[WHO] Whitelion co-founder and chief executive Mark Watt
[WHAT] Breaking the cycle of disadvantage that lands people in the juvenile justice system
[HOW] Mentoring, education, training, jobs, and connection to community salvage young people's lives
MARK Watt knows mentoring, support and targeted care can save the life of a disadvantaged young person. It saved his. Now he's doing the same thing for thousands of at-risk youths, many of whom have already got into such difficulty they are in some form of detention.
Each year in Australia there are more than 46,000 child protection cases, almost 36,000 young people in out-of-home care and 14,500 young people in the court system. The situation is particularly stark for indigenous youth. As many as 50 per cent of young people in detention are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, even though only 5 per cent of young Australians are indigenous.
Whitelion co-founder and chief executive Mark Watt. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Back in 1999, Watt and former Carlton footballer Glenn Manton set up Whitelion, an organisation that provides relationships, emotional buttresses, training, role models and, crucially, jobs.
This combination of support and intervention creates a path to a stable, healthy and fulfilling life for as many as 90 per cent of the young people the organisation becomes involved with. It is all but miraculous, and proves that issues many may consider intractable can be overcome when someone cares and acts.
Whitelion is a human justice component of our nation that works alongside the official youth justice system, and Watt is here in The Zone to explain its genesis and the services it provides through 16 regional and metropolitan locations across Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. The full transcript of our interview and a short video of Watt are at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone.
The bulk of young people's problems are caused by family dysfunction and collapse, some of which Watt attributes to a widening gap between the well off and the disadvantaged.
''Families are breaking down, and when they break down, they break down significantly. The government is taking on the statutory responsibility, but these young people need relationships, they need support and they need things that government would really, really struggle to provide.
''So, it is a partnership between the community and the government to raise these 35,000 children and young people that find themselves not being able to live at home.''
Watt says youth at risk struggle with issues such as education, their home life and mental health, drugs and alcohol. ''It is often generational as well, so it's not just the young person themselves; they come from a family that has also got those issues.''
Watt's father was a violent man who left the family when his son was seven. His mother remarried, and his stepfather was also violent. His life, he says, was literally saved when some adult male mentors stepped in to help, as did some good friends of his own age.
He was failing VCE English and one of his mentors coached him. He passed and went to university, where he studied business and became an accountant.
He did not stay long in that profession. His life changed again when he started volunteering at a detention centre for young women. ''I started a radio station there with a friend when I was studying accounting. And so I started with some voluntary work - visiting and getting involved in starting this radio station, teaching people how to DJ and then that just led to growing my interest in youth work. So I gave up being an accountant and became a youth worker.'' He did a master's degree in social work.
In this new role he discovered his vocation - and Glenn Manton. They recognised ''that a lot of the young people within the youth justice system are very disconnected, isolated and needing those extra supports to help them break the cycle of disadvantage.''
He says the hardest thing he ever had to do was lock up young people while he was working in detention centres. ''It's not really, when you look at it, their fault; they really didn't have much chance or opportunity.''
Since then, his life has been dedicated to providing opportunity. A core element of this is the partnerships Whitelion forms with businesses, which provide training and jobs that financially secure troubled young people once they have been stabilised by Whitelion's mentoring and other support programs, which happen before, during and after detention. Businesses that work with Whitelion include Toll Holdings, Lend Lease, Schweppes and KFC.
Watt cites the case of a young woman in New South Wales who had been in and out of detention since she was 12. Whitelion, which takes a personalised approach to each young person, came to her when she was 18, three months before she was to be released.
''She found that she could actually break the cycle that she was in, that she had previously felt she couldn't break. Through employment, through connection back into the community and that ongoing mentoring and support, she has been in employment for 12 months and therefore she has been out of prison or detention for 12 months, and so that young girl's life is on the way to being completely changed.''
Prevention and early intervention have become an increasingly important part of Whitelion's work since it merged late last year with Open Family Australia, an organisation that seeks to get homeless young people off the streets and into care.
''The two services come together very well. Now we've got workers on the streets working with kids and we've also got the mentoring, the employment, so once they become stable we can progress them in their life through those other programs.
''It is a more rounded thing. The other thing is we now have more capacity as an organisation, coming together, saving costs, which is also very important to do.''
Whitelion needs volunteers, and those who make it through the vetting and training often find they get as much out of it as the youths they are helping. ''It changes mentors' lives and young peoples' lives. Our mentors stick, and quite often it becomes a sort of purposeful friendship for life. We ask for 12 months, but often in five, six, seven, 10 years' time they are still meeting.''
Beyond volunteering, you can support Whitelion through its yearly Bail Out, in which people spend a night in prison and experience some of the things young people do when they go through the courts and are incarcerated.
''We lock up 200 people who really want to make a difference in the community. They lock themselves up, experience what a lot of our young people experience, getting fingerprinted, handcuffed and going to court, spending time in the cells.
''So, really just going through the whole experience that young people go through, and then, at the same time, raising some money, which really does help us operate our programs.'' The second website below details the Bail Out, which is happening next month.
Whitelion not only makes social sense, its economics are compelling. The average yearly cost for each place in the custodial system is about $170,000. Whitelion's Leaving Care Mentoring Program costs $4350 a year for each young person.
This year, Whitelion is increasing its programs for indigenous young people to 20 per cent of its overall work. Half the indigenous population is under the age of 20, adding to the need for community support.
Whitelion's work supports the entire community, and the economy. ''The issue is society-wide because it has got a ripple effect - and if you don't break the cycle, it's got a generational effect. So it affects us all; it affects us when we get our car stolen, it affects us when we don't feel safe on public transport.''
But when they are solved, people like Mark Watt are created. We could do with a lot more like him.
Michael Short: Mark Watt, welcome to The Zone and thank you kindly for your time. You are the co-founder and chief executive of Whitelion, which supports, and in some cases literally saves, some of the most marginalised and at-risk young people in Australia. Can we start please Mark, with an overview of the Whitelion and what it does?
Mark Watt: Whitelion was started in 1999 through Glenn Manton, the ex-Carlton footballer, and myself getting together and recognising that a lot of the young people within the juvenile justice system are very disconnected, isolated and needing those extra supports to help them break the cycle of disadvantage that they find themselves in.
That really was the trigger for starting Whitelion back in 1999, and what Whitelion does is provide relationships, opportunities and support to young people to help them live a healthy, stable and integrated life back in the community.
MS: Before we get on to how that happens and look at some case studies perhaps, can we have a look at a few of the numbers to have a feel for the size and scope of the issues, Mark? How many young people, for example, are homeless? How many are in the juvenile justice system?
MW: Well, there are too many, I suppose, to start with. There are too many. There are 35,000 children and young people in out-of-home care in Australia, and unfortunately that is a growing number. There are about 14,000 young people involved in juvenile justice across Australia, again a growing number, and one that concerns us greatly.
There're about 15,000 homeless kids in Melbourne alone. As you can see, they are pretty serious numbers, especially given that there are other numbers going the right way in terms of us living longer, we’re healthier, we're earning more money. Those sorts of stats are going the right way. But stats about kids in out-of-home care are going the wrong way.
MW: That is a very good question. I think it's really the growing gulf between the haves and have nots. Families are breaking down, and when they break down they break down significantly. And so that is when the government has got to come in and become the parent to the young people and the children, which is a pretty crisis type of state for that to happen.
They become young people that need to get into foster care, residential units and, as I said before, the government becomes their parent. And really we as a community take on the responsibility of parenting these kids, and that's a big responsibility.
MS: Now, are we taking on that responsibility in the community because our tax dollars are not being used appropriately or effectively?
MW: It’s an interesting one. The government is taking on the statutory responsibility, but these young people need relationships, they need support and they need things that government would really, really struggle to provide. So, I think it is a partnership – it’s a partnership between the community and the government to raise these 35,000 children and young people that find themselves not being able to live at home.
MS: In general, who are considered youths at risk, and what challenges do they face?
MW: Youth at risk covers a range of things. Youth at risk are young people that struggle with education, they struggle with their home life; they have many complex issues. They might have mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues, abuse issues. So you can see it is a variety of issues that these people are facing.
The issue for youth at risk is they have normally got multiple issues. It is often generational as well, so it's not just the young person themselves; they come from a family that has also got those issues, who come from a family that also has those issues. So, it's a deep problem that needs a response that won't take five minutes. It is a long-term response.
MS: You say it's a deep problem and you point out that it's generational, or intergenerational. Is it intractable?
MW: No, because the community and the government and the business community, all these groups coming together, can make a difference and can change things - really break the cycle that a lot of these families and young people find themselves in.
These cycles can be broken through a significant other, strengthening families, opportunities for employment, support with education, housing, those sorts of things really do change lives of families and young people.
MS: Can you take that a bit further then, please Mark, and give us an example of how Whitelion does make these differences?
MW: There is a young person that we have been working with in New South Wales who found herself locked up at the age of 12 and found herself locked up many times, unfortunately. We met her when she was about 18 or 19, three months before she was going to get released.
Through our mentoring, our engagement and giving, I suppose, the young person found that she could actually break the cycle that she was in - that she had previously felt she couldn't break. Through employment, through connection back into the community and that ongoing mentoring and support, she has been in employment for 12 months and therefore she has been out of prison or detention for 12 months and so that young girl’s life is on the way to being completely changed.
MS: Do you come into contact with young people only once they have entered the juvenile justice system?
MW: No, we meet them before and after and during. We take referrals for young people when they get themselves in trouble and agencies refer them to us for a mentor, for a job, for some community support and also we meet them when they are in care or in custody, or post-custody and post-care.
MS: Why is this an issue for our whole society and economy?
MW: Well, it’s a massive issue, isn’t it? The issue is society-wide because it has got a ripple effect – and if you don’t break the cycle, it's got a generational effect. So it affects us all; it affects us when we get our car stolen, it affects us when we don’ feel safe on public transport. It affects us because it is very expensive to keep building prisons and paying for hospitals and all sorts of different treatments that a lot of these young people, if their issues are not fixed or there’s an intervention that doesn't happen in their life, it can become chronic.
Once it becomes chronic and they get older, then the problems are very, very hard to turn around and to solve. So I think the younger we can intervene and support, especially at the family level, then the better the outcome is for the community and for the young person and their family.
MS: What sort of success rates do you have, and what does success look like? You have just mentioned an example of a young woman in New South Wales. Can you talk a bit more about what success means?
MW: I think success really means that a young person’s life becomes more stable and more connected. We like to see their socialisation or their networks growing, their positive behaviour, so they are doing less negative behaviour, their drug use decreasing, their offending decreasing.
All those are the sort of indicators that we look for with young people; that they are more involved in education and employment, and so really if a young person finds themself in custody, the success factor is, of course, that they don't return or they don't return as often. If they offend, they offend less and are involved in less-serious offences.
If they are in care, we want to see that they are actually starting to become more healthy, more connected to the community. So they are all the sorts of things that we look for and we find that if you give a young person a job and a mentor, then really the results are fantastic. We find that it's probably up in the 80% to 90% range of young people being positively impacted by a mentor and a job.
MS: How does the mentoring work?
MW: It works in a variety of ways. What we are looking for is community-minded people that have got a bit of perseverance, commitment and are reliable and really want to make a difference in a young person’s life. So, firstly we collect a range of volunteers who are trained and supported and equipped to become a mentor. We look for a 12 month commitment - so this is long-term involvement, because short-term mentoring doesn't work.
Once we find these long-term trained and supported mentors, we start also connecting at the same time to young people and building a relationship with them. And then we can introduce them to each other through activities, through camps, through meetings and over a period of time they are matched. Often they have things in common; they have a commitment, they have a spark, they really want to get to know each other and that’s how the mentoring relationship starts.
MS: Presumably the mentors get a lot out of it, too.
MW: Oh yes. It changes mentors’ lives and young peoples’ lives. Our mentors stick, and quite often it becomes a sort of purposeful friendship for life. We ask for 12 months from our mentors, often in 5, 6, 7, 10 years time they are still meeting.
MS: Is the juvenile justice system coping? Is it a good system that we have?
MW: Locking up young people is never good; I think it should always be the last resort. It is sad that sometimes it's not the last resort. We know, really, that being locked up is not a positive thing for many people because they often can learn things that they shouldn't be learning at that age. So, I think that what we need to try is community responses for young people as long and as often as we can. And as I say, it's a last resort.
When they do get locked up in custody, I think that really keeping them connected to community through mentoring, through visitation programs, through giving them the ability to build those relationships is really important. Plus, of course, all the basics like education, counselling, looking at what has brought them there – those sorts of things. So, it's a combination of things and sometimes I think government can focus on the more tangible things like education, which is great, and maybe don’t value the intangible things like relationships and connection to community enough.
MS: And those relationships and connections really have to come from the community. Government can't really provide that, can it?
MW: No. And the great news for governments that run these institutions is that a lot of people from the community are keen to be involved, they are keen to make a difference, they are keen to give back, if you like, and so really what we're looking for is open doors from the government to allow access and relationships to form in a safe environment for everybody.
MS: How do you guarantee it is safe? How do you vet the mentors?
MW: Vetting mentors and training mentors and supporting young people is really the key. We vet them through our training, we vet them through interviews, we vet them through screaming, reference checks, those sorts of things.
A lot of the time, in the early time when the young person and the mentors are meeting, it's all supervised. So, we feel that's a pretty good system and of course a lot of the people we deal with also vote with their feet who they want to develop a relationship with.
MS: So, say somebody is reading this and they think that's a good idea I'd like to do that, what is the next step?
MW: If you want to become a mentor or want to become an employer, and we haven't spoken much about employment, but employment is a real key for us. We're looking for people to give young people often their first chance of a job, and so if you are an employer reading this or hearing about this, we would really love to hear from you. So, prospective employers, mentors, community-minded people who want to help at-risk young people can get on to the Whitelion website, which is www.whitelion.org.au.
MS: And you just follow the steps there?
MW: Yes, and Michael it's very important because it is where the difference is made – through the community getting involved. There is a lot of other positive things that happen for young people; counselling, support from social workers, support by government, but in the long-term it's the community connections that really will help the young person in the future. If they can get a job, earn real money, they can make a lifetime friend through a mentor, they can feel hope and a future, think that makes all the difference.
MS: What has the response been like from business?
MW: We have had a lot of businesses involved in the Whitelion program, the employment program, great companies, name companies, like Schweppes and KFC, Lend Lease, all these sorts of companies are giving kids a chance and they are proving that it works. Toll, for instance, run a program in their organisation where they employ about 30 of your young people, many of whom work for the company for many years.
MS: Do you find that it needs to come from the CEO, the signal to get involved?
MW: I think the community needs ambassadors. We need community ambassadors to help our young people, and that's really whether you're working with the next-door neighbour, helping to support the next-door neighbour, the street, the local community, the football club, the basketball club, or you're in your company and you want to make a difference.
Really anyone in a company can influence and make some waves to really say hey, look I want to get community-minded, can we support Whitelion, can we support a community group to get involved in our workplace?
MS: It has been going for a fair while. You have talked about perseverance and commitment. You embody that, you epitomise that. How are you going? Does it take a toll on you, or is it an uplifting thing most of the time? What is your life like?
MW: When I was young, I was brought up in a single-parent family, and had a number of issues. And really mentoring and connection to the community was what helped me. So, personally I am motivated by my own life story that really saved my life, I think, and gave me a hope in the future. That, I suppose, spurs me on to try to do that for other young people and other families.
I am also surrounded by great support through our board, through our volunteers, through people who are like-minded that want to help, and so I feel in a very privileged position and that keeps me spurred on.
One of the events that we have that really spurs me on every year is our Bail Out. That's where we lock up 200 people that really want to make a difference in the community. They lock themselves up, experience what a lot of our young people experience, getting fingerprinted, handcuffed and going to court, spending time in the cells. So really just going through the whole experience that young people go through, and then, at the same time, raising some money, which really does help us operate our programs. It is a fantastic event, the Whitelion Bail Out, and there is a website for that as well – www.whitelionbailout.org.au It's an opportunity for the community to get involved, to have a fun night at the same time help many young people.
MS: And that is happening later in May?
MW: It is happening in May in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It is open to everyone in those states, where you get yourself locked up and have a great night.
MS: So you go to that website and you can help bail someone out and that's how you can contribute some funding to Whitelion?
MW: Yes, you can bail someone else out, or you can lock yourself up. That website tells you everything, and we've already got over 100 people. We're looking at 200 to 300 people to be locked up in the month of May.
MS: Can you talk a little bit more about your early experience, and how you came to have this knowledge of mentoring and the change that can occur through relationships?
MW: Yes, well I suppose my father left when I was seven. He was a very violent man. And then my mother got involved in other relationships, and we had a pretty poor upbringing. So firstly it was some positive peers, secondly there were some really positive adult male role models. One of the issues we have is that many people don't have positive male role models in their lives. We're very short of those and so for me positive male role models made a difference in my life, and I know that's why the power of mentoring works.
A lot of our young people don't have positive males. We find it a little bit hard to recruit male mentors, but male mentors make very, very good mentors and very positive role models. So, it was important for me and really helped me get through some pretty tough years in my life.
MS: Were there turning points in your life where you realised at the time that something good was happening out of the difficulties around you?
MW: I think it was just getting through a bit of a crisis time in our life, where my stepfather was pretty violent as well and so the positive people helped us get through that and then also led me through to help with my study. I remember my mentor, when I was failing VCE English, helped me pass my English, which then helps me go to university. Without him as my mentor, I would not have passed English and therefore I would not have got into university. So it really did help me, my studies, my home life and my personal life, which was great?
MS: What did you study?
MW: I actually studied accounting. I did a Bachelor of Business and then later on I changed and got a Masters in Social Work.
MS: How did that happen?
MW: Well, there is an old institution called Winlaton where they used to lock up young women and I started a radio station there with a friend when I was studying accounting. And so I started with some voluntary work - visiting and getting involved in starting this radio station, teaching people how to DJ and then that just led to growing my interest in youth work. So I gave up being an accountant and became a youth worker, and I suppose the rest is history.
MS: And that's what you were doing when you and Glenn Manton got together?
MW: I was working at a youth detention centre and I met Glenn and we both realised, as I said, that these young people needed those community connections. And obviously the AFL is very connected to the community and we were leveraging off that relationship and off that connection to really try to bring people from the community.
But we did not realise the community were already ready and wanting to go, and so we found that we had a lot of community support. And we're keen about partnerships. It is all about partnerships; government, business and the community getting together to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families.
MS: Speaking about partnerships: late last year Whitelion joined forces with Open Family Australia. Why? And how is that going?
MW: Merging of not-for-profits is a big thing these days. It’s a thing that makes sense. What we're trying to do is increase our services to young people, and open Family is a very experienced organisation working with homeless kids, preventing them from really becoming, as I talked about before, chronic.
So Open Family workers are on the streets meeting kids and connecting with them. Whitelion is probably a bit further back – we provide mentoring and employment services, and so the two services come together very well. Now we’ve got workers on the streets working with kids and we've also got the mentoring, the employment, so once they become stable we can progress them in their life through those other programs.
It is a more rounded thing. The other thing was, I suppose, we now have more capacity as an organisation, coming together, saving costs, which is also very important to do.
MS: What is the hardest thing you've ever had to do, that you are able to talk about here, Mark?
MW: I suppose the hardest thing I've had to do in my life was when I was working at the youth detention centre and having to lock up kids. It is a very hard thing to do, especially realising that they themselves have been victims. It's not really, when you look at it, not their fault; they really didn't have much chance or opportunity.
And I think of our indigenous friends that are 50% of young people locked up around Australia, but only 5% of the population is indigenous. So, that is really difficult to confront, that level of disadvantage that ends up allowing young people at a very young age to be locked up. Really, the effort needs to go in their lives, back in the families, their communities rather than be focused at the custody end.
MS: Mark, thank you very much for your time today.
MW: Thanks Michael.