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A whole-of-government approach needed to keep disadvantaged young people on the right track

There were plenty of young Victorians already doing it tough before the 2020 bushfires and COVID-19 lockdowns. For young people with histories of trauma, drug and alcohol issues, cognitive impairments, involvement in the child protection/out-of-home care or youth justice systems, and young people culturally and linguistically diverse communities that experience exclusion and discrimination, these last few years have threatened to compound the barriers they face.

In 2021, Jesuit Social Services made a submission to the Victorian Government’s first ever Youth Strategy, based on our 45 years’ experience working with young people experiencing complex disadvantage and marginalisation.

We argued that among many interconnected measures across a range of areas, Victoria needs transitional support for young people in out-of-home care, embedded soft entry points for mental health support, and comprehensive facility-based mental health services for young people involved in the justice system, to keep young people on the right track.

Young people should not be forced to exit care before they’re ready

Young people in out-of-home care often experience high levels of complex disadvantage. Many have been through abuse, neglect, or family hardship and some have also experienced multiple failed foster care arrangements. For years, these young people have been forced to exit care the moment they turn 18, often without the skills they need to find stability on their own. Too often, young people leaving out-of-home care to experience homelessness and have contact with the justice system in the years following.

We are encouraged to by the Victorian Government’s commitment to extending care arrangements for young people in the system up to the age of 21, but are concerned that young people in residential care – often placed there rather than foster or kinship care because of challenging behaviours and high and complex needs – may still miss out on support.

Many of the referrals we receive for our supported housing and Individual Support (ISP) programs are for young people turning 18 in residential care. Our submission calls on the Government to ensure all young people exiting residential out-of-home care receive the option of accessing independent supported housing up until the age of 21.

Some young people face significant barriers to accessing mainstream mental health services

It is clear that too many young people are falling through mental health service gaps. Some may not recognise their experience as a mental health issue or, due to stigma, may avoid defining their issue as mental illness. Accessing help can be daunting and services are often limited, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, as demand continues to outstrip available services.

These barriers are compounded for some disadvantaged young people who may lack the supportive relationships that are often crucial to seeking further help. Our submission calls on the Victorian Government to further embed soft entry points for mental health support.

Our Artful Dodgers Studios is an example, offering fully equipped art and music studios for young people – with a focus on disadvantaged young people – aimed at increasing social connectedness, self-esteem and employability. Kris, an Artful Dodgers participant, says, “[Artful Dodgers is] about the arts, but if there’s anything else going on, you’re open to talk about it and try to work through it. It’s really free-from. When I’ve been in a rough patch, I’ve just been able to go in and they’re there to talk to.”

Young people in the justice system need better mental health support

Evidence shows that locking children up affects their emotional development and increases their risk of depression, self-harm and suicide. Jesuit Social Services has long advocated for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14 – in line with international standards and the advice of medical experts – and for prison to be only ever used as a last resort. If prison is used, youth justice custodial environments should provide cultural safety and physical and mental health services, drug and alcohol services, disability support, and appropriate responses to young people’s experiences of trauma.

Our submission calls on Government to establish comprehensive facility-based mental health services that provide thorough assessment and ensure appropriate follow-up interventions and services for all young people in custody. Government should embed mental health care professionals in programs addressing the difficult time when young people transition out of custody. We also argue that there is a need for re-integration facilities specifically catering to the needs of young people exiting custody.

What the Government’s strategy delivers

Young Victorians need a holistic, whole-of-government approach to address the root causes and structural inequity that marginalise and disadvantage them.

Earlier this month the Victorian Government released its Youth Strategy. A number of actions align with our recommendations; among them, expanding access to evidence-based mental health and positive wellbeing supports for all young people across the state. We are also encouraged to see Government commit to expanding the existing Home Stretch and Better Futures programs for all young people in out-of-home care up to the age of 21. But there is much more work to do.

The pursuit of a Victoria where all young people can thrive requires long-term commitment to addressing young people’s complex needs and the structural barriers preventing them from flourishing.

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