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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
07/05/2010
Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

CHAIR —In an attempt to stay on time, we will move straight to welcoming Tom O’Donnell from the flexible learning centre. I think, Tom, this is a relatively late submission.

Mr O’Donnell —Yes.

CHAIR —So we do not know a lot about what you are going to talk about. On the other hand, we have heard from witnesses several times, even today, that ensuring that a kid stays at school and actually begins to learn something is probably the single most important element in successful progress on to a better life. We are happy to welcome you here. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear? Then we would like it if you would just talk to us a bit about what you do, and then we will possibly follow up with some questions.

Mr O’Donnell —I am the regional manager for behaviour support for the Department of Education and Training and also manager of the flexible learning centre.

CHAIR —Great. Tell us what the flexible learning centre does.

Mr O’Donnell —Okay. Usually I will take about three or four hours to do so, because I love spruiking what we do. I am a little surprised that my name got raised, but I guess we will work that out in time. We are a little bit unique in the Department of Education and Training in that we have been going for approximately 11 years, in that we have a multidisciplinary team of social workers, psychologists, teachers, a guidance officer, youth workers and teacher aides working to keep educationally at-risk young people in some form of education or pathway to training or work. We do that with programs that are on site at the flexible learning centre, with work within schools and with professional development of teachers and staff and development of parents within school communities. We also have a role to play with the whole region in working with communities throughout the region in giving advice and supporting those kids that are educationally at risk. They would include kids that are about to head into or have been in the youth justice system, along with those kids that are displaying behaviours which are complex. But we are also working with those students who are perhaps displaying behaviours that may be due to volatile substance abuse, foetal alcohol syndrome and those sorts of cases.

Mr LAMING —How many Indigenous people are employed and how much are they paid?

Mr O’Donnell —By our service?

Mr LAMING —Yes.

Mr O’Donnell —We do not have any right now within our service. One of the issues we have is getting personnel who are trained and able to work in our field.

Mr LAMING —In some of the communities you visit, there would be qualified Aboriginal teacher aides?

Mr O’Donnell —Yes, that is right.

Mr LAMING —Are some of those free in the afternoons to be engaged by your program and, if so, what would need to happen for that to occur?

Mr O’Donnell —Absolutely. With everything we do we involve Indigenous elders, CECs—community education counsellors—teacher aides and anyone else within the community that we can to engage and work alongside us with kids and families.

Mr TURNOUR —You put in a submission, which I have here. I gather we got it late last week. You talk about a range of programs and resources. Can you explain those to us? There are a fair few acronyms in there that mean nothing to the lay member of parliament. It might be useful if you would run through some of the programs and resources that you provide.

Mr O’Donnell —I will go through them dot by dot. Individual family counselling is probably self-explanatory. Functional behaviour assessment is a tool that we use for extreme, complex cases where we case manage very closely young people who are displaying complex behaviours within the school environment. That includes working with parents, the wider community and anyone else who is involved in that environment around that young person. Alternative education programs are the ones I was talking about earlier that are on site. As our name suggests, we are very flexible in those programs. We deal with kids that are suspended or excluded from school and kids that are at risk of suspension or dropping out of school. We work with all those young people in those alternative programs. We also work with a lot of kids who are in the care of the department, which is another issue which comes up quite frequently.

Positive learning centres were rolled out by the state government in the last four to five years. We just rolled our regional resources into our facility. They cater for 10- to 15-year-olds who are educationally at risk. Our links program is a program for 15- to 17-year-olds who are totally out of the education system. These are generally kids who are engaged, unfortunately, with the youth justice system. We do have a fair number of Indigenous students in that program. That is finding pathways for them and doing some very functional numeracy and literacy programs and then looking at what options are available—going back to school, going to work, going to TAFE and so forth. Our SWAMP, Students with Awesome Multimedia Potential, program, was a homework club for kids who did not have the computers or technology at home to be able to do homework.

There are various adventure based learning programs, like Rock and Water and Seasons for Growth, that we do within schools. Our parenting program and the managing young children program are very much based on early intervention with families. We work with kids from the age of two through to 10 and, using a two-way mirror, we film and do some very intensive work with family. We actually set up conflict between the parent and a child and work out who has the power in the relationship and talk the parent through it. We spend a number of sessions doing that, and then we also spent time in the home to put whatever skills we are learning within that environment back into the home.

There is universal school support. School wide positive behaviour support is something that we are rolling out to all schools throughout our region, and that is enabling schools to look at their whole school community and their environment. It is done as a whole-school approach and not looking at every individual case at a time. We are looking at a whole-school approach and a whole-systems approach; we are looking at data, how that influences systems and how that intersects with our practices within a school community.

There is BBBL online, ESCM and the BBBL suite—that is, Better Behaviour, Better Learning, and Essential Skills for Classroom Management. They are state-run education programs that we do for professional development with teachers in every school throughout the region. In our facility we currently have the Cairns Youth Mentoring Scheme as part of our service. We support that program. That is something we could touch on as a strategy when working with young people. We see that as something that does work. We also support students with disabilities.

Mr TURNOUR —How many people work at the Flexible Learning Centre?

Mr O’Donnell —We have 22 people working with us.

CHAIR —What sort of number of kids?

Mr O’Donnell —Last year we had just over 600 referrals. That included suspensions and exclusions, therapy team referrals for individual family counselling, and going out to communities. We included that as part of the numbers.

Mr TURNOUR —Is this state based funding or do you have a federal program?

Mr O’Donnell —We have state based funding.

Mr LAMING —Are they all teachers or are there social workers or other services?

Mr O’Donnell —We have four social workers, two psychologists, eight teachers, two youth workers, a guidance officer and a couple of teacher aides.

CHAIR —You were saying that a substantial number of the kids are Indigenous.

Mr O’Donnell —I would say that, remembering our data from last year, 30 to 40 per cent of the population coming through would be Indigenous.

CHAIR —Nevertheless, it is harder for you to get the kids in remote settlements? It is hard to get to Aurukun.

Mr O’Donnell —Yes, it is. It is the debate around whether we have a fly-in service or do we support the community that is already there? We try to do a combination of both. My view around that is that there are a lot of resources going into these communities. What can we tie in with those resources to enable whatever we could do with the school community? For instance, with Aurukun, last year there were a number of young people who were displaying very complex behaviours. They came with their families and spent four weeks with us. We worked with the young person and their family. They then went back to the community and we would continue that work and engage the staff there. Part of that is that the staff would come to our centre and we would train the staff around what they could do within their school community to work with some of those issues. I am talking about things around attachment theory and really complex mental health and psychiatric issues.

CHAIR —People constantly talk to us about problems with coordinating services. It is inevitable that there will be problems coordinating services, but are you aware of being able to connect with people like ACT for Kids, who were here earlier today?

Mr O’Donnell —Absolutely. We would do a lot of work with—

CHAIR —How do you do that?

Mr O’Donnell —Through very good relationships, knowing what is out there and collaboration. If we have a strength in Cairns—and it is perhaps a little bit lacking around the region, in the communities—is knowledge of resources and other groups working with whatever group they are working with. We do a lot of work with co-facilitation and collaboration with ACT for Kids as well as a lot of the other agencies around town.

CHAIR —You reckon that you can do a lot to restore the learning competence of a lot of these kids. It is very hard to make a conclusive evaluation in many cases, but are you able to talk about what you regard as the level of success?

Mr O’Donnell —That is a really good question: how do you manage success? If we get a kid turning up and engaging a service, sometimes that is as good as it gets. Sometimes for young people taking a risk with education again, given that they may have had a poor history up to that point, is very difficult. What we are there to do is to try and really engage those young people to take that risk. We do get success. With that links program, for example, 44 kids came to us last year. These are kids who have been out of the education system for two or three years. They are in the 15-to-17 age group. I would say that 70 to 80 per cent of those kids ended up back at school, in a traineeship or at TAFE doing something. It was a very intensive program. We work collaboratively with other agencies such as Youth Justice, YOP, ACT for Kids and what have you. A lot of that success was due to a lot of patience and not giving up on the kid. A big influence is engagement of a significant adult in that young person’s life. If we were able to get that, we started to get success.

Mr LAMING —Assuming these 22 are full time, it is about a thousand hours a week. How many hours a week are spent by your staff in one of the 11 cape communities?

Mr O’Donnell —Very few. Again, we have the relationships with the schools in the communities and work with those schools and do the professional development with the teachers. Out of those 22, there are three people that are regional: me, the guidance officer and our manager of PD, who is a teacher. We facilitate whatever we can be doing with the school communities and work with the school communities about what they can do and set up. For instance, on Thursday Island they have set up an alternative education centre. Weipa have set up an alternative education centre as well. That has been through us helping to set up those on-site programs in the community and doing that capacity building within that community.

Mr LAMING —Who pays those people to deliver capacity building?

Mr O’Donnell —The department of education.

Mr LAMING —Are they teacher aides?

Mr O’Donnell —Teachers and teacher aides.

Mr LAMING —Any Indigenous?

Mr O’Donnell —Yes, they are Indigenous.

Mr TURNOUR —You say that engaging a significant adult is one of the best things that can possibly happen. You obviously support the Cairns Youth Mentoring Scheme, but what else do you support? What sorts of things are you talking about in relation to ensuring that families understand their importance to their children? How can we beef that up?

Mr O’Donnell —It is about enabling someone who has a care factor in that young person’s life and about acknowledging and challenging that adult’s importance in that. That is about support through education, through emotional and social care and through taking an interest in whatever this young person is doing or not doing. The difference is quite stark between the route someone coming out of detention who does not have a significant person in their life takes and the route of a young person who comes out of detention who has someone—a family or something—who they are connected to. Sometimes it is just as hard, but there is a greater success rate. With education, when someone takes an interest—pushing that young person and motivating that young person to take that risk and be involved in that education process—that has a strong effect.

CHAIR —Your service is in each region in Queensland?

Mr O’Donnell —It is unique to Cairns. The education department saw fit to employ a social worker to lead it, not a teacher. I am a social worker, so I come from a different paradigm. I think that is how we have set up something a little bit different, with a different way of thinking around how we tackle young people who are educationally at risk. Throughout the rest of the state, there are flexible learning centres or positive learning centres, but they are teacher based and are not a resource with a multidisciplinary team.

CHAIR —That is terrific. Thank you very much.

 [3.00 pm]