28/07/2016 2:47 PM AEST | Updated 28/07/2016 3:51 PM AEST

Working With Violent Young People Is Hard, But We Must Manage

I have my own personal experiences of how hard this type of work can be. Being spat at, having blood, piss, s**t and vomit thrown at you or left for you to step in or accidentally touch isn't pleasant. However, when I was a youth worker I had a duty of care to every young person I worked with.


Quite a few people have asked me "what I think" about Monday's Four Corners report. Despite it being rare to actually be asked my opinion, I didn't want to have one on the specifics of this, because I don't have all the facts. None of us do. Instead, what follows is a series of random thoughts, rather than a clear opinion.

There is a lot of research that tells us solitary confinement, particularly long-term, is not good for anyone's mental health, and it changes the structure of the brain. Personally, I think we need to seriously look at how we use it as a form of punishment.

Speaking of punishment... prison itself is a punishment. Being cut off from friends, family and society is the punishment. With young people, we have a real opportunity to impact the course of their life when they are engaged in juvenile justice systems. It takes time, money, and hard work... it's a long-term investment that also involves the family and community. We can't rehabilitate everyone -- that's a hard truth for some of us to hear.

But we can and should do a lot better -- that's a truth that is hard for others of us to hear. Prison may be necessary... but the way these children and young people have been treated is not necessary (that's my opinion, based on what I saw in the report).

Living in Darwin in the heat sucks. Being locked up with no fan would be awful. Not having running water would feel like torture. Dehydration makes you crazy.

I have a real concern that there is little consideration given to the impact that FASD (foetal alcohol spectrum disorders) and petrol sniffing has, particularly on young aboriginal people in the NT (I say particularly on this group because so many of them are affected by this). These things need to be considered when we look at how we 'punish' and 'rehabilitate' children. Anyone working with children and young people should have thorough training on these issues and their impacts.

It is my opinion that anyone who works with children and young people also needs to be trained on the impact of trauma. When a child experiences trauma at a young age, the way their brain functions is different from those of us who haven't. Their brains are wired differently. They handle stress and stimulation differently, are less able to regulate emotions and anger, and are more prone to self harm and suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety. Some genetics studies have shown that trauma can also affect DNA, which means intergenerational trauma is a real issue for most of these young people.

The above two points are rarely discussed when making policy, nor given consideration in public discussion and debate. They should be. If you care enough to make comments on stories such as this, please care enough to educate yourself about these things.

I mentioned self harm before. My understanding is that some of the videos in the report were a result of the detention centre policy of how to react to threats of self harm. All the research and evidence would indicate this response is pretty much worst-practice on how to deal with this, not best-practice.

Working with young people who are violent and aggressive is hard. Really hard. Really, really, really hard. Sometimes it feels impossible, like banging your head against a wall (sometimes that literally happens too).

I have my own personal experiences of how hard this type of work can be. Being spat at, having blood, piss, s**t and vomit thrown at you or left for you to step in or accidentally touch isn't pleasant. Fearing that you might have caught an infectious disease from someone means you function in everyday life with a cloud of dread invading your mind until you get the all clear. Going home after a shift bruised, scratched, bitten or bleeding is awful. Being called every name under the sun, being threatened... none of that makes for a good day.

However, I am an adult who is rational, trained, and when I was a youth worker I had a duty of care to every young person I worked with and was to act on what is in the best interest of that young person. I'm glad I never worked at Don Dale, but I think that if more fully trained, highly skilled youth workers were employed to work with young people in detention and with their families outside, we would have different outcomes for many young people.

One comment I am seeing a lot of is "oh, these poor darlings, we need to give them hugs and sunshine and their lives will be all better". Another comment I am seeing a lot is "we are only seeing one side of the story. You haven't seen what these little s**ts do, they deserve to be punished. Lock 'em up with the big boys and see how they feel then". Well, I'd say both are wrong.

This isn't a story on whether or not we should lock up children -- that's another conversation for another day. This is about how we treat children and young people who are locked up. The boys in the Four Corners report were in prison because that was their punishment. I would bet they were annoying/disrespectful/violent/inconsiderate/stubborn when they were there (I'm pretty sure I would be). But I saw little evidence of the prison officers working to de-escalate situations.

I know that the skill set I have as a youth worker is different to the skill set that police need to have to ensure the broader community is kept safe. But prison guards are not police. It is not their job to personally punish the young people in their custody and care. We don't know all the facts leading up to the incidents in the videos, but what we do know leads me to believe there was a far better way to deal with what was going on. As a youth worker, I've dealt with young people displaying many of these behaviours, and can guarantee you there are better ways to act or react than what happened here.

So what now? There needs to be a conversation about how we treat, rehabilitate, and care for children and young people in detention. The broader public needs information that is factual and as unbiased as possible, because it's good for them to know. The media needs to continue to inform the public what happens from here, however a 'trial by media' isn't ideal. Public opinion doesn't always have to inform policy. Policy made from uproar and outcry isn't always best.

The decisions need to be made with the advice of a diverse group of experts, from researchers and policy makers, yes, but also from front-line youth workers and police officers who interact with these children, young people and families often in stressful times over long periods, from AOD and mental health workers, and from young people and community elders who are affected by the decisions we make that impact so much of their lives.