Broken Trust and Safety Nets: Youth Employment in the Northern Territory

Broken Trust and Safety Nets: Youth Employment in the Northern Territory

In mid-September the National Youth Commission went to Darwin and Katherine to hear presentations from workers and managers in youth and community services, health and mental health, and educators in both mainstream and alternative school settings.

Here are some early observations about what we learned in the NT: 

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There is broad agreement about the central challenges…

At the highest level, we can see that different arms of government, along with schools and non-government organisations, recognise the common and related challenges of poverty, ill-health, substance abuse, a lack of suitable affordable housing, and risks for children, families and community safety. These basic needs must be addressed in order to achieve more ambitious goals for education and transitions into the workforce.

… and a safety net is needed

The conditions of survival and growth for developing children and young people invokes the idea – and ideal – of a safety net of various services, woven across the linked roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and Territory governments, and coordinating various programs contracted by different Departments. 

Working at its best, such a net would catch people at crisis points in their lives, but pull in other threads over the long term to support and strengthen the resilience and capacity of families and communities. Further, this net would have coverage over two domains: the health, housing, and family space that sustains life, and the places that foster learning: early childhood education, schools, further education, and then workplaces.

…. but the safety net is broken in many places, and some people live outside it

Though we heard many inspiring examples of what is working well in Darwin and Katherine, presented by deeply knowledgeable and committed agency staff and community members, it became obvious that in practice, the needed safety net has many holes and broken threads. 

There are waiting lists for the diagnosis and treatment of people with disability, health or mental health conditions. 

There are contracts that cover some aspects of what is needed – a job placement with an employer, for example – but which lack the resources for related needs, such as access affordable accommodation, or viable, affordable transport. 

There are client records and data that have been collected but can’t be shared by agencies. 

There is the problem of invisibility, whereby young people not attending school, for example, can simply drop off the radar of attention and the responsibility for their care by schools and related services. 

And for services with stretched resources, it is understandably hard to chase up absences, no-shows, or people making frequent moves between locations.

Needs for resources and responses are multi-layered

In Darwin, we heard about the prevalence of hearing loss among many Indigenous children, particularly in remote areas, due to poor health and housing conditions in early life that contribute to early, frequent and widespread middle ear infection, and consequent impairment of auditory processing capacity. 

This has immense consequences for educational outcomes, due to the inability to hear in a normal classroom, but timely assessment and diagnosis is limited, due to the difficulty of engaging clinical practitioners across remote areas. 

Widespread and chronic hearing in classrooms has various implications for parent and teacher education and awareness, the re-engineering of the classroom soundscape, and other technical solutions that require new or reconfigured resources.

In Katherine, we heard from the Kalano Community Association about its new service which runs from 7pm till 3.30am, offering a free ride to young people back to a place of safety. 

A challenge for this service, and beyond its capacity, is whether young people have safe places to go to, or if they do, whether they choose them. 

This is compounded by a lack of housing options for young people, and more positive alternatives for age-appropriate recreational activities, available in the higher-risk night-times that are out of hours for most social services.

In both Katherine and Darwin, we heard about employment programs where a placement can be brokered with an employer but there is not enough funding for on-the-job support to build the young worker’s confidence to ask questions, learn and stay in the job. 

Many of these training and placement programs also rely on assumptions of a good night’s sleep, a shower, a change of clothes, and transport to get to work – the basics which we might not even consider when calculating how to address youth unemployment challenges. Rarely are all those support conditions in place under the same program.

We should also look to more fundamental system problems – and possible solutions

If the safety net can be mapped like this, to identify its holes, dead ends, and loose threads, it seems logical that our job as Commissioners is to propose ways to fill the gaps and tie up the loose ends. But we should also refocus our gaze to see what is not there, to look past what is already offered and advertised, contracted by funders, and delivered, counted, and reported.

It might also mean being able to understand and respond to the commonly reported problems across the way the net is functioning in its entirety, as a system in which people are repeatedly subject to referral, assessments, and the delivery of various units of services, which are typically quite narrowly-defined (according to the program/policy scope of the funding Department), or time-limited, far away, or otherwise perhaps involving waiting lists, interruptions, and the possibility that staff providing the services may not be culturally or linguistically appropriate.

Some system-level ways of thinking and responding could mean:

1) Re-imagining the workforce

This means, for example, seeing an unemployed local mother of seven children, who only sometimes come to school, as a valuable source of experience and expertise, with the potential to be engaged, learned from, further trained, and employed, for her local knowledge and networks, life experience, and her community and cultural knowledge.

2) Re-invigorating a youth work commitment, 24/7

With crisis response on one hand (families, police, housing, for example) and business-as-usual on the other (schools, training, employment), we can see a big absence of youth outreach work and the need for places and spaces that are open and accessible around the clock, when home isn’t working and the streets aren’t safe. 

3) Mapping a person’s service tracks from past to future

This recognises that valuable service records, assessments, past experiences, papers and eligibility status, helpful contacts, and case management plans are often lost, cached, locked up, or otherwise unavailable for sharing. The problem is exacerbated by competition between providers and the short-term or time-limited nature of programs. 

Even acknowledging that privacy and confidentiality must be respected, there is considerable opportunity here to achieve significantly greater collaboration between service points in the safety net.

4) Earning trust in government by staying the course and making a long term investment

A history of trials, pilots, and short term contracting does not give programs a chance to build the reliable relationships and trust needed to achieve enduring outcomes across multiple and linked aspects of social and economic life. Self-determination and local community development takes decades rather than years.These are just some ideas we are reflecting on after our time in the Northern Territory.