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Commending SA Red Cross Step Out program

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 14 May 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:16):  I rise tonight to speak about one of the best aspects of my work as a senator: getting to meet with the many good-hearted and generous people involved in organisations throughout Australia providing valuable services to the community and, in many cases, offering a shoulder or a hand to those who are less fortunate in our society. Unfortunately, having heard the budget that was handed down last night, I fear that the need for these good-hearted and generous people and these organisations is only going to increase. I hope that they will be able to meet the inevitable increase in the number of people who will be seeking their services. In any case, it was my privilege recently to meet some of the dedicated and passionate people at the South Australian branch of the Red Cross—in particular, the team responsible for the peer mentoring program 'Step Out'. I met the project coordinator, Stella, and mentors Anton, Scott, Achuil and Steven. They shared with me some of their experiences of working with young people through the Step Out program.

Step Out is a peer mentoring program which began in 2010. The participants in the program are young people aged between 14 and 25 who have been involved in the youth justice system. The main role of a Step Out mentor is to assist and support a young person to transition from detention into mainstream society, thus helping the young person to 'step out' of a reoffending cycle. The mentors—who are both paid and voluntary—do this by helping the young person articulate their goals—short, medium and long term. They help them to reconnect in the community and to pursue positive lifestyles that minimise the risk of future offending.

Mentors guide the personal development of the young people by helping them to work out the steps they need to take to reach their goals. It is this focus which makes the program unique. Step Out mentors do not view the young people as 'at risk', but see them as being in a position to take steps towards a more positive future with support. Actions are not mandated. The young people participate voluntarily and take the leading role in their own development through the program. Each participant completes a Personal Development Guide. They are asked what they want from life, what positive changes they want to make and what they want to achieve. They outline their short- and long-term goals, which their mentor can help them to achieve. Maybe they want to return to school or complete a certificate course that could help them gain employment. Maybe they would like to return to playing a sport they enjoy or reconnect with an estranged parent. Participants can express themselves in their Personal Development Guide in the form of words, images, drawings or any other form that works for them. Not surprisingly, no two Personal Development Guides are the same.

For the sake of continuity, mentors begin working with young people while they are still in detention and continue to work with them for 12 months after they have been released and are living in the community. Of course, the young people who participate in the program often have complex needs. One participant was a young woman of 16 when she commenced with the program in 2011. At that tender age, she had experienced 52 foster placements. Sometimes—perhaps unsurprisingly—they return to custody while the mentoring is in train. In that case, the mentors continue working with them. They understand that, as with all of us, it is sometimes a case of two steps forward, one step back. The 12 months starts again—the mentors do not abandon the participants—and they are assisted to see that change is possible.

For many of the young people, it is the first time they have really been asked and given the opportunity to determine their own goals. That is an empowering experience but would potentially be very challenging and even frightening if they did not have the support of their mentor to work out how to do it. A young person in the Step Out program often needs the most basic kinds of support and skills that many of us take for granted. Mentors might help them by building their social skills so they can understanding basic politeness and rules of social interaction that they may never have learnt. The mentors teach them how to make positive choices and encourage them to be aware of the impact of their decisions and actions on other people and themselves. These things all contribute to helping the young person to feel empowered to take responsibility for their life.

The mentors in the program all have life experiences which equip them to understand some of the experiences of the young people they are working with. I met Achuil, who had the experience of being displaced from his home country, in Africa, and overcoming difficulties in adjusting to a new life in Australia. He was thus able to empathise with and help young people to overcome their own difficulties in finding stable accommodation and reintegrating into society after being released from detention.

The program also employs a youth advisor—to keep it real and to connect with the young people who may need help. Unfortunately I did not get to meet the youth advisor, Adrienne—by all accounts a remarkable young woman—but I certainly heard a lot about her. Despite her own challenging history, she has the charisma and leadership qualities to help to make a difference in other young people's lives.

The Step Out program was evaluated by the school of law at Flinders University, which tracked it over a period of 15 months to determine its success in helping participants to identify their personal goals, reconnect with their communities and minimise the risk of future offending. The findings were extremely positive, with the mentoring making a substantive impact on mentees' decision making and capacity to plan for pro-social futures, as well as practical and immediate outcomes such as securing accommodation, job training or employment. The evaluation found that the value of the program came from the consistent, reliable presence of the mentor in the mentee's life. Although there was some recidivism and return to detention in some cases, where this did occur there was a reduction in the severity of the offences and an increase in the time between offences being committed.

It does not take much thinking to realise how a program like this makes social and economic sense. The cost to support a young person through the Step Out program is less than $8,000 a year, compared to the cost of over $100,000 to keep a young person in juvenile detention for a year. And of course there are also the obvious long-term social benefits of diverting a young person from a life of involvement with the criminal justice system. The strength of the program, I think, lies in the relationship between the mentor and the mentee, based on trust and a mutual willingness to participate in the program. Participants in the program have reported having a high level of trust in their mentor, and this is significant for young people who have been let down by many people before and are often very wary of trusting anyone.

I will finish by telling the story of one participant whose life has been transformed by the Red Cross Step Out program. At the age of 17, Matt was living in difficult conditions. I am using a pseudonym here, but it is one that is reported by Step Out. He had been forced to take out a restraining order on his parents because of their abuse and threats, and he was living in supported accommodation. He did not have much money, and he was often sleeping rough. He was leading a tough lifestyle that had led to more than one aggravated assault, and he was going through the courts for armed robbery.

Matt joined the Step Out program after he met his mentor, and he now meets his mentor once a week. They share a common interest in sport, music and movies. With the help of his mentor, he was able to identify goals of obtaining and maintaining independent accommodation, gaining short-term employment and attending his court and other appointments on time. So far, he has built a resume, attended three job interviews and been accepted into a 10-week training course that he hopes may lead him into work in the construction industry. Since his involvement with Step Out, Matt has not reoffended, which is a major achievement for him and his peer mentors. They are very proud of him.

The South Australian Red Cross Step Out program currently has funding for two years, with a possible third year. I certainly sincerely hope it can be continued into the future and also expanded to work its magic and its success in other states. It is a great example of a proactive, positive, valuable program that will give great hope for those who are potentially very disadvantaged in our society. I congratulate the Red Cross in South Australia for their initiative in developing the program, and those who are responsible for it, and I very much wish it well in the future.

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