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The Importance of School Chaplains

Thank you, Madam Speaker. And I happy to assist in bringing this matter of public importance before the Assembly today.

On many prior occasions, Madam Speaker, I have stood in this chamber to discuss the wellbeing of young people. In many cases, the issues that they face are complex, and in many regards, they are growing increasingly complex. Two months ago, I moved a motion in this Assembly calling upon the ACT Government to make a formal commitment to better supporting and funding programs for kids in what are called the middle years – ‘the developmental stage between early childhood and adolescence, in which children undergo dramatic social, emotional and physical changes’,[1] including ‘the most intense period of brain development during a human lifetime’.[2]

More and more, ‘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’.[3]

At the same time, the number of children and young people who are in need of mental health services is also increasing. As we learnt last year, owing to demand, Menslink has now opened its services to primary school-age boys, with those aged 10- to 12-years-old making up 12 per cent of this support group’s client case.[4]

Children and young people currently face challenges that their parents probably never imagined. For example, though no one knows for certain, it has been estimated that one in five Australian children aged 8 to 15 may have experienced cyberbullying.[5] This is defined as harassment or intimidation that takes place online. Bullying, sadly, has probably always been around, but the spread of technology and the prevalence of personal devices such as mobile phones mean that things like intentionally hurtful statements, vicious rumours, humiliation, embarrassment and threats can now follow children and young people wherever they go, including into what was once the protection of the family home.

In February, Madam Speaker, I shared in this place the harrowing story of a young boy whose parents claim that, for three-and-a-half years, he was physically assaulted by other students at school, including being punched, pinned, dragged, strangled and more. Understandably, this small child has developed anxiety issues requiring professional counselling. In short, Madam Speaker, our children and young people sometimes face enormous challenges, and nearly always they face challenges that at least feel enormous to them.

In the midst of such a climate, those who provide pastoral care for children should be honoured and supported. Today I am grateful to add my voice of support to the chaplains that serve in our schools. As I mentioned in the adjournment debate on Tuesday, I recently participated in a fundraising event for the Canberra PCYC that involved my abseiling 93 metres down the side of Lovett Tower. I sponsored two other Canberrans to join me in this adventure, one of whom brought a school chaplain with her as her support person.

This young woman, who grew up in the territory’s care and protection system, finished her studies last year. But this chaplain, whom she met whilst a student, is still engaged in her life, standing by her side when she needs extra support. Clearly, supporting the territory’s young people, including some of its most vulnerable, is more than just a part-time job for this chaplain; it is a labour of love and loyalty, devotion and dedication.

Like many in our community, I was therefore surprised, Madam Speaker, when this government announced that they were withdrawing from the national school chaplaincy program from next year – denying the territory’s students access to this specialised support system. Chaplains, we have been told by those opposite, are incompatible with our secular public schools. But of course not all students enrolled in our public schools are secular. In fact, as the multicultural population of the ACT grows, the number of students in our schools who have vibrant religious identities is also growing. I can assure this Assembly that a number of culturally and linguistically diverse Canberrans have told me that they have found this government’s decision to essentially ban chaplains as a move that leaves them, as people of faith, feeling less welcomed and less wanted in the ACT.

I note here that our two main secular public universities in Canberra, both the University of Canberra and the Australian National University, support and provide robust chaplaincy services to their students and staff. This, Madam Speaker, is what it looks like when diversity is genuinely valued and when people of faith are sincerely welcomed into a community. If this government cares about cultural diversity, it would be trying to expand the pastoral care supports available in our schools, not cutting a program that costs the territory almost nothing and clearly meets the needs of portions of our school communities in favour of a very narrow program personally preferred by those opposite.

I wish to go on public record with my thanks for school chaplains and all other pastoral care providers who give of themselves to help kids navigate the difficulties of life. Thank you.

[1] Capital Health Network (hereinafter CHN), ‘Early Childhood, Middle Years and Youth: 2016–17 ACT Primary Healthcare Network Mental Health Needs Assessment’, 2016, p. 14.

[2] Families ACT, ‘The Missing Middle: Supporting Middle Years Children in the ACT’, submission to the ACT budget, Oct. 2018, p. 2.

[3] City of Port Phillip, ‘Happy, Healthy and Heard: Youth and Middle Years Commitments 2014–2019 Background Report’, St Kilda, VIC, 2014, p. 70.



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