Wimmera's youth crime: on the front line

FRONT LINE: Tony Phelan is part of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program. He supports underage youth after they have been arrested. Picture: SAMANTHA CAMARRI

FRONT LINE: Tony Phelan is part of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program. He supports underage youth after they have been arrested. Picture: SAMANTHA CAMARRI

​Recidivist, or repeat, youth offending is becoming more severe in the Wimmera, with the effect on the community and the often vulnerable perpetrators, profound.

Tony Phelan and Horsham Inspector Rebecca Olsen are on the front line of youth crime in the region dealing with our most vulnerable young people, aged 10 to 24. 

The profound affect of crime 

Inspector Olsen said the Wimmera was not experiencing an increase in youth offenders, but was witnessing escalating behaviours in a small group of young people.

She said the impact of addiction on youth was behind an increase in theft from motor vehicles and assaults.

POLICE: Horsham Inspector Rebecca Olsen.

POLICE: Horsham Inspector Rebecca Olsen.

“While Victoria has its lowest youth crime rate in five years, those young people that are committing crimes are doing so with more frequency and severity than Victoria has experienced in recent years,” she said.

“The harm resulting from the types of serious violent crimes being committed by young offenders is profound and must be addressed as a priority.”

A call in the dark, the support of a stranger

Day or night, if Mr Phelan’s phone rings, he knows it is most likely a young person in need. 

As a part of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program, Mr Phelan is there to support young people who have been arrested and whose parent or guardian was unable to support them at the time. 

During his two years in the volunteer role Mr Phelan has seen a large number of young people during one of the scariest times of their lives. 

FRONT LINE: Tony Phelan is part of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program. He supports underage youth after they have been arrested. Picture: SAMANTHA CAMARRI

FRONT LINE: Tony Phelan is part of the Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program. He supports underage youth after they have been arrested. Picture: SAMANTHA CAMARRI

“It could be a very threatening time for a young person caught up without support,” he said.

“In nearly every instance I’ve found the young person quite articulate, happy to talk and appreciative there’s someone to sit in with them during the process.

“It’s important when you work in an environment like that that there’s no judgment and you don’t rely an opinion on the issue they’ve been involved in.

“It’s very important to a young person to demonstrate that there is care and the role is important to the judicial system as they can’t carry on with the process without someone there.”

Mr Phelan, a father of three, farmer and former teacher said his role was to ensure the young person was comfortable, knew their rights, to offer referrals and to sit in on the police interviews and processes.

He said more Independent Persons are required to do this work in the Wimmera region.

“Young people involved are often experiencing difficulties in establishing their identity in the society they live. A lot of issues relate back to self image.”

Searching for a solution 

Inspector Olsen said research into youth crime show low level crimes such as graffiti could lead to more serious assaults or car thefts if referral support and interventions did not occur. 

Recent studies in Victoria have shown 63 per cent of children and young people in youth justice had been a victim of trauma, abuse or neglect. These youth are vulnerable... there is no simple solution. - Horsham Inspector Rebecca Olsen

She said locking up youth offenders was not what police were after, with officers putting in extensive effort to help young people turn their lives around. 

“Charging youth offenders is always a last resort with many diversion options available prior to presenting them before the courts,” she said.

“These youth are vulnerable and need a wraparound service to ensure their complex needs are met. There is no simple solution.

“This is a community that is constantly looking for innovative ways of supporting youth.

“There is certainly some increased options in terms of diversion that could be a focus in the future.”

OPERATION FLINDERS: Edenhope police officers took Wimmera teenagers outside their comfort zone to the Flinders Ranges. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

OPERATION FLINDERS: Edenhope police officers took Wimmera teenagers outside their comfort zone to the Flinders Ranges. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Forming bonds, getting on track 

Inspector Olsen said police dedicate time, both in and out of work, to get to know young people including those at risk.

“All police officers need to understand the drivers, services and take the time to connect with youth offenders and victims more so than ever before,” she said.

“Recent studies in Victoria have shown 63 per cent of children and young people in youth justice had been a victim of trauma, abuse or neglect.

“There is a large body of evidence showing that disengagement with education, employment and the community is associated with an increased risk that young people will engage in criminal conduct.

Every year Edenhope officers take to the mountains with at-risk Wimmera youth in Operation Flinders. 

OPERATION FLINDERS: Edenhope police officers took at risk Wimmera teenagers outside their comfort zone. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

OPERATION FLINDERS: Edenhope police officers took at risk Wimmera teenagers outside their comfort zone. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

In August Leading Senior Constable Darren Ferluga said the eight-day trek truly helps young people.

“We’ve had teens who are very anti-police come along,” he said. 

“By day three they see I’m just a big kid like them.”

Similarly, Wimmera police are a vital part of the annual Wimmera River Challenge designed to form bonds with the Koori community.

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