Commitment to Children in the Middle Years
Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this very important motion before the Assembly today.
As stated in the motion itself, both Australian and international research has increasingly called attention to the importance of what is called ‘middle childhood’ or ‘the middle years’. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, which, in partnership with The Smith Family, established the Middle Years Network two years ago, defines this period as beginning at age 8 and continuing through age 14, though other forums and researchers may use slightly different numbers. Middle childhood, it is widely understood, is ‘the developmental stage between early childhood and adolescence, in which children undergo dramatic social, emotional and physical changes’, including ‘the most intense period of brain development during a human lifetime’.
Focus on the middle years has been driven in large part by two complementary realisations. First, as leading child development researcher Gerry Redmond has put it, this is a ‘period of “benign neglect”, characterised by a lack of dedicated research data and critical gaps in funding for support services’. As the Australian Child Wellbeing Project found in their 2016 study, ‘Are the Kids Alright? Young Australians in Their Middle Years’, ‘most young people in their middle years are doing well’. This is good news that has probably contributed to the lack of data and support services for this particular cohort. It is, after all, the period between early childhood, which receives enormous attention for obvious reasons, and the often complicated period of later adolescence, where attention again picks up. Too often, we just assume that kids are OK.
The second realisation is that we live in a time when ‘typical “youth issues” are presenting in children earlier in life and resulting in coping mechanisms and responses reflective of adolescent behaviour … the onset of puberty is beginning earlier … [and] young people are also engaging in risk behaviours earlier’. A striking illustration of this can be seen in the fact that Canberra’s Menslink extended counselling to boys aged 10 and 11 in the middle of 2017, after previously offering services only to those 12 and older. Within one year, boys under age 12 made up 15 per cent of their counselling clients.
These and other contributing factors mean that – and again I quote from the Australian Child Wellbeing Project’s study – ‘a significant proportion of young people in the middle years have low wellbeing, and are missing out on opportunities at this crucial time’. Importantly, low wellbeing in the middle years tends to follow young people into adulthood. In fact, research indicates that ‘how a child develops during this time affects future cognitive, social, emotional, language and physical development, which in turn influences … later success in life’. As just one illustration of how formative this stage is, at least 50 per cent of adult mental health problems emerge by the age of 14.
In light of all that I have related, it is no wonder that numerous stakeholders and frontline workers with whom I have met over the past two years have all stated that more needs to be done in the ACT to support children and young people in the middle years. This important task is an investment with significant returns. Addressing needs in middle childhood is often rather simple. It is the perfect space for early intervention as it means that problems can be addressed before they become too complicated, before the disadvantage grows too entrenched or the trauma has permanently altered the course of a life.
I know that the ACT Government is not unaware of these issues. Stakeholders and frontline workers no doubt share their concerns and hopes with those opposite as well. In addition, I understand that the government was involved in the ground-breaking Middle Years Forum that was hosted by Families ACT here in Canberra just over two years ago. Knowing about an issue, however, is not the same thing as adequately addressing it.
Nine years ago, a previous ACT Labor-Greens Government sponsored a Care and Accommodation Forum, the report of which was subtitled ‘12–15 year olds at risk of homelessness’. The stated purpose of this forum was to, quote, ‘make recommendations that could be in the form of a structural transformation or could be ensuring young people have a safe place to sleep at night’. The report concluded with 11 excellent recommendations for solving the territory’s problem with homelessness amongst young people under 16 years of age.
Nine years later, the ACT Council of Social Service is able to state that, quote, ‘There are currently no accommodation services in the ACT for young people under the age of 16 who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness’. In fact, ACTCOSS claims that various ACT Governments have recognised this problem for the past 15 years, since the 2004 ‘Breaking the Cycle: ACT Homelessness Strategy’, but it has never adequately been addressed. Clearly, Madam Speaker, the time for talk is past. It is now time for action.
It is for this reason that I have moved this motion calling upon this ACT Government to make a formal commitment to improving services and programs for the territory’s children and young people in the middle years. In order to make sure that we make genuine progress in this space, it is absolutely necessary that the government demonstrate this commitment by including specific provisions in the 2019–2020 budget that address important issues facing those in middle childhood. These provisions should be clearly identified as well so that there is no question that those in the middle years are receiving the attention they deserve.
In the end, it will be up to those opposite to determine which recommendations from stakeholders make it into the budget. This motion does not ask the government to circumvent the normal processes of evaluating submissions, consulting with stakeholders, seeking expert opinions, and so forth. I do, however, want to take this opportunity to encourage cabinet to give due consideration to some of the recommendations that have been submitted.
First, researchers such as the ANU’s Sharon Bessell and the University of Western Sydney’s Jan Mason have recommended that ‘measures and indicators of social inclusion, social capital, community strength and support … should explicitly include data relating to children in middle childhood’. This is because, as Families ACT have noted, quote, ‘In the ACT, as in much of Australia, there is a critical gap in research data to enable parents, teachers, doctors, community workers, policy makers and the wider community to understand and support the unique needs’ of those in middle childhood.
As I recently argued in supporting a motion relating to data tracking for children and young people exposed to domestic and family violence, the beginning of all good policy is good data. I therefore commend to this government Family ACT’s recommendation to ‘support the collection of longitudinal data on the wellbeing of middle years children in the ACT by expanding upon the ACT’s existing schools-based data collection’. Families ACT have identified this as one of two ‘most critical areas to support middle years’.
I likewise commend to this government the Youth Coalition’s recommendation for a homelessness service model for children aged 8 to 15 in the ACT. As noted earlier, there are currently no accommodation services in the territory available to support those under age 16 who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing unaccompanied homelessness. I think it is important, Madam Speaker, to explain briefly what homelessness actually looks like to those in this cohort. These are not young people who are facing homelessness along with their families; rather, these are young people who are facing homelessness because they can’t be with their families.
A qualitative study released last year by the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Child Protection Studies paints a vivid picture of what unaccompanied homelessness for the territory’s children and youth actually looks like. In nearly all cases, children who find themselves in this situation are seeking to escape homes where they have experienced violence, abuse or neglect – often accompanied by equally challenging issues that co-exist within these abusive and neglectful homes. These include familial substance abuse by parents or siblings and parental mental illness and disability.
The service model proposed by the Youth Coalition and strongly supported by Families ACT, ACTCOSS and ACT Shelter, seeks to respond to the primary risk factor leading to youth homelessness, family conflict and breakdown, by intervening early, reducing family conflict, changing life trajectories away from involvement with statutory services, reducing disengagement from education, and building the capacity of the youth and family sector to engage in family-focused youth work. Similar homelessness programs in other Australian jurisdictions have been shown to be extremely cost effective, ‘creating $12 in social value for every dollar invested’.
A similar proposal has been put forward by the Canberra PCYC, which already enjoys a strong reputation of providing programs that divert young people away from crime and the criminal justice system and programs that help young people to re-engage with education. Their specific proposal is for a support accommodation unit for young people under the age of 16. This residential facility would create a safe, healthy and positive environment for youth, providing temporary and short-term accommodation away from environments that can lead to unaccompanied homelessness and its attendant risks, such as living on the street or couch surfing. One of the main goals of this accommodation unit would be to work with the whole family in order to resolve the family conflict and breakdown that led to the homelessness in the first place.
PCYC staff share the concern that this territory currently does not provide any accommodation services for young people under the age of 16. They have had experience with youth who have been picked up by ACT Policing at night and, when it was deemed unsuitable for the young people to be returned to their homes, they have been placed in the watch house overnight instead, thus giving them their first taste of entering the justice system. Surely, Madam Speaker, we can do something more appropriate than this for children who are afraid to return home! And so I commend this proposal to the government as well.
Finally, Madam Speaker, I commend to this government all other requests from various community services providers for funding for other, non-residential youth diversion programs. On paper, this government has a commitment to youth diversion. Unfortunately, too many of our children and young people still end up in the youth justice system. As I stated earlier, funding such programs is an investment with significant dividends. It currently costs $3,319 a day to detain a young person in Bimberi. In contrast, a young person on a community justice order costs $101 per day. But even a community justice order comes once a youth is already in trouble. Diversion programs that prevent problems in the first place can cost much less than that, and they impact the lives of the children and young people whose needs have been met before life becomes too complicated.
I understand that all of these proposals need to be evaluated and considered, but once again I passionately call upon the ACT Government to make a formal commitment to the territory’s children and young people in the middle years in the upcoming budget.
Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly.