Youth Justice: Restoration or Retribution?

We asked our followers recently what they would like us to talk about on the blog and one topic stood out as a major one to start on… Youth Justice. Over the years I have had a number of jobs either in or supporting the youth justice system in Australia. I must confess I struggled working in the sector. Not because the young people are difficult (in fact they were some of the most responsive young people I have ever worked with), but because of the community perception and the subsequent policy directives. The young people I worked with often lacked direction, struggled with education and were wary of anyone who showed concern for their welfare. The community saw liars, thieves and violent offenders who should be hauled over the coals.
It is hard to ignore the crimes that some of  these young people have committed, and you know what we shouldn’t!!! These young people have been detained because of what they have done and will pay for their crime. However there are a couple of ways that this can happen depending on your point of view. Is detention there for retribution or restoration??? The young people did the crime and they should do the time. We believe that JUSTICE requires it. However, the question we should ask is what happens to them between the first day behind bars and their last day to develop them so that they do not continue back through the revolving door?
In the adult prison system, here in Victoria, there is over 50% likelihood that an offender who is jailed will return to prison within two years of release. A child of a prisoner is SIX times more likely to become an offender than their peers. A young person who is incarcerated will rarely complete secondary education. WHY???  The best answer we can come up with is that the system is a system that is geared toward retribution. We individualise the dimensions of the crime and remove the ideas of social justice from the rights of an offender and then ask them to change. We strip them of their humanity and then ask them to be humane. Crazy!!!
In many youth justice systems and support agencies here in Australia there has been a push towards more restorative practices. This has been met by mixed responses from the community. Governments are still stuck in limbo between retribution and restoration. To provide a measure of punishment for their crime, but to also provide opportunities to develop skills for post-release. The rise in victim-offender mediation and group conferencing has been amazing and the opportunities through NGO’s such as Whitelion and Jesuit Social Services to name a couple, for young people to gain employment and social skills has definitely changed the landscape.
But what does it all mean for us as youth workers??? Many writers have said that a core tenet of youth work is social justice. I ask whether we are being social just to the young people we incarcerate??? Earlier this year I spent some time in Tasmania visiting Port Arthur (if you ever get the chance you simply have to go). Port Arthur was one of the original penal colonies when the British began transporting convicts to Australia. In particular I was fascinated by Point Puer the first ever boys prison in the British empire. The punishments were severe and boys as young as nine were incarcerated there, however they also taught the boys some skills. Some became so skilled they were employed straight from detention to the detriment of other qualified tradesmen who hadn’t been incarcerated. Can you imagine if our incarcerated young people were taught trades in the same way??? Being taught excellence in your handy work. Being so highly sought after that you could walk out of detention and straight into a well paying job???

(A sample of the young boys handy work… It could hold over 1000 people.)

As a youth worker it is our responsibility to advocate for our young people. The current system still lets our young people down. We still have those who believe in retribution in positions of power in the youth justice system and we still have young people following in their adult counterparts footsteps… Dancing through the revolving door. There will always be crime as long as people are on the earth. How we deal with the crime is what is in question.
We believe in RESTORATION here at Ultimate Youth Worker. This does not mean being soft on crime, on the contrary. It does mean providing every opportunity for the young person to make something of themselves. To throw off the social, economic and cultural ties that bind them. To make amends and for them to be given the opportunity to live as free men and women. We believe that the best way to deal with crime is to deal with the social issues which lead to crime. We believe that the best way to deal with offenders is to develop them as whole people! To do this we need to address all the failings of society which led to their incarceration… and restore them to their community. Reflect on this:

Youth workers are facilitators of restoration not social controllers.”

If you take on the challenge to provide a restorative environment for young offenders then you may find yourself having to become a canny outlaw. It is hard to fight for whats right in the face of the easy way of following the rules. Our young people need you to speak for them. They need your actions and support. They need you to be practically wise. They need restoration.


For more info on restorative justice see Howard Zehr below.


What are your thoughts???

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Guest Post on

Our guest post is being published on The blog today – it’s an open look at the gap between youth worker’s and youth minister’s and the need for us to bridge it for the future of youth work. Feel free to post in the comments about how witty, insightful and amazing it is!!!
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Self care 101: There is no work life balance

Work life balance

I have just finished reading an article in the latest Journal of the Australian Association of Social Work. The article addresses that enigma that we all struggle to solve eventually in life, ‘how do I find a work life balance’? The article shows the results of a survey of 439 qualified social workers who had been asked questions around balancing work and family and the stress associated with this.
The results of this survey basically show that the pressures of work impact negatively on family life and create psychological strain on the individual and the family. Conversely, when the pressures of family life impact on work they create more psychological stress on the individual and decrease work effectiveness. It is a cycle that so many of us have fallen into; work pressures lead to pressure at home which leads to pressure at work which leads to pressures at home. Things start spiraling out of control and then some well meaning friend or colleague or our boss says something along the lines of “dude you need to get some work life balance!”
Work life balance
Unless it is an illness, new birth, death or an issue of other family members spiraling out of control rarely have the team at Ultimate Youth Worker seen the impact of family pressures on work. In fact we would be so bold as to say it is never that we spend so much time at home that our work is suffering!!! It is almost always that work is taking up the family time.
As a full-time youth worker doing 40+ hours a week, a Masters student out two nights a week for classes and studying most of the weekend, a member of the student union doing one night time activity per week and starting a new company; my wife pulled me up on my lack of family time at the beginning of the year. I was seeing my kids for a couple of hours a week aside from the crossing of our paths as we got ready for the day ahead. My wife would be asleep on the couch most nights by the time I got home and we rarely had any “us time”. I prioritised WORK over FAMILY. No work life balance there.
When I was called to account by my wife (Yes, even those of us striving to become ultimate youth workers argue with our wives at decibel levels that would shame any self respecting metal band) I was shocked. I hadn’t realised. My kids had an absent father and my wife was living like a single mum. I was unsure of what to do. Everything I was doing was important, wasn’t it? Important to the future of our family. If I worked longer hours I would support more vulnerable young people earning me a positive reputation in the field. If I gained my Masters it would open up doors for promotion and show that I had amazing knowledge. By supporting the student union I was supporting educational standards and building networks for the future. Everything I was doing was for a time just out of reach but right in my line of sight. If I worked harder now my life would be glorious in the future. The problem is the future never becomes the present. There is always another obstacle in the way of ultimate success. I had invested in my identity as a youth worker and pinned my hopes and dreams on a professional future whilst neglecting the present.
Work life balance has obstacles
Work was going great but family was a mess. I spoke to some trusted friends and confidants and they all said I needed to drop some of my work priorities to balance my family priorities. I deferred my Masters for six months and sat back to see balance take hold. Unfortunately, I tipped further away from family. I got caught up in more committees through work, the student union and even went on a recruitment binge for more volunteers for my program at the behest of my boss. My work life balance was quite unbalanced.
You see, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion, or so says Parkinson.
I had removed a work priority but I had not made family a priority, so work expanded to fill ‘the gap’.
What I began to realise was that I was looking at this all wrong. It’s not my fault!!! Someone gave me an equation that had incompatible data. They said:
Equal Time (with Family) + Equal Time (for work) = Balance in life
The problem is there is no balance!!! The data sets are totally incompatible. I might as well have said, buying a telescope + reading a book on hang gliding = qualified zoo keeper!!! Work and Family are two totally different concepts. They cannot be placed in a zero sum equation of balance. Balance assumes that they have equal weighting. As youth workers we strive to support our clients (placing weight on our work) and all to often it is at the detriment of our family (removing prioritised time). We all say family is important, but our actions show our families something different. In the article the authors recount that some social workers stated,

when confronted with demands from work and home, their work commitments was given priority over family commitments” (pg 367).

Why do we do this??? Is it because we believe our family will understand the plight of the young people and will forgive us for missing time with them. If I had a dollar for every youth workers kid (including my own) I met that stated their parent was never around I could retire today.

But if there is no balance, I hear you say, then what do I do???

When you realise that the two concepts of family and work can never balance you can then prioritise action. Choose to put your family first. If you are married I know your vows didn’t say that you take ‘work’ for better or worse. Got kids??? I’m sure they miss your love and affection (I believe it builds good attachment, I think I read somewhere that that’s important???). Want to see them next Christmas??? Then make them your number one priority.
Work will always expand then to fit the remaining time available for it.
But what about my boss??? I can’t just stop going into work?? I need my paycheck? But I’m in ministry and I was called to do this? All valid thoughts!!! Whats your priority though??? I’m not saying quit your job!!! But, your paid for 38 hours… so do 38 hours. You have some high risk kids… put plans in place so you can switch your phone off on the weekend. Have you ever gone away on holiday??? Did the world end while you were gone??? Of course not!!! You put measures in place so that things worked without you. Be more effective in your work time so that it doesn’t spill over into family time.
If your family is your first priority then schedule your time with them. If you are down to finish at 5pm, schedule your arrival at home (If you are really gutsy you could even promise to be home at that time). Honour your commitment to your family. Schedule holidays and weekends away and kids soccer games and date nights with your partner. Then when you have prioritised your family life let work fill work time. I used to do a weekly calendar that began by blocking out Monday to Friday 9-5. I would fill it with Uni and meetings and all manner of other rubbish and my wife would ask when I would be around for the family!!!
If family is your number one priority they get first dibs at your calendar.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I haven’t been doing this long. I had always thought self care was all about me. If someone took your job away you would be sad, disappointed even angry. I Know, I have been fired from work that I loved without any notice. But, if someone took your family away you would become a wreck. A blubbering mess. How many divorces in our field could have been avoided by a good hard look at our prioritise? My wife and I are still together. More to do with her amazing heart than my skills and planning. She knew this stuff intrinsically. Family comes first!
I am still learning. I was out four nights last week and didn’t get to see my kids awake between Sunday and Friday. But I spent Friday night, Saturday and Sunday making up for it.
Do not aim for a work life balance. It is a false economy and one that will lead to a crash… and it won’t be at work. Invest in your family first and then work hard at your job during work hours. There will always be demands on your time and you will always spend more waking hours at work than at home. But if you prioritise your family first they will get the lions share of your attention and you will reap the rewards of a happy and fulfilled life.
P.S. to my friends in youth ministry. You can be more susceptible to putting work first than most others. I know as a church based youth worker in the early part of my career I was paid for 2 days a week and used to work in excess of 30 hours a week!!! That’s fine when you do not have a family. The excuse (and I believe it is and excuse. If you don’t then email me and we can chat) that, “I am in the ministry and that makes it OK to forsake my family for a time because I am just following God’s call on my life and they should support me in it” is preposterous. You married, had a family, they are your responsibility. They come before the ministry.


Parveen Kalliath, Mark Hughes & Peter Newcombe (2012): When Work and Family are in Conflict: Impact on Psychological Strain Experienced by Social Workers in Australia, Australian Social Work, 65:3, 355-371

What are your thoughts??? leave a comment or post a comment on facebook and twitter.


As I said a few weeks back the team at Ultimate Youth Worker are currently developing our “Model of Effective Youth Work Practice“, which will guide how we work as youth workers and how we teach youth work to those in the industry. We are creating this guide for the development of practice excellence for youth workers as a step towards framing good ethical practice that every youth worker can do…not just those with a qualification. Our first pillar of successful youth work that we hold to is that of reflective practice. Our Second pillar of successful youth work is Accountability.
Accountability has gained a bad name in the human services sector particularly over the years that the neo-managerialist approach has entered the fray. Many of us have felt the prying eyes of government agencies and funding bodies who seek to impose their ideologies and boundaries on us and our services whilst asking us to do more. We have seen our supervisors change from reflective supervisors to hamstrung managers. We have seen our multitude of practices being whittled down to be pigeon holed in best practice manuals and funding agreements.
Accountability in our eyes is not the boss hanging over your shoulder making sure you follow the company line. Accountability is a set of checks and balances designed to support you as a person, your practice, your clients and your longevity in the field. Accountability means being open to many people. Your boss, your organisation, your clients, your husband/wife/partner, your supervisor, your mentors etc. Accountability is the glue which holds your goals together and brings focus for the future.
One of the best pieces of accountability I have ever had was initially imposed on me and is now one I can’t do without. In the early days of my career a really switched on youth minister mate of mine said I should get a mentor. Someone outside of the work I do but who understands the sector. Someone that i can vent to, ask for advice and who will make sure I keep some balance in my life. The guy who mentors me knows more about me than almost anyone else and isn’t afraid to tell me how it is. Do you have a mentor??? If not get one!
Over this past weekend myself and two other seasoned youth workers began a think tank support group for a young youth minister in Melbourne. We spent an afternoon together getting to know each other and hearing her vision for the local community she is working in. We asked her to become accountable to a process of ongoing support and development where we will push her to become the best she can be. Accountability in this situation means trusting a group of people from different areas of practice to guide her through strength and weakness to develop her skills to support her community.
Not all of us have great bosses and even more importantly good supervisors. This does make it hard to trust them with accountability. However to have balance at work we must be transparent and accountable. There may be time when we need to be ‘Canny Outlaws’ however we must also work within the systems we find ourselves in. If your boss or supervisor isn’t open to accountability that is more than managerialism ask them to help you. If they still aren’t there DO IT YOURSELF!!! Start a small reflective practice group. Develop your own practical wisdom. Find a mentor. Get external supervision. try, try, try. Be open to managerialism but do not let that be the benchmark, SEEK EXCELLENCE.
Being accountable means being open to people probing your practice as well as your person. Just this week my supervisor asked me to think about how my personality (which can be a dominant one) comes across in meetings and service delivery. I didn’t like having my person stripped bare but I accepted the criticism and actively sought out discussion with colleagues and mentors on how I can work on this. Being accountable means being active. You cant say you are willing to work on your practice and person and then kick up a stink when people call you on it.
Being accountable has many facets and more discussion is necessary. Be aware of your limitations and the boundaries which are imposed on you. Be the best you can be and don’t be afraid to open your practice and your person up to ongoing development. Accountability is what sets apart great youth workers and those we all roll our eyes over.

If you have any questions drop us an email or chat to us on facebook and twitter.

Youth Worker Identity

A couple of months ago I attended a conference where Professor Rob White from the University of Tasmania stated that the key attribute of a youth worker is their identity first and foremost as a youth worker. I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I am coming to the end of my masters degree and wonder what it will mean for my future professional Identity.

As a young man I began my studies in youth ministry. I was working for a local Baptist Church and was looking at gaining a qualification for my future work in the Church. A couple of years later I went on to study at RMITas I wanted to expand my understanding of youth work and the youth services sector. During this time I also had the opportunity to gain a Certificate in Alcohol and Other Drug work. After a few years and some interesting conversations I decided to go back and study for a master of social work. All of these courses have informed my practice as a youth worker over the years and have shaped who I am as a person.

Over the years I have had a number of jobs in the youth services field from drug and alcohol outreach to school based youth worker. I have also had a number of other social work roles such as in adult homelessness services and family services. Depending on whom I was talking too and what specialities my role required I would determine what I would tell a person when they asked what it was I did. For the most part I would tell people that I was a youth worker and deal with questions of my knowledge base if they arose later.

I was asked by a mate recently if I would start calling myself a social worker when I graduate from the masters. Without a second thought I said NO. Whilst I will be qualified as a social worker my heart is in youth. Truth be told I only did the qualification because I was sick of the politics and hierarchy of the welfare field in Australia and wanted “a piece of paper” that said I was as good as the rest. In my heart of hearts I am a youth worker and I am proud of it.

There is a discussion in the field about professionalism and a concurrent discussion on the idea of specialisation Vs generalisation in the field. When the chips are down it doesn’t matter if you have a specialisation or not. A specialisation does not make the professional. Our identity is not in our specialisation it is in our initial focus… working with young people. When we are the best at the core stuff that is when the sector sees us as professionals. Our professional identity hinges on our ability to do our job better than anyone else and that is something that we can be proud of. We resonate with Professor White’s statement that the key distinguishing attribute of a youth worker is indeed their identity first and foremost as a youth worker.

Stay Frosty.