They’re not bad kids. They’re kids that have had bad things happen to them.
Kids like *Justin, 18, who lives in a small house with his two young brothers, his ice addict parents and up to four of their ice-addicted friends.
His mother first showed him what drugs were when he was four. When he was 12, his dad introduced him to smoking marijuana. Walking past bags filled with kilograms of ice in the living room is part of his normal reality.
Justin’s home life is volatile. He has arguments with his father every other day, which usually end in a fist fight on the front lawn – but since starting Youth Insearch, occasionally they’ll “hug it out” instead.
It’s not hard to see the path that led Justin to Youth Insearch. He’s been in trouble with the law many times, mainly assault and property damage. Instead of being shipped off to prison or juvenile detention, which would set his feet firmly on the path he was on, Justin was offered the chance to turn his life around through Youth Insearch.
“[Youth Insearch] is like the family I never had,” Justin says to the circle, microphone shaking in his hands because of the drug withdrawals he’s experiencing.
“It’s the first time I’ve sat in a room of people who actually give a f*** about me.”
Justin is so starved of love and affection, to him the feeling of a hug was like “a high” he would get from drugs.
It was clear Justin had made progress since coming along to the camps – “I don’t want to be this person anymore” – but he was struggling to see anything other than the downward trajectory his life was on. A happy life was a foreign concept to him.
And then one of the young Youth Insearch leaders told their story.
The circumstances were different, but the themes were the same.
“Being led by other young people” is the simple secret to the program’s success, Youth Insearch leader Aimee Caulfied says.
Like many of the Youth Insearch leaders, Ms Caulfield went through the program as a troubled teen – dealing with domestic violence at home, which led to anger, self harm and suicidal tendencies.
Now she and her fellow leaders use their experience to show others there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“To have a person in the same age group as you, who has been through the program, and is willingly to share their story is really important,” Ms Caulfield said.
“I was looking at all these leaders who had been through the same sort of things I had been through.
“I was finding out how they dealt with it and how they coped with it. I started using those people as role models.”
After hearing the leader’s story, Justin’s mindset began to shift – here was someone of a similar age, who not that long ago was in a place as dark and low as his. Someone who, while still fighting their own battle, was living a happy and fulfilling life.
Jennie Linton, the Youth Insearch program manager leading the session, asked Justin to step into the middle of the circle. She didn’t explain why, other than to say she wanted to give him a “special memory”.
This was a huge leap of faith for Justin – only two hours earlier he had walked out of the trust building exercises in the previous session.
Justin laid down on the floor, face up, eyes closed. Six leaders gather around him – one at his head and feet, and two either side – to do a simple, but intense, trust building exercise called the cradle.
They got down on their knees, picked him up, and gently rocked him a couple of inches off the ground. Then they stood up, taking Justin with them, and rocked him again at hip height.
When the leaders laid Justin back on the ground, after one more rock, they gave him a group hug.
When he sat down in the circle, Justin’s withdrawal shakes had stopped. He was calmer, his anger had been drained and he more open to change.
Less than three hours later at the end of the next session, which was about setting goals, Justin was dancing and singing along to Justin Bieber’s Never Give Up.
He had transformed from an angry young man to a happy, smiling adolescent, if only for a moment.
Ms Linton says “it’s all about baby steps”.
“The move forward is ongoing,” she said.
Tamworth acting magistrate Mal MacPherson says it’s the only youth support program he’s seen work in 25 years behind the bench – which is why he wants the federal government to continue funding it.
“I’ve seen young people in a foetal position on Friday when the camp starts, who are running around on Sunday, completely different people,” Mr MacPherson said.
“As a magistrate, I keep seeing the same young people coming into court like a revolving door,” he said.
“Locking them up and throwing away the key doesn’t work for these young people.
“You need to deal with the underlying problems, which is exactly what Youth Insearch does.”
The program is at risk, with the federal government yet to commit to any long-term funding. For the last five years, the charity received $400,000 a year, a deal negotiated by former New England MP Tony Windsor during his time on the crossbench.
However, when previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott restructured the Department of Social Service’s grant scheme, Youth Insearch’s funding stream was effectively cut.
Because of this, the government provided the program with a one-off $100,000 “transitional grant”, which runs out in the middle of 2017. Since The Leader began lobbying for government to continue supporting Youth Insearch through its Kids Back On Track campaign, an additional $50,000 has been provided to see the program through the last six months of the year.
But as Mr MacPherson said: “To run the whole show, we need $400,000”.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce organised a meeting between Youth Insearch and Social Services Minister Christian Porter in February. Mr Porter said the charity could apply for a Community Capacity Building grant, which it was previously guaranteed funding for, without going through the application process – however Mr Abbott’s changes have capped the grant at $150,000.
To make up the rest of the funding, Mr Porter suggest Youth Insearch apply for a grant from the Try, Test and Learn Fund. However, it looks largely unsuitable for the program, as it is designed to help “young carers, young parents and young students at risk of moving to long-term unemployment”.
Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker – who went through the program as teenager – said the charity was grateful for the government’s support, but without a rock-solid funding commitment, its future remained in limbo.
*Name has been changed.