Meaningful engagement with young people on how to respond to drug issues in Australia is critical.

We all want a South Australia where children are nurtured and protected to help them thrive and become well-rounded and successful individuals contributing to the success of our State. But why do we — and I mean us adults — keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Our laws and policy aimed at children and young people are punitive in nature and give out the message that “tough love” is the only way to teach children right from wrong. Any protections that are in place rarely include opportunities or rights for them to complain to somewhere independent, to appeal decisions or have a say.

Every major Commission or Inquiry that has looked at the abuse and/or neglect of children in Australia has showed us adults that we are not listening to what they need, especially in relation to their rights and protections. Most recommendations made include:

· A more rights based approach to protect children, including individual advocates for children, rights to appeal and independent bodies to make complaints to.
· Adequate supports and health and legal services for children and young people when they need it.
· Providing more preventative supports for families and communities.

Some of these recommendations are taken on board and more child focussed policies and laws are implemented for the particular cohort of children the inquiry is addressing. However, they are not considered or taken on board as a broader underpinning of child focussed legislation and/or policies.

The Controlled Substances (Youth Treatment Orders) Bill before the SA parliament at the moment is an example of things again being done to children and young people ‘for their own good’. From what is available in the public domain regarding the Bill, it is not protecting children and young people’s rights or providing them opportunities for an advocate, a second opinion or a lawyer. On the face of it this Bill gives little consideration of children’s developmental ability and their circumstances. We know that the punitive approach in relation to children and young people as it stands does not work.

The teenage years are typically a period of experimentation and many young people may try drugs to feel better or different, to be curious, experiment, to take risks, socialise, bow to peer pressure or to alleviate boredom. There is no way to guarantee our young people will never take drugs, but if they do and particularly if they develop unhealthy drug issues, then we want them to have accurate information on how to access services and receive help. Meaningful engagement with young people on how to respond to drug issues in Australia is critical.

If our young people develop an unhealthy drug problem we need to create specialised rehabilitation pathways and ongoing support services for them. We must change the conversation towards prevention, intervention and support and away from punishment and detention. Forcing young people against their knowledge or their will to undertake treatment is problematic.

Effective treatment does not come from a simple approach of removing the young person from their day to day life and forcing abstinence. Substance abuse is complex and is often associated with disability, mental health issues, family dynamics and social circumstances. Treatment therefore needs a raft of approaches that involve young people, their families and experts. We can improve outcomes for young people who have drug problems by offering support and tailoring intervention programs that build capacity for them to cope with life and address their unhealthy relationship with drugs.

I understand the attraction of a mandatory drug treatment order to many parents who have first-hand experience of the helplessness of having a child addicted to drugs. There is also some hope in having a third party take on the responsibility of ordering your loved one to have treatment.

In a perfect world where we have supportive, therapeutic health facilities available maybe this could be part of the solution. But South Australia does not currently have these services available for young people. Our current services have long waiting lists and are scarce and not specialised in nature. They struggle to meet the needs of voluntary clients in a timely way, and we know how important it is for those seeking help to have the help available at the time they want it.

We need to treat drug and alcohol abuse in young people as a health issue and provide a range of therapies to support young people to manage their substance issue and develop lifelong strategies to manage the underlying factors.

A legal solution to a health problem just doesn’t seem the right way to go. Countries all around the world are implementing policies that offer true therapeutic health responses to drug use and even to drug related legal issues like possession.

In Portugal one of the world’s leading countries on drug policy and harm reduction has demonstrated tangible results. At the core of their approach is an understanding that unhealthy relationships with drugs often conceal frayed relationships with loved ones, and the eradication of drugs is an impossible goal.

We need to address the issue of problematic drug use in our young people by ensuring that when young people want treatment they can get it, and community based and treats each person individually and according to their own situation. This must include a major expansion of treatment and harm reduction services.

We need to protect families and communities with effective and available health based interventions alongside programs to reduce youth unemployment and investment in youth participation strategies. This is the only way to seriously look at helping young people who are addicted to drugs. Punishment and coercion don’t work at an individual or policy level.

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 6th July 2018