Mentors the key to ending generations of crime

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When an arrest becomes a badge of honour in a dysfunctional family, it’s tough for kids to ask for help. Adult and peer mentors can help break the cycle. By Emmeline Shineberg and Sunisa Nathan.

Mentorship is crucially important for troubled young people, experts say.

Difficult home lives could push young people into contact with the youth justice system or homelessness.

Swinburne Professor of social work Jenny Martin said young people needed mentors – support from someone who understood what they were going through.

“That could be peer mentors, someone who’s their own age who has been through the justice system or who’s been through similar sorts of issues and has come through the other end, and they’re ready to give back,” she said.

She said support could come from significant adults.

“If they can’t get it in the family, look to the community … someone who will take an interest in them and who will provide some positive guidance, someone they can go and talk to.”

Sergeant Mal McKern from Boronia police said locally he had seen the impact of a lack of mentors on young people.

There’s a social security cycle, he said. “It continues on and kids grow up where the parents have always been.

“They don’t have mentors that can lead them out of their behaviours,” he said.

Sgt McKern said young people became caught up in the issue the parents were living out and then become a product of that. They couldn’t see a way out.

“They resort to a feeling of lack of self-respect because they’re not brought up in positivity and they start looking for other things to do that excites them, and that’s where a lot of them fall into gangs,” he said.

Sgt McKern said there were diversion programs for young offenders, including one called Ropes – a pre-court diversion program. That’s been in place in Victoria across Children’s Courts since 2017.

“We try to connect young people into this Ropes program to avoid a court appearance and give them a second chance.”

“If they complete that, they are dismissed from court,” he said.

Sergeant McKern said he strongly recommended it. “It’s an extraordinary program and kids that have made a mistake have turned out really well, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Access to mentors outside the home was especially important where home did not provide a supportive environment.

Professor Martin said many young people had troubled relationships with families and could find themselves out of home because they’d been kicked out or because of violence or abuse.

“There’s some pretty damaging circumstances that push young people out,” she said.

Intergenerational crime

Tasmania Police Constable Deon Johns said family influence and experience had a powerful impact on young people.

“We cannot put a number on it but if they (the youths) have parents that offend, siblings that actively offend, there is a high chance that they will go on to offend,” he said.

“If the parents don’t want to do the right thing then they won’t, and that’s the issue.”

A study conducted by the Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies in 2008 found six Tasmanian extended families were responsible for the majority of serious crimes committed in and around Hobart at that time.

All six families were found to have a “particularly strong pattern of intergenerational offending”, the study said. The majority of offenders committed their first offence aged between 13 and 17. 

Constable Johns said many of the same family names are seen consistently in the justice system.

“I’ve been doing this job for over 10 years and yes, there are the same names that keep coming up.”

When getting arrested is badge of honour

The lack of stigma about jail and crime within these families and small communities also had an impact.

“There is no stigma around jail, they see their family members in jail and think ‘this is what’s going to happen to me’,” Constable Johns said.

Many children in these communities wear their first criminal offence as a badge of honour and because of this “not all young people want help to stay out of trouble”.

Constable Johns said there were many agencies available to help young people to stay out of trouble, but they had to want help.

 “The ones that are in detention have committed serious crimes. When someone is sent to Ashley (Youth Detention Centre), either A, the crime is serious enough for them to be there, or B, they’ve just continued to offend, and they won’t stop offending.”