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Breaking down barriers for more engaged lives

Australia, 19 May 2016

Life Without Barriers (LWB) provides care and support services across Australia including family support and out-of-home care, disability services, home and community care for older Australians and support for refugees and asylum seekers. It also works in the areas of mental health, homelessness and youth justice.

LWB’s CEO Claire Robbs won Macquarie’s biennial 2012 David Clarke Social Innovation Fellowship, and following an international research tour, introduced the Youth Advocacy Program (YAP) to Australia. The program has been integrated as part of LWB’s community-based services for young people and has already made a significant difference to many lives.

In the first 18 months from August 2014 till December 2015, 45 per cent of young people from the program have been restored to their family or are in the process of having relationships restored, while a further 50 per cent have transitioned to a semi-independent or independent model of living. This has included involvement in employment or supported employment. Twenty of the young people have identified as Aboriginal and the recent employment of an Aboriginal YAP advocate has been effective in supporting an increase in the numbers restored to family or kinship care.


A few years ago, a young Sydney boy, Billy (not his real name), found it near impossible to say no to his peers, even if it meant committing a crime. Billy had been placed in residential care, in very traumatic circumstances, and he felt vulnerable. He was easily manipulated and desperate to fit in.

Billy is in the first cohort of at-risk young people in out-of-home care (OOHC), aged between 15 and 18, who are participating in a Sydney-based pilot program run by Life Without Barriers, which commenced in Sydney in 2014.

Developed in the United States, YAP aims to connect vulnerable and at-risk young people to family and community. Originally focused on young people in the juvenile justice system, LWB saw the potential of the model to better support young people leaving the care system in Australia.

With the support of his advocate, Billy has completed high school and plans to re-engage with his transition to work program. – Claire Robbs

YAP uses paid and trained advocates who work intensively with young people for up to six months and uses the interests, skills and strengths of the young person to create improved family and community links.

LWB has a two-year partnership with US-based YAP Inc, and has commissioned Griffith University to conduct research on the effectiveness of its pilot program in Sydney.

The LWB pilot uses ‘postcode recruitment’ – a relatively new concept in Australia of sourcing employees (advocates) directly from a client’s neighbourhood.

Postcode recruitment, a clever harnessing of social capital within communities, is based on the simple premise that providing support networks close-by will lead to more sustainable outcomes for clients.

"My advocate helped me out a lot with all that’s happened with me. I was a little scared moving around, but with my advocate moving around with me it made it easier to accept," says Billy.

While in YAP, Billy moved to an LWB disability transition house and then to a permanent government-funded villa. He settled in well and, with the help of his advocate, has begun building a new network of support, which includes a former neighbour and his wife. He visits their home and goes on outings with their family.

"I love my new place and all the staff. YAP works well if you work with them, too. I’ll miss my advocate when I graduate," says Billy.

With the support of his advocate, Billy has completed high school and plans to re-engage with his transition to work program. He also attended an assertiveness course.

"Billy and his advocate have spent a lot of time working together on developing Billy’s assertiveness and strategies for resisting risky situations. Billy now appears more self-confident, reports that he is able to say ‘no’ without feeling bad and can stand up for himself more than in the past," says his LWB support person.

"He says that he has refused to engage in criminal activity and has told other young people that he did not care if they teased him. This is a significant achievement for Billy."

LWB’s CEO Claire Robbs says these kinds of relationships form the backbone of YAP’s success. Robbs hopes that the advocates they recruit, who are available 24/7 and work flexible hours, will help young people develop sustainable, long-term connections with a community network.

The YAP model is ‘strength-based’, focusing on assets the kids and families have already and building upon them, says Robbs.

"Every conversation we have is about the strengths of the young person, what can be done to solve this problem, and who can help us. It sounds like such a simple thing but a lot of the time with young people who have experienced trauma, who may have had interactions with the juvenile justice system, or challenges of drug and alcohol use and abuse, we actually focus a lot on the negatives of their life," says Robbs.

YAP has a 40-year history in the US and has been adopted in 25 major cities, boasting a proud record of recruiting and utilising Indigenous leaders within neighbourhoods. It has also developed and supported community-based programs based on this model in Ireland, Scotland, Guatemala and Sierra Leone.

"The support I received from Macquarie was the lynchpin for getting this pilot together," says Robbs. "Most non-profit organisations run incredibly lean budgets, focusing the available funding on direct client work."

"This is certainly the case with Life Without Barriers, so being able to see the program in action, understand the conditions of its success in other cultural and community settings, and really design something that suited the Australian context put us in a much better position to make a positive difference to the lives of children and young people."

US criminal justice education institution the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, consistently reports that YAP has been highly successful in keeping young, at-risk people out of detention.

Its April 2014 report noted that when referred to YAP, most youth (86 per cent) remained free of arrest. Moreover, the vast majority (93 per cent) of all YAP clients remained in the community (defined as living in a residence with at least one parent, an adult relative or adult family friend, an adoptive family, or independently) at the time of their discharge from YAP.

The ‘in community’ focus of the program was one of the first things that caught the attention of LWB, along with the focus on the strengths and not the deficits of children and young people.

"It stands to reason that if children and young people are in the care system they are likely to have experienced some sort of trauma or difficulty in their lives," says Robbs.

"However, it’s a mistake to approach this as a deficit or ‘issue’ to be managed. Just like all young people, the children and young people in care that I speak to have interests, skills and talents, and are trying to find their place in the world and make the best life they can. This is also what attracted us to YAP – letting the young person’s interests and strengths set the plan."

Over the past decade, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of supporting young people both before and after they leave care so that they are better equipped to make a successful transition to an independent life.

"Unfortunately, for many young people in care there is a gap in the support they are able to call on once they turn 18 or move out of the statutory care system. This isn’t the case with their wider peer group. Most young adults continue to receive support from their families and friends as they settle into adult life well beyond 18. The YAP model gives us a new way to try and support young people leaving care to set up their lives as adults."

States and Territories vary in what support, and for how long, they provide for young people leaving care. In Victoria, legislation provides for after-care support up to 21 years of age; New South Wales, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia provide support up to 25 years of age and the ACT, Queensland and Tasmania do not stipulate an age.

Robbs says the YAP postcode recruitment model – with employees coming from as close as the client’s own apartment block – is very innovative in Australian youth advocacy work.

The advocate also has to be able to demonstrate strong community engagement, through involvement in youth groups, Police Citizens Youth Clubs or the local church, for example. So, in most cases, they are already engaging with at-risk youths in the community.

"That person really acts as a sort of mentor with the young person to then help them connect into not only the formal government funded services that are available to them, but the informal community network that helps them then be part of the community. There’s been some very promising results."

She adds that the life experiences people have had is as important as their work experience and qualifications for roles like this.

"What we’re trying to do is to form normal relationships with children and give them a normal day. For some of these kids and young people there is therapeutic value in a normal day – doing the things other kids their age do, and being part of the community. At the end of the day, what we’re focused on is working with children and young people to really make a positive difference to their lives. And as an industry, we need to embrace the importance of data, measuring and outcomes to support us to shape our work, to know we’re doing it well, and to be able to improve and do it better."

LWB firmly believes that social innovation occurs when information-sharing is encouraged across portfolios. So, LWB employees working in child protection programs bounce ideas off those in disability or refugee advocacy to learn from each other’s successes and failures.

What we’re trying to do is to form normal relationships with children and give them a normal day. – Claire Robbs.

The organisation also takes a top-down and bottom-up approach to fostering innovation. At a high level, the executive and program directors have mandated key performance indicators around innovation, and KPIs on innovation are incorporated into all business plans. The executives have a KPI around how many ideas must be generated and trialled that the organisation can later assess and there must also be a formally evaluated pilot under way in every jurisdiction at any one time.

It also has a more organic approach with innovation hubs and workshops. "We link that into our values and initiatives as an organisation," says Robbs. "We see as an organisation that we are imaginative and courageous and inventive."

As well, LWB’s board has played a significant role in pushing innovation, with members utilising their own passions and networks. The talk of the boardroom at the moment is on ‘inventiveness’ – creating completely new ideas as opposed to new processes.

Explains Robbs: "We see that, as being one of the large non-profits in Australia in this space, we have to deliver good services but we also have to invent and create that disruption in ourselves and in the sector to constantly push to get better outcomes."

The numbers

Across Australia, the number of young people in statutory care increased between 2007 and 2011 by 32.7 per cent, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, while the number of young people in the juvenile justice system continues to be high. There are now more than 40,500 children living in out-of-homecare in Australia.

Many of the children who come to LWB have a history of trauma and abuse that stays with them for life. It is well known that the education, employment, civic engagement and health prospects for children once they leave out-of-home care is reduced.

A 2009 CREATE Foundation survey of 471 young people, aged 15 to 25 years old, found that 35 per cent were homeless in the first year of leaving care, 29 per cent were unemployed (compared with the national average of 9.75 per cent) and 28 per cent were already parents themselves.

"The statistics comparing children and young people in out-of-home care to their broader peer group aren’t good, and this is incredibly concerning to non-profits and governments alike. Finding effective ways to change this is a shared goal, but to really make a difference it’s essential the whole community is engaged," says Robbs.

A 2010 review of more than 7000 young people engaged with YAP in the US found that at the end of the program:

- About 90 per cent not using illegal drugs at discharge
- About 90 per cent not arrested while enrolled in the program
- More than 88 per cent lived in their home communities
- About 90 per cent not convicted or adjudicated on any new charges while enrolled
- More than 91 per cent had either graduated, were attending school, or working at discharge

Image caption: Claire Robbs, Life Without Barriers CEO.

This article is an excerpt from the Macquarie Group Foundation's book, Innovation big and small: How great ideas are strengthening our community, which was produced in 2015 in celebration of the Foundation's 30th anniversary.