Olivia lives with the rare Kleefstra Syndrome.

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Young people transitioning from out-of-home care in Victoria

Strengthening support services for clients of child protection and youth justice

By: Associate Professors Philip Mendes and Pamela Snow and Ms. Susan Baidawi, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University, Victoria, Australia

There has been longstanding concern about the over-representation of young people in the youth justice system who have a background in out-of-home care, and the lack of support these care leavers receive when they are released from custody. These ‘dual order’ child protection and youth justice clients often present with complex needs which cannot be adequately addressed within a single service sector or at a single point in the life of the young person.

Very few young people transitioning from care in Victoria are developmentally ready to live independently at 18 years of age. Many lack a supportive safety net of family or professional and/or community networks that can assist if their initial transition from care is not successful. Some directly exit care into homelessness. These problems reflect the systemic limitations of the Victorian leaving care system. Funding for post-care supports is discretionary and poorly resourced, care leavers are not provided with guaranteed and secure housing, and supports do not facilitate continuity of relationships.

Monash University, in partnership with the Commission for Children and Young People, Berry Street Victoria, Jesuit Social Services, Oz Child, The Salvation Army Westcare, Whitelion and the Youth Support and Advocacy Service, recently released the third in a series of reports looking at the issues facing dual order clients. This final report outlines recommendations to inform future policy and practice to reduce the over-representation of young people leaving care in the youth justice system.

The recommendations are based on the findings of a three year study investigating offending and youth justice involvement among young people leaving care in Victoria. The study included a review of the existing literature, interviews and focus groups conducted with 77 key stakeholders across Victoria and in-depth interviews with 15 care leavers who had experienced involvement with the Victorian youth justice system.

The findings suggest that offending behaviour among young people in out-of-home care can be conceptualised as a trauma-related outcome, taking in four main themes:

  • Young people displayed challenging behaviours which constitute criminal offending, such as assault and property destruction.
  • Young people sought to self-medicate symptoms of complex trauma through the use of alcohol and other drugs. This led to offending through lowered thresholds for challenging behaviour or offending to fund substance use.
  • Young people were exposed to offending behaviour in others, including through family and social relationships, but also through placement in residential care units and in youth justice custodial environments, which may contribute to offending behaviour.
  • Limited supports and resources in the post-care period appeared to be associated with increased risk of offending behaviour.

A trauma-informed approach is therefore useful for preventing and addressing the over-representation of young people leaving care into the youth justice system. Such an approach is consistent with the understanding that experiences of complex trauma are pervasive in the lives of dual order young people, and seeks to minimise the potential for re-traumatisation and further disconnection, as well as promote opportunities for connection and healing. While an understanding of complex trauma and its impacts is improving across various sectors which commonly work with traumatised children and youth, this knowledge and approach is not yet ubiquitous across the broader community.

The recommendations provided are underpinned by key principles relating to recovery from complex trauma, including:

  • Safety: The maintenance  of safety across all environments;
  • Stability: Stability in environment and relationships, reducing the need for movement and disconnection;
  • Connection: Supportive connections as a key tool for addressing trauma;
  • Understanding: An understanding of trauma and its impact across all service systems (including universal services) and concurrent support for young people to understand their own experiences, needs and strengths;
  • Healing: Access to evidence-supported therapeutic interventions, particularly those addressing the impact of complex trauma;
  • Continuous improvement: Ongoing evaluation of outcomes of interventions and services.

An alternative model for support is recommended which would ensure holistic case management for all care leavers and the legislative extension of care till 21 years of age. At the very least, it is recommended that a legislative amendment be introduced to make post-care support mandatory rather than discretionary in line with the English Leaving Care Act, and the development of a range of new and guaranteed housing options for care leavers including a trial of the “Staying Put” program successfully introduced in the UK which enables young people to stay with foster carers beyond the age of 18 years.