, physically stop them from enacting their will, the only way to have any sway over their actions is through a strong and trusting relationship – whether someone is “allowed” barely comes into it.

The bulk of the public, including policy makers, are far removed from the youth concerned in this article. In thinking about what to do, they are likely left referencing the non-troubled young people in their own lives – who are far more inclined to take instructions and obey rules – projecting this experience onto how troubled young people may behave and what they will respond to. Not surprisingly, this is terribly misleading.

Our community’s anger that the streets are unsafe to walk through at night, that our homes are continually broken into (I certainly haven’t been spared), that at the worst of times the recklessness and chaos on the streets can result, as it did for motorcyclist Shane Powell last month, in a life being tragically cut short, is understandable.

Anger is a natural response to injustice. Indeed, it’s surely one of the prevalent emotions that motivate young people to offend. But we can’t let it lead us to irrationally support over-simplified and punitive reactions that have been proven ineffective.

With young people running riot in the street at night it is tempting to support the introduction of a curfew. It tempts us the way any proposal that employs strong language and basic notions to remedy complex issues does (like building a wall, or stopping a boat), and does so despite research “cast[ing] strong doubts on the claims that juvenile curfew laws prevent victimisation or reduce juvenile crime” and even finding that “juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive — that is a slight increase in crime.”

If the police were to attempt to remove from the street all the young people who are out at 10pm every night, I anticipate a never-ending game of cat and mouse. There’s already a culture of this – many young people have told me gleefully of times they’ve “taken coppers for a run”.

Then, if they’re caught, they might resist, possibly committing an offence. Once they’re taken home (if not into custody) most of them would simply walk back to town or roam the suburbs.

In this scenario, possibly contributing to the likelihood of residential break-ins, the allocation of extensive police resources comes at a great expense to the public in dollars as well as safety: police will surely be slower to respond to emergencies if preoccupied chasing kids and being taxi for them. 

It also achieves yet another potential point of contact with the justice system for a demographic that’s already massively over-represented in the courts and gaols, and merely shifts any anti-social and criminal activity to the suburbs and potentially into homes where people are vulnerably sleeping.

We are taught in trauma-informed practice that challenging behaviour should be understood as “acting out”; actions that demonstrate unmet need when one doesn’t have the capacity to express the need in words. If we accept that young people, choosing to misbehave on the streets late at night rather than stay at home, indicates unmet needs and psychological distress, then we should accept that any policy or measure that isn’t aimed at correcting these underlying causes is futile in a fundamental way.

Another tempting notion and popular trope is that we must “hold parents to account.” I’m often struck by the vagueness of this statement and that those voicing it don’t feel obliged to elaborate, as though it is a policy in itself.

How does one hold someone else to account in this context? I assume the idea isn’t referring to holistic service delivery where programs aim to extend inclusion and support to the families of young people in need. I assume it’s referring instead to coercive social-engineering measures such as cutting child-support payments to the caregivers of kids not attending school, or, as some have suggested, making caregivers pay for the damage to property that their children do.

The appeal of measures like this is obvious but misguided; they satisfy the desire to penalise the presumed caregiver for their negligence, but where’s the evidence that their negligence or inability to keep their young people out of trouble can be remedied with a small financial penalty?

There is ample evidence showing that impoverished communities have higher rates of dysfunction, incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence, so why would further entrenching their poverty help foster responsible caregiving?

In my experience working with young people in contact with the justice system and their families, caregivers are unable to provide sufficient supervision and care to their dependents either because their modest resources (including energy) are exhausted by the demands of large families and pressures of their struggling community, or their capacity to provide adequate care has been too badly damaged by their own history of trauma. Any effort to encourage responsible caregiving that isn’t aimed at correcting these underlying causes is futile in a fundamental way.

After years working in the youth sector close to the most at-risk, high needs, disengaged, recidivist offenders with complex trauma, I believe that only culturally-informed therapeutic practices can increase their psychological wellbeing and strengthen support networks, and that this is the only long-term protective factor against offending.

Programs must interrupt, not contribute to, the vicious, hopeless cycles young offenders exist in. There are developed frameworks informed by sound research that teach us how to work in this way; there are skilled practitioners and strong leaders ready to act; the resources are there; but the challenge of how to achieve a meaningful level of engagement from our most vulnerable young people, remains unsolved. 

Apart from the very few philanthropically funded programs in Alice Springs, all other initiatives aimed at working with troubled youth of course rely on government funding, so must have a political (and therefore public) appeal. I fear the dilemma we’re in is that a program which has any hope of engaging young offenders to a meaningful degree may have no public or political appeal in the current climate.

But, motives aside, what everyone ultimately wants is for the young people in trouble to be staying out of trouble and in safe and responsible environments, right?

We are taught in trauma-informed practice that it is counter-productive trying to talk to people about their behaviour when they are “escalated”. When they are “escalated” or “heightened” their sympathetic nervous system is “hyper-aroused”, meaning they are in fight or flight mode and have reduced executive functioning (the mental processes responsible for reflection, controlling emotions, following instructions etc).

We are taught to help them de-escalate (to assist them in calming down and “coming back into themselves”) by promoting safety, both physical and emotional. Only once they feel safe and again have access to all faculties of their brain do we attempt to address the behaviour.

Perhaps our responses to youth are hamstrung by a system where programs aimed at servicing this highly vulnerable demographic are only funded when they promise to pursue outcomes that have political appeal, and that this very mandate is what dooms the programs.

If the intended recipients have complex trauma they may simply not be ready to talk about, for example, their substance misuse or offending, or their experience of family violence. Nor do they feel calm enough to enter an educational setting.

What if there was a program for high-risk young offenders that initially put all of the usual objectives aside, and instead made its primary objective achieving nothing else but regular engagement?

Beyond supervision and occupation, ongoing engagement would allow many incidental therapeutic benefits, such as the building of strong and trusting relationships (secure attachments); exposure to good role models, with physical and emotional safety ensured by responsible adults; basic necessities such as food being secure; experiencing structure (going to the same place regularly at a certain time, seeing the same people who maintain the same regard for you and expectations of you etc) thereby providing predictability which promotes safety.

Positive senses of self and healthy life-narratives are promoted through a strength based approach and positive reinforcement, and respectful and healthy relationships are modelled. Other services needing to make contact with the young person would also benefit from having a reliable place to look for their client. All of this can be done at the same time as doing whatever it is (within reason) that keeps the young person engaged.

The program should be allowed time to achieved prolonged (say three months) and regular (most days of the week) engagement. The young person needs to have calmed, to be within their “window of tolerance”, which means the range of nervous system arousal that’s considered healthy and allows full brain function. And they need to have formed trust with the workers and one another (the work should be done with a small cohort, known to one another already). Then the difficult sensitive discussions can be attempted, and work towards outcomes like school attendance can carefully begin.

The merits of such a program reflect the thinking and frameworks I learnt working as a case manager in an intensive youth support service. Essentially case managers and support workers in various programs are permitted to work this way, but are not given the time, nor the support (they often work alone but have supervision) nor the resources to achieve regular engagement.

Tamara (Tammy) Cornthwaite painting with young people – a moment of calm and focus. Photo by David Nixon.

Even in an “intensive” (meaning a small caseload) support service, case managers will have to support, through a five-day week, around seven high-needs clients, who are the centre of their focus, as well as their families.

The working week can easily be consumed by seeking emergency relief, responding to crises, supporting young people to attend appointments (this is often the biggest challenge), diversion commitments, court appearances and so on. All of this is of course important work, but it means the therapeutic work inevitably falls by the wayside.

So how might a program seek to reach and engage the young people who have for the most part avoided all other services? I am arguing that it would be by meeting them wherever their interests lie and wherever they move to.

We can look to programs with obvious successes and at what young people outside a structured setting show interest in, but this should only provide a range of ideas that the program can offer, not a model the program is bound to by a funding agreement.

I’ve observed in my own work and in other services young people responding strongly to bike riding (especially on the mountain bike trials going way out into our calming and beautiful landscape), bush trips, playing music, dancing, cultural practices (there appears to be nothing more precious to Aboriginal youth than their Aboriginality), mechanics, hunting, and camping. 

Many young people seek out the company of their family members first, followed by members of their language groups, then Aboriginal people more broadly.

It’s evident that they wish to be visible, to be seen by the public and be amongst the community – they choose spaces in the CBD over other public youth spaces like the skatepark.

Stealing food tells us they’re hungry, running amok in town shows us that they yearn attention.

Informed by observations such as these, a program could be well prepared to offer a range of things likely to appeal to the group; it could form client cohorts of family members or language groups, be predominantly (if not entirely) run by trained Aboriginal workers and ideally of the same language group as the client; it could ensure some activities are done in the public eye; it could have at its disposal the necessary basic resources like food, bikes, instruments, tools. But importantly, it must not prescribe any of these things but rather have them as options the young people are free to take up.

I worked for years with a young fella who was, and still is, in and out of detention, predominantly for joyriding in stolen cars. I developed a close and trusting relationship with him and his family, he’d seek my support and company regularly and we engaged in numerous recreational activities together, but his interests were always fleeting.

I tried endlessly to encourage his involvement in organised sports, other programs, workshops – all to no avail. Then I caught wind of an opportunity for a troubled young person made available by local business Jetcor Yamaha.

After a series of break-ins where motorbikes were stolen and their shop badly damaged, Garth (the owner), in recognising the town’s disadvantaged young people’s obvious want for the thrills of motor sports, responded by setting up the Sadadeen Quad Squad.

This is an ongoing program where kids from Sadadeen Primary School are rewarded for their good attendance and behaviour with the opportunity to ride quad bikes at the motocross track.

Garth also offered to fix up a rally car for a young person to use as their own (paint job with their name on it and all) and race at Arunga Park Speedway.

I got in quick and Garth reserved the offer for my client. I was convinced that this would finally be the thing to grab him, it was the perfect fit, but when I gave my excited spiel there was barely a moment’s consideration before he said, “Nah, I’m right.”

He was never able explain to me why it didn’t appeal, but I learned the lesson regardless; no matter how well informed you may be about a young person and their interests, nor how remarkable an offer is, you don’t know what will stick until you try, and for some nothing at all will stick for long.

The inability to maintain focus is another deficit that those with complex trauma often experience. When you’re in fight or flight mode, you’re hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning for threats, and you therefore cannot afford to become completely absorbed in a single task.

To stay with those who spend so much time in this mode we need to remain ready to abandon an activity and move on to whatever else will sustain them. If we don’t, they will simply walk. Above all else, something just needs to hold onto them. This is why it’s important that a program isn’t shackled by a narrow mandate.

In writing this I anticipate a backlash; I can already hear the responses –“So we’re going to reward criminal behaviour with a program that provides fun activities and lets kids do what they want?”

To this I say, that thinking about these kids as criminals first and as victims of far greater injustices later, is precisely where we take the first wrong step. When a study was conducted in a Youth Detention Centre in Perth assessing the cognitive functioning of the children detained, 89 per cent were found to have a severe cognitive impairment.

Serious offending doesn’t happen in a vacuum nor does cognitive impairment; they are often the result of abuse and neglect; of trauma. Any response to these young people that doesn’t acknowledge their trauma and promote healing is futile in a fundamental way.

Let us be of big enough heart and mind to respond to the real needs of these young people, then we can begin everything else.


In publishing a story from the media on our website, the Child Protection Party is not indicating support for or rejection of the content of the story. The story is published to allow you, the public, to offer your opinions which informs the Party and helps us develop policy positions.

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