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Learning how to effectively engage young care leavers

30 November 2020 at 5:24 pm
Deb Tsorbaris
Engaging with young people on issues and in ways that are most meaningful to them will only benefit our organisations, writes Deb Tsorbaris, who shares learnings from the Young Leaders Collective program.

Deb Tsorbaris | 30 November 2020 at 5:24 pm


Learning how to effectively engage young care leavers
30 November 2020 at 5:24 pm

Engaging with young people on issues and in ways that are most meaningful to them will only benefit our organisations, writes Deb Tsorbaris, who shares learnings from the Young Leaders Collective program.

Young people are increasingly leading change within communities. More than ever, they’re taking part in protests and activism as a form of political participation, as well as finding and driving solutions to challenges faced by their communities.

The United Nations has reported that young people and youth-led movements have been quick to take action and respond to the needs of others throughout COVID-19, despite young people themselves being among the hardest hit by the pandemic and the recession it has triggered.

While young people are at the centre of many local, national and global issues, the voices and experiences of Australia’s most vulnerable individuals and families are often missing from forums to affect change.

A position paper from Plan International notes that children and young people are often dismissed from participating in political and civic processes due to age and experience. They also tend to be stigmatised as potential perpetrators of disruption, resulting in their underrepresentation in political decision-making.

One of those groups is care leavers, or people who have a lived experience of out-of-home care.

For children and young people who can’t live safely at home – whether temporarily or permanently – out-of-home care is intended to keep them safe and support them to heal and thrive. When those young people leave care – usually at the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state or territory – they often find there are few supports to help them transition to independent adulthood. The supports which are available to care leavers are often insufficient, resulting in many ending up homeless, in the criminal justice system, unemployed or a new parent within the first year of leaving care. This is largely due to young care leavers being excluded from decision-making that affects them.

The Young Leaders Collective

In 2019, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, Victoria’s peak body for children, young people and families, designed the Young Leaders Collective. This was in response to an identified need in both the centre and the sector for young people with lived experience of out-of-home care to be meaningfully included in projects, events, policy discussions, consultations and day-to-day work.

In the pilot phase, five young people aged 18 to 25 were hired by the centre as consultants. They worked with a facilitator to set educational and career goals and to develop a work plan, engaging in group workshops focused on advocacy and building professional skills.

This was expanded in 2020, with a new cohort recruited for a revised program with a triangulated learning approach. This meant the young people learned from participation in the program offerings and from each other, and the centre learned from the young people. Meeting weekly (in person and then online due to COVID-19), the group took part in skills workshops, consulted on centre projects and produced content to help inform the sector and the broader general public about the experiences of young people in out-of-home care.

Learnings from the program 

At the conclusion of the 2020 program in June, feedback from the participants included:

  1. They prefer meeting face-to-face. With COVID-19 shifting much of the program online, the Young Leaders indicated this made engaging with and enjoying the program more difficult. While this was unavoidable, it was decided that the program would wrap up as planned and then be put on hold until face-to-face activities could resume.

  2. No one likes homework. The Young Leaders often found it difficult to keep on top of individual take-home tasks without the support and accountability of the group environment. They preferred completing all work within the allocated group meeting time, with no individual work to be completed outside these hours.

  3. They learn best from each other. The most rigorous debate and discussion occurred when the group bounced ideas between themselves, rather than being prompted directly by questions from the program coordinator. The most meaningful approval or constructive criticism always came from their peers. 

  4. They want to play an active role in projects and the sector. While the Young Leaders enjoyed working quickly and responsively across a range of projects, they reported wanting to take on a more active role in projects. They were more interested in providing in-depth and long-term contribution rather than short-term or one-off consulting work.

What’s next?

A comment by one of the Young Leaders at the end of the program stood out to me:

“Coming into this I thought, ‘All right, you’re probably going to have to be doing what they want you to do’. Like it’s just going to be random workshops, textbook stuff, but it really wasn’t. It was, ‘Alright guys, we’re going to work together and figure out what the problem is in different areas. And we’re going to address it.’ And we are addressing it.” 

Our Young Leaders have told us they want to be embedded in our work – both at the centre and across the child and family services sector. As an organisation and a peak body, we need to come up with a transformative model that focuses on working with and for young people.

Similarly, while a young person’s lived experience is often the reason they are engaged in a program, there is increasing understanding in the youth participation space that this is only one asset they bring. 

Engaging with young people on issues and in ways that are most meaningful to them will only benefit our organisations and services in turn.

Deb Tsorbaris  |  @ProBonoNews

Deb Tsorbaris is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the peak body for child and family services in Victoria.

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