News

School shutdowns leave Shepparton teens at risk

By Charmayne Allison

Potential long-term school shutdowns could cut a vital link between Shepparton's at-risk youth and the services that support them, community organisation Uniting Vic Tas has reported.

Child, youth and family services manager for the Goulburn North-East Kasey Holyman said homelessness and family violence services relied on local schools to stay connected with vulnerable youth.

But with COVID-19 restrictions threatening school closures, local young people could be left dangerously isolated.

“I've had one teacher tell me a student said to them, ‘I'm scared about holidays already because my parents can be so mean’," Ms Holyman said.

“Schools offer a significant protective factor, as they are a direct link to services that support young people, provide referrals and give a sense of stability.

“How can we do that if schools don't reopen?”

Extended school holidays could mean victims of adolescents who use violence in the home — often mothers or siblings — were also at greater risk.

But Uniting Vic Tas has taken steps to address this issue, offering youth teams specialised training.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak there was only one support on offer in the community — a group model, which has since been shut down.

However, without schools providing referrals and identifying risk, Ms Holyman was concerned these families were in increasing positions of vulnerability.

“Uniting is happy to support young people who use violence, and support them in new and creative ways, while providing support for family members as well,” she said.

“But we need further resource in the community to provide immediate and ongoing support as a result of isolating practices.”

Services are putting safety measures in place for local at-risk youth, such as ensuring they have phone credit so they can stay in touch.

“Thankfully many youth have access to social media, phones and other networks so they can stay connected,” Ms Holyman said.

There are concerns self-isolation and social distancing could also see a reduction in the number of safe places available to at-risk young people.

“Often respite can come through staying with friends or family members temporarily,” Ms Holyman said.

“But with social distancing, they don't want people moving from place to place.

“A lot of adolescents stay with grandparents, but that could be dangerous now with the COVID-19 spread. In the end, that's up to individuals.”

While these are unprecedented times, Ms Holyman said it was amazing to see services respond so quickly.

She also commended local schools, which she said were tirelessly working to stay connected with vulnerable youth.

“This is still early days, we're only two weeks in,” she said.

“We're lucky we've moved onto social media as a way of connecting. We're also thinking of holding youth groups over Facebook video to keep in touch.

“Other ideas include structured support over the phone, so calling young people at arranged times, as some can be concerned they'll get caught talking to services.”

As for the rest of the community, they can help by keeping an eye out for anyone who is vulnerable.

“You can report to the Victorian Child Protection Service if the person is under 17,” Ms Holyman said.

“Uniting Vic Tas, Primary Care Connect, FamilyCare, The Bridge Youth Services, CatholicCare and SalvoCare can also help.

“The earlier we can get involved and the more stability or support we can offer, the less danger they will end up homeless down the line.”

For more information, call the Shepparton office on 5831 6157 or visit vt.uniting.org