A local community service is working to stop Inverell’s young Aboriginal people from joining the over-representation of Indigenous youth in Australia’s jails.
The Helping Hands program, based at the Linking Together Centre, has been established specifically to work with Aboriginal kids at risk of incarceration or other issues that could make them particularly vulnerable to participating in criminal activity.
The program is open to young people age 12 to 20.
Some of the kids are referred when they are already in juvenile detention but soon due for release; while others are referred by the police, Juvenile Justice or other services before they are convicted of an offence.
The logic behind the program is straightforward.
“Jail is not teaching them anything,” Helping Hands case worker Brock Hobday said. “They get out and they don’t know any different.
“Half the time they don’t know what’s available or what they can do.
“This program is about teaching them they can do good things and be trusted by the community.”
Mr Hobday and fellow case worker, Michelle Williams, are funded to work on a one-to-one basis with up to 20 young people.
Programs run for 12 months with the possibility of re-referral if needed. Although attendance is not compelled by bail conditions or other legal orders, there is a waiting list of young people wanting to join.
“We don’t tell the kids what to do [and] we never threaten them,” Ms Williams said. “We’re there to assist with re-engaging [them] in the community, with their families, with their education.”
Helping Hands starts by working with the young person on a plan that reflects their interests, what they would like to be able to achieve and how they can achieve it. But it’s not as simple as writing a ‘to do’ list of goals.
Less tangible qualities like self-respect and trust can be hard to instill but their development is encouraged in the exchange between case worker and teenager.
“We don’t start the day thinking we’re going to change all these kids lives. These things take time and we work at it every day,” Ms Walker said.
She explains it takes small steps to gain self-respect, belief in one’s own abilities, a sense of pride in self and community, to develop self-responsibility and learn how to make good decisions.
“People are not born to get into trouble,” Ms Walker said. “It all stems from somewhere. At some point … the lines between right and wrong have become blurred.”
Mr Hobday explains that most of the problems come from issues that kids don’t talk about such as experiences with domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and other “taboo” subjects.
“Everything is confidential. If they want to open up they can [but] we don’t force it,” Ms Walker said.
The work is intensive, pragmatic and often unpredictable ranging from driving kids to school or TAFE (that includes getting them out of bed in time to make classes) to organising outdoor activities, providing counselling support or attending court as an advocate.
“We’re pretty motivated,” Michelle said.
“We have a lot of success stories,” Mr Hoday explains about what helps to keeps him inspired. He gives the example of a recent scholarship winner who has gone from having trouble getting out of bed to turning up for 30 hours study each week.
In noting Australia’s disproportionately high number of Indigenous young people currently under youth justice supervision, Mr Hobday adds: “We’re working to lower that rate.”
The Helping Hands program is funded by the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.