People who are helping vulnerable kids cannot stress enough the importance of early intervention.
The Multi-Agency Support Team, which includes several Ballarat agencies as well as Victoria Police and the state government, is a pilot project that aims to wrap layers of support around children aged 10 to 17 before they descend into criminality.
The focus is individual solutions for each child - for example, a team of dedicated workers may decide a child needs alcohol and other drug counselling, and will be able to call on MAST's network to find a counsellor.
Other times, it can be as simple as helping a family get a new set of tyres, to make sure the child gets to school.
Re-engagement in school is a key part of the program - statistics from Ballarat show 90 per cent of 21 participants reviewed were disengaged from education at the time they were referred to MAST.
Out of them, 70 per cent are now re-engaged in some form of education.
The program is delivering results, according to Ballarat Community Health's general manager Katherine Cape.
"What we wanted to do was create an opportunity to wrap supports around individual young people who are at risk, who are starting to get involved with police, and who are at risk of getting into the criminal system a bit more intensely," she explained.
"We've supported 40 young people and their families through the program, and we will be supporting another 15 or so.
"It's individualised, and that's why it works."
Referrals can occur from Victoria Police or Ballarat Community Health's Youth Support Services, among others, and action plans are put together quite quickly.
One agency involved is Berry Street, which has operated in Victoria for almost 150 years.
Case worker Aidan Murphy is the organisation's MAST coordinator, and it's his job to help put the plan together and meet with the young person.
"I create the plan, during the time, it might be two to four weeks, referrals are made that the child or family needs, and we take that to the MAST panel, that's all the management representation from the partnership agencies," he said.
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"We say these are the needs of the child, this is what we want to do, how can we all make this work - that's where the beauty of MAST comes out because all the different agencies are willing to put their hand up, they might say yep, I've got an alcohol and other drug service, or I've got a mental health service, we can pick this role up."
The program is flexible because of the diversity of the partners involved - as well as Berry Street and Ballarat Community Health, the City of Ballarat's youth services, Centacare, CAFS, the Salvation Army's SalvoConnect, Uniting Ballarat, and the YMCA all have a presence, with the Central Highlands Children and Youth Area Partnership and the Highlands Local Learning and Employment Network.
The state government's Department of Justice and Community Safety, Health and Human Services, and crucially, Education and Training are also involved.
The program is part of an investment from the state government in community safety, one of 18 Youth Crime Prevention programs across the state.
Instead of being a program given to a particular region, MAST is able to continually improve and change.
One example of this is the MASTerful Mothers project, which helps provide single parents with a network of peers to build confidence.
"We're constantly learning about the needs of our cohort, and we work so closely with the families, that's why the mums program was established, there was a high population within our cohort of single parents and mothers," Mr Murphy said.
"That's where that stemmed from, there was a cry out for help."
This adaptability is having noticeable results, and Ms Cape said there was an unusually low drop-out rate.
"Most who have been offered MAST have accepted, which itself is quite unusual," she said.
Programs could involve sport and clubs, or specific counselling and therapy - one participant has achieved great results with equine therapy, for example, while other times, money for footy boots was found to get a young person to join a healthy peer group.
Another measure of the program's success is tracking the amount of times a young offender has contact with police - Acting Senior Sergeant Lisa Macdougall said it was "staggering".
For young people in the program, there has been a reduction of 53.63 per cent in police contacts between November 2018 and July 2019.
"There's probably a lot of people in the Ballarat community that don't know that this exists - they certainly know the perception of a youth crime problem," she said.
"(It's) knowing the work that's going into the background of early intervention, and recognition of those early warning flags with a young person."
Ms Cape said the fundamental point when discussing youth crime was compassion - that is, understanding the background many of these children come from.
"Sometimes, the initial police contact can happen before they were born," she said.
"These young kids have had really difficult lives, and I think for me, not coming from a crime area - my background's more in health - the more you hear the stories, the more you think 'actually, these kids are doing pretty well'.
"It's not surprising that sometimes they go off the rails, because they've had the hardest of lives.
"We need to bring that compassion and understanding of the difficulties that these young people have had, to be able to put that extra support around them, to treat them not as an other, but as people who have come out of the community in difficult circumstances, and if we can work together, we can help them re-engage back into the community.
"The worst thing we can do is to just say 'oh, those people over there are so difficult, we need to lock them up' - we need to be thinking about those young people, and, but for the grace of God, it could have been me, or my kids.
"They've had a hard time, so how can we, as a community, try and change that around, that's my real belief.
"These young people aren't born bad."
That's a point Acting Senior Sergeant Macdougall reiterated.
"Let's stop them from getting to that point where they are offending and out of control, and causing harm to themselves first and foremost and the community by addressing it at this early stage," she said.
"Prevention is better than cure."
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