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Inside a co-design with young people leaving care

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In this episode of NousCast we head inside the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, which we worked with to develop the futures planning and support for young people leaving out-of-home care. 

Along the way we'll hear about the needs of young people in care, the ways we co-designed with care leavers and other stakeholders to develop a model that met their needs and the culturally safe space created for First Nations people to get involved. 

In this episode we speak to Lynne Matthews, previously a social worker at the Department of Communities and Justice, and Monique Jackson, a Nous Principal based in Sydney who led the project. 

About NousCast

The NousCast podcast brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. In each episode of our third series, NousCast will feature interviews with Nous clients and consultants to a cutting-edge project, from the challenge to the approach, outcomes and lessons learnt. 

“The thinking was bold. There were really creative conversations from the outset, which I found particularly exciting. It was about possibilities and moving away from the deficits approach that often characterises policy and strategy approaches in government.”

Lynne Matthews, former social worker, NSW Department of Communities and Justice 

Ari Sharp:

G'day and welcome to NousCast, brought to you by Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I'm your host, Ari, in this series of NousCast, we're looking at some of the projects we've undertaken at Nous over the past few years. You get to meet the clients we've worked with and the Nous consultants who supported them to meet some of their biggest challenges.

Today we're finding out all about Stronger Communities, an initiative of the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice. The department wanted to improve opportunities for the thousands of children in out-of-home care. When many of these young people leave care, they often lack the support they need to reach a happy and healthy adulthood. The New South Wales government invited Nous to work with it to develop an operating model for futures planning to support these young people as they leave out-of-home care.

In today's episode, you'll hear about the challenges faced by young people in care, the special impact on First Nations people, and the trust building consultations that let vulnerable young people shape the policies that will influence their future.

Joining me is Lynne Matthews previously a social worker at the Department of Communities and Justice, whose work has explored ways young people in out-of-home care can be supported to move beyond trauma to live the lives they choose. Also in the discussion is Monique Jackson a Nous Principal in Sydney who led the project. Monique has more than 15 years of experience in health and human services working with clients on challengers ranging from system redesign to policy reform, strategy, analysis, operating model design, stakeholder engagement, workshop facilitation and evaluations. Let's get into it. Lynn Matthews, thanks for talking to the NousCast.

Lynne Matthews:

Hi. Thanks. Thanks Ari. Thanks for the invitation.

Ari Sharp:

And Monique Jackson, it's great to have you.

Monique Jackson:

Thanks Ari.

Ari Sharp:

Lynne, if I can start with you. We know there are around 14,000 children and young people in out-of-home care in New South Wales. Can you tell us what we know about their experience?

Lynne Matthews:

It's encouraging, recently, to see that the number of kids that are entering care is declining, but even though that's the case, there are still so many challenges that face them as well as exposure to the trauma and neglect that brought them into care. There's frequently a lot of disruption in their experience of care to their relationships, to their accommodation, to their schooling and their healthcare. So their experience is essentially one of significant disconnection, and this often shows up then in mental health symptoms as they move into adulthood. They often don't have the foundations of support there that help most young people navigate adolescents into adulthood.

Ari Sharp:

Well, talking about adulthood, it's obviously a big milestone for everyone, but it can be particularly challenging for people in out-of-home care. What challenges do these young people face?

Lynne Matthews:

Recently, CREATE have published a report that shows that kids who have had an experience of out-of-home care only just over 50% of them complete year 12, which is actually lower than the general population and much fewer go on to further study. And that's often about them not having the building blocks of accommodation, income support, as well as the relationships that will help them to aspire to sort of higher education. They often have an increased likelihood of contact with the youth justice system, again because of limited access to support and social care networks. So they struggle physically, mentally, emotionally and socially, and particularly for Aboriginal young people who are vastly overrepresented in the out-of-home care system, these challenges are compounded by disconnection from culture, community, and their country, they're mob.

Ari Sharp:

And Monique, if I can bring you in here, Nous was engaged to support the New South Wales government to develop an operating model for young people leaving out-of-home care. How did you approach the task?

Monique Jackson:

Yeah, look, central to our approach was really thinking about the needs and experiences of children and young people in out-of-home care. And as Lynn referred to, really thinking about what characterizes those experiences and unfortunately, leads to, often, poor outcomes.

There were two key phases to our project, so high level design and then detailed design, which involved an implementation plan and a business case for the new operating model. And there are a few key elements to the approach, which I think is worth highlighting. So as I said, central to the approach was understanding the needs and experiences of young people, so speaking to them directly was really important to us to hear from them. Although we looked extensively at the data and the evidence, both about evidence of what works and what we know, about what's been demonstrated through the literature and other programs and initiatives, but also, the data to understand the size and characteristics of the population at a more holistic level.

But again, we needed to bring that back to the needs and experiences of young people in care. And we understood that from multiple perspectives, from the children and young people themselves, from the people that are supporting them, so the practitioners and the case workers who are supporting them during their care experience and into aftercare, but also, all of the other organisations that they interact with, so the non-government organizations, the services, the agencies that they interact with during their care experience and senior policy people and peak organisations who are continuing to think about this and how they can improve people's experience and outcomes as a result of the work that we do to support people in out-of-home care.

The other thing I'll just highlight is fundamental to our approach was co-design with Aboriginal communities and community-controlled organizations. So we undertook a sort of place-based approach to this where we had a three-day co-design workshop up in Coffs Harbour where we really tried to understand, testing all of the evidence and experiences that we had heard about, what would that pilot operating model look like when implemented and how did we need to start thinking about that in practice? And that really led to the detailed operating model, the business case and implementation plan that we developed at the end of the project.

Ari Sharp:

Lynne, Monique mentioned that consultation in Coffs Harbour. Can you take us inside the room there and understand a bit about what went on?

Lynne Matthews:

I'll say, at the outset, that was an most amazing experience. There's a lot of talk about co-design and particularly co-design with Aboriginal people, but for me, that was an experience that was genuine co-design, it didn't have preconceived outcomes or deliverables. It was essentially a blank page almost, which was kind of scary and also exhilarating because we didn't know what we would get.

I guess the first day, for me, was quite memorable, the first, probably, half hour in that. As Monique mentioned, there were a lot of conversations with various stakeholders. And we turned up in Coffs Harbour with a room full of people. And one of these people was an elder from the local Aboriginal community. He was a forthright man and really highly respected by his community and clearly, by the people in the room. And at the outset, after the introductions and welcome to country and the things there, the conversation was kicked off.

And he stood up and offered, I think, if not the first question, one of the first questions, which was, "So is this a real consultation or a bullshit consultation? Because if it's a bullshit consultation, we've had plenty of those and we don't need another one." And the room kind of was silent. And I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Oh my goodness," this was incredibly tricky.

And thankfully, I was so thankful that Nous were there, Aaron Maher particularly, his capacity to respectfully acknowledge the truth of what this man was saying because it was true, that was real, that was an experience, and then also, to move beyond that in a way that enabled him to stay with the conversation and contribute. And he became one of the most involved participants in the co-design work going forward, which was incredibly important in that place-based approach.

And so, it kind of kicked us off into the three days. And it was just an amazing experience of lots of different conversations about lots of different things that were related to the topic and then fit into the later discussion about what it would actually look like. But yeah, it was an interesting time.

Ari Sharp:

So moving forward from that, from the consultations, there was then a proposed operating model for care leavers. Can you tell us about the key features of it?

Lynne Matthews:

Yeah. Look, it's essentially tiered support. What we heard was that there were diverse needs of young people and that the support required varied from person to person, but also, within an individual person's experience of transition. So it needed to be a very flexible model.

So there is tiered support, which can step up or step down as the young person progresses towards adulthood so that if there's a period of intense support needed, they can have that, and if they're achieving and feeling okay, it can back off a bit, but they don't actually have to be exited from the program.

There's also an option for intensive support. We identified roughly about 5% of young people in out-of-home care who have very, very complex trauma and who face very significant challenges in transitioning to adulthood, so they have complex emotional and social needs. And this group often is neglected in the existing programs.

So this program has an option for those young people to receive that intensive support in an ongoing way. The program extends until 25 in recognition that most young people take time to move towards adulthood. And in families, that support is flexible and ongoing until kind of the mid-20s for most people.

The other key element is that there is a focus on Aboriginal young people because of the disproportionate representation and the service is delivered by a partnership in which the Aboriginal organisation is the lead partner. So it's not exclusively for Aboriginal young people, but the service, the same Aboriginal-led service is provided to all young people who come through the program.

So I think those, probably... The other thing, the final thing, I think, that's most interesting is that the model is aspirational. It gets beyond housing, education, employment, food, income support, all of that, those sort of bits that a lot of programs focus on. This has an aspirational element in the sense that it encourages young people to think about what would you like your life to be like as an adult? What are the things that you dream about and aspire to and how can we help you get there?

Monique Jackson:

I think it's worth mentioning as well, at this point, Ari, that fundamental to our design process was developing a set of principles and we invested a lot in the development of these principles and they absolutely came from understanding the needs and experiences of young people who are in care and leaving out-of-home care.

And to pick up on a point that Lynn just mentioned, that we very much wanted to take a strengths-based approach to this. There is almost always a deficit-based approach to thinking about people who experience vulnerability generally, and particularly, people in out-of-home care. And so, we really wanted to make sure that it was aspirational, that it thought about understanding and building on protective factors and thinking about what they wanted to achieve in the longer term and what they needed in order to get there.

And fundamental to that is connection, connection to family, natural networks and supports, connection to community and connection to country. And designing this program for Aboriginal people enabled us to really think about that and it's benefited all people as a result of those design principles.

Ari Sharp:

And Monique, on those benefits, it's now been a few years since the project took place. What do we know about the outcomes from the project for those young people leaving state care?

Monique Jackson:

Yeah, look, it's still early days, Ari. We know that about 300 young people have been through the program and about 140 young people are currently in the program. It's still in a pilot phase. And so, it will be evaluated to understand the outcomes and be able to measure that objectively. Look, I think we've still got a long way to go in terms of improving the experience and outcomes for children and young people in out-of-home care, and we do a lot of work in trying to do that.

At the moment, we're working on a project for the New South Wales Ministry of Health to improve the health outcomes for children and young people in out-of-home care. And we know that they're still not getting access to adequate health services and supports. And there are particular systemic issues which exist that do need to be overcome.

And as Lynne mentioned, of particular importance at the moment is thinking about the mental health needs of children and young people in out-of-home care and how we support them to identify those needs based on that experience of trauma, and particularly for Aboriginal people, intergenerational trauma and what we need to do to provide that support much earlier and reduce the likelihood that those needs will increase over time and result in poor outcomes.

So I think it's very promising what we're seeing as a result of this pilot program. We've anecdotally heard that there are really positive outcomes from the young people who have been through the program. And I think we are looking to expand that through a funding submission next year. But there is still a long way to go to support the whole population of children and young people leaving out-of-home care.

Ari Sharp:

And Lynne, you've had plenty of experience working alongside consultants on some challenging projects. What set this consulting experience apart?

Lynne Matthews:

The thing that set this apart was, from the outset, I felt very much like the Nous team were respectful partners in the work. I think it was very different from the them-and-us approach that often characterises the relationship between government and consulting.

The other thing that kind of stood out to me was the willingness to be... The Nous motto is, "Bold and engaging." And certainly, those two elements were there in spades, the thinking was bold, there were really creative conversations from the outset, which I found particularly exciting. And it was about possibilities. And as Monique said, it was really moving away from the deficits approach that often characterizes policy and strategy approaches in government. So it was great from that point of view.

I think the team were particularly strong in relationship building. Stakeholder engagement was incredibly strong. And the team were very, very capable in terms of relationship building and I think that really contributed to the success of the co-design because that's essentially what co-design relies on, being able to build relationships.

And I think they were generous in their sharing of expertise with us and building capability. A lot of consulting firms will talk about building capability with the government teams that they work with, and I've not actually ever seen it particularly strongly, but this engagement was characterized by that. The team, my team did walk away with an experience and some skills development that were very tangible and that we could take forward into future work.

Ari Sharp:

And a final question for both of you, given this experience, what advice would you give other departments and organizations that are keen to develop better pathways for young people once they leave care?

Lynne Matthews:

Oh, look, I think just the strengths-based approach and looking at the principles. So the strengths, talking to young people. I think there's a lot of lip service given to talking to young people or talking to clients, particularly around what would make things better. But I think genuine conversations about what people aspire to, what they want for themselves. As Monique said, that's still very limited and we could do so much more of that. And I think government is often fearful about asking those questions because of the answers that might come forward and the obligation that might mean for government. But my feeling is that these young people have survived incredible adversity, they are unbelievably strong and we shouldn't be fearful of engaging with them around conversations about how they can use their strengths to take themselves forward in really amazing ways.

Monique Jackson:

And look, from my perspective, I think there are two things that really are important lessons from this project, one, don't shy away from challenging conversations. This is a confronting issue when you really unpack it. And it's particularly challenging for Aboriginal people because of intergenerational trauma and the connection with the stolen generations. And I think we have to acknowledge that in these conversations to create a culturally safe space for people to engage in these conversations in a genuine way and learn from them.

And my second point is that we have to listen to children and young people, they have an incredible amount of insight about not just their experience, but what needs to change. And it's often the really simple things that really need to change to ensure that they can achieve their aspirations. I was only just consulting with a group of young people who had been in out-of-home care last week, and I asked them what their message would be to government and they said, "Just listen to us. We have all of the answers if you'll listen to us." And I think we have to do that. And it's not just about more consultation, it's actually putting in place some of the actions that they're so clearly telling us we need to do.

There is a lot of goodwill in the system and a lot of people who go above and beyond to support young people, but it can't just be about goodwill and interpersonal relationships, it has to be embedded in the system in a way that can support people and provide a safety net so that they can achieve better outcomes across their life. So yeah, that would be my two takeaways from this project that I've certainly taken into other work.

Ari Sharp:

Lynne and Monique, it's been so great to speak to you. Thanks for joining me.

Lynne Matthews:

Thanks so much.

Monique Jackson:

Thanks Ari.

Ari Sharp:

That was Lynne Matthews, previously from the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice and Monique Jackson from Nous Group. You can connect with Monique via the Nous website, that's www.nousgroup.com. And while you're there, check out our case studies and thought leadership insights. That's it for this edition of NousCast. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. We'll catch you next time.

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