Speech pathologist Chris Morris helps young people re-engage with their community by equipping them with communication skills. File Photo.
Speech pathologist Chris Morris helps young people re-engage with their community by equipping them with communication skills. File Photo.

Miracle program providing hope for Burnett youth offenders

South Burnett youths are getting a second chance at reconnecting with their community and rebuilding confidence through a miraculous program, which tackles the underlying issues driving them to commit crimes.

As the first speech pathologist in Australia to be employed by a juvenile justice department outside of a detention centre, Chris Morris has witnessed first-hand a deep disconnect between the justice system and the prevalence of language disorders among youth offenders in Australia.

In addition to the South Burnett region, Chris’ patch extends from Ipswich to the borders of South Australia and New South Wales.

Over the past three years, Mr Morris has worked to break this vicious cycle, which has seen children lacking communication skills finding themselves alienated from their communities and battling feelings of shame and anger as a result.

“I work with young people from the age of 10, all the way up to 17,” Mr Morris said.

“I tend to focus on young people who have complex communication needs to speech and language impairments.”

“Many of the people I see have communication difficulties that are associated to other conditions that you often see in the justice system, including things like mental health problems, intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, acquired brain injuries, hearing loss, abuse, neglect, and trauma.”

Mr Morris said young people with unrecognised language disorders who have offended are two and a half times more likely to reoffend than those without.

Furthermore, 75 per cent of young people in the justice system struggle to read single words, 94 per cent struggle to understand what they are reading, and 75 per cent have severe reading difficulties.

Approximately 50 per cent of youth in custody have severe communication difficulties and 75 per cent have language skills below those expected for their age.

“Communication helps build who we are. It’s necessary for every element of an individual’s life. It builds relationships and defines who we are as people, so a language disorder puts a young person outside of their community because they can’t interact with them,” he said.

“So, when they become an active member of the community, they can contribute. And when they start contributing, they feel a part of it, which makes them want to protect it and succeed in it.”

For the past 12 months, Mr Morris has been working with a 17-year-old boy struggling with “overt communication difficulties”, as well as a history of trauma and heavy volatile substance misuse.

“All he wanted to do was learn how to read, since he had a kid on the way, and he wanted to teach his child how to read,” he said.

“He had disengaged from school at 13 and couldn‘t read single words. He only knew 15 letters of the alphabet.”

“By the end of the intervention, he was reading at sentence level functionally, and when he’d built some trust, and actual self-confidence, he then trusted me to do other targeted functional interventions.”

“So, we did things like talking with strangers, eye contact, greetings, and learning how to repair communication breakdowns by saying things like, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m not sure’ and ‘can you help me?’”

This young man is now enrolled in an agricultural traineeship and reads to his child every day.

In terms of the court system, Mr Morris said the odds can be stacked against these young people, since the justice system is reliant of communication skills they do not possess.

“A lot of the justice system relies on unwritten communication and signing of documents, and a lot of young people aren‘t true to what they’re signing,” he said.

“They struggle to talk to strangers, and they can’t talk in groups, and the court systems rely on talking with people they aren’t familiar with and talking in group settings.”

“So, the young person is already going to be on the backfoot.”

Mr Morris said evidence suggests that speech pathology intervention can directly reduce communication impairment and difficulties.

“Improving communication reduces future recidivism and contact with the justice system. The cost of intervention can offset the cost to the justice system by reducing recidivism.”

“By assisting the young person to attain their goals it directly enriches their life by building their confidence, increases their willingness to participate in the community which in turn increases community safety.”

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