Facilitating complex partnerships to address a need in youth justice – the development of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program

In the late 1990s, through their interactions with the Children’s Court of Victoria, CMYI became increasingly concerned about the disproportionate numbers of young people of refugee or migrant background coming before the courts and these young people lacking a clear understanding of the legal processes that had led to them being there. It is generally a legal requirement in Victoria for a young person to have an independent person at a police interview if no parent or guardian is present. At that time, young people’s experiences of volunteer Independent Persons varied greatly across the state, with no consistency in their screening, training nor parameters of the role.

Inspired by a small program of the Werribee Community Legal Centre, CMYI and Youthlaw successfully advocated for funding for a pilot program to provide young people with timely access to support from trained and culturally competent, volunteer independent persons. The pilot also established a statewide infrastructure for a broader program. It was in every stakeholders’ interest – it would ensure young people coming before the courts understood the legal process they were experiencing, something also necessary to convictions; it would streamline the process for Victoria Police to call independent persons when required and ensure that volunteers had the skills and knowledge to perform their role effectively, saving police time and resources; it would build in another opportunity for a young person to be referred to support services (by the IP at the point of police interview) in line with the State Government’s crime prevention objectives; and it would ensure that young people without parent/carer attendance had the support of a trained, culturally competent person while they were interviewed by police.

Under Victoria’s then Crime and Violence Prevention Strategy, Safer Streets and Homes, in 2003, Crime Prevention Victoria within the Victorian Department of Justice provided funding and support to CMYI to develop an 18 month pilot in partnership with the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, Youthlaw, Victoria Police, the Federal Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and shortly thereafter, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. Community Legal Centres and Cutting Edge UnitingCare supported program implementation at the local level. The success of YRIPP hinged on the success of its complex and unique partnerships.

Through CMYI’s guidance, the program reflected a clear understanding of the challenges newly arrived young people and their families faced in understanding an unfamiliar legal system. For young people who have had traumatic interactions with figures of authority or police within their country of origin, their response to police may be influenced by these past experiences. This, alongside a lack of cultural understanding or bias on behalf of police, can potentially escalate the risk of a young person being detained by police. The guidance of CMYI and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) ensured the centrality of the experiences of Indigenous, culturally diverse, newly arrived and refugee young people. Through training co-developed and delivered by CMYI, VALS, YACVic, Youthlaw and Victoria Police, program volunteers became skilled in providing appropriate support to culturally diverse young people, supporting their rights and making referrals to support agencies.

In 2004, YRIPP received the Victorian Government’s Community Safety and Crime Prevention Award for Enhancing Safety in Indigenous and Diverse Communities and in 2007, it was funded to be implemented state-wide. Upscaling the program was an exciting challenge and Manager Sally Reid was successful in gaining a Churchill Fellowship to travel to the UK and learn from the implementation of similar models. Through her research, it became clear that upholding the rights of young people required defining the role of the Independent Person in legislation as well as ensuring that it be performed by an endorsed agency and person ‘accredited’ in the role. The YRIPP partners advocated for the Victorian Law Reform Commission to examine this area but despite this occurring and the VLRC making recommendations generally consistent with these findings, this area of legislation remains unchanged.

In the absence of this, the YRIPP partners, having developed a definition of the IP through an examination of precedent and consultations with then Children’s Court President, Judge Jennifer Coate, as well as a standardised and rigorous screening and training program for IPs and a streamlined police callout process, successfully advocated for YRIPP to be mandated in the Victoria Police Manual as the Statewide service provider of Independent Persons.

The YRIPP program has become embedded within the Victorian Youth Justice service system. In 2020-21, its 400+ volunteers supported 2,813 young people in police custody. The data collected through YRIPP has helped to identify trends as they arise amongst young people in custody informing CMYIs advocacy on youth justice issues. The lines of communication opened and sustained over a significant time between the project partners has also been of significant benefit, enhancing collaboration, strengthening cross-sectoral relationships and enabling more responsiveness to issues as they arise. Volunteering for YRIPP has offered now thousands of people an opportunity to upskill, make a difference and enhance their connectedness with others in their community.