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Listening to the voices of young people

Opinion Piece by Deirdre Cheers, CEO Barnardos Australia.

As a woman in her 60s I have no obvious qualification to talk about what it’s like being a young person in 2024 but, as CEO of a children’s organisation, there’s a few things that should not go unsaid.

Firstly, we talk about young people like they are a separate and discrete part of society. Headlines about youth crime in 2024 frame young people as an invading threat, upending our normally healthy and peaceful society. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Young Australians who are transitioning to adulthood are living in a world that we created. A world where opportunities for housing, employment opportunities and safe spaces are harder to find. A world where families are not getting the support they need to safely raise their children. A world where violence and control dominates people’s home lives.

We need to properly understand these social problems before we can find the solutions. Last month the NSW Government changed bail laws for 14-18 year olds, making it harder for young people with break and enter charges to get bail. This move towards more young people being incarcerated is not something we should aspire to. Once a young person first becomes involved with the justice system – so begins an often life-long journey down a very dark path.

Our youth workers strive every day to divert young people from this path towards a future of opportunity and social inclusion, but can be very difficult, especially as the system is becoming more and more unforgiving. For any of us who can remember, being a young person is hard and making mistakes is par for the course. If you add to this, disadvantage or violence at home, coupled with school disengagement, young people can begin to feel worthless or even question whether they are worthy of having a successful or productive life. Giving young people back their sense of worth is the very key to Barnardos work. Our young people need to have their voices heard and to be given a second chance at a better life. Once they begin down the road to incarceration – it can be too late.

Jailing young people might provide an illusion of security for some but the long term consequences tell a very different story. The very real and more complex solution – creating social and economic changes that tackle domestic violence, support mental health and healing and provide safe housing – are changes that support all of us.

We work intensively with children, young people and families who are experiencing violence, poverty or homelessness to overcome their setbacks and fulfil their potential in a world that is increasingly divided. What is fundamental to this work is to listen each person’s story to so that we can understand their experience of making their way in this world. Young people already have the answers – it is our role to ensure they have the resources and support that they need. The solution is there if we would only listen.

Our work is vital to ensure that young people aren’t on a pathway to incarceration. More than that, there are enormous benefits for our communities when young people are actively engaged. A world that is safe and supportive of young people is a world that benefits everyone. Whether we support them or not, they will become parents of the next generation. Let’s make sure they have the chance to do it in the best possible way.

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