A BALLARAT police unit is working with the region's young people in an effort to curb the rate of youth-related crime.
Two youth specialist officers joined Ballarat police's proactive unit about 12 months ago as part of a statewide roll out by Victoria Police to address the prevalence of youth-perpetrated crime across the state.
The proactive unit is comprised of a number of police members who are tasked with proactive community engagement from working with the city's multicultural community, to working in crime prevention and with young people.
Youth resource officers (YROs) work proactively by engaging young people at primary and secondary schools.
YRO officers, who have worked in Ballarat for more than 10 years, present programs to build early positive relationships between police and young people, ensuring they feel supported and able to approach police if they need help, with the intention of deterring them from becoming involved in criminal activity.
Their roles differ from that of the officers employed in the newly-created youth specialist officer (YSOs) roles, who become involved with either at-risk of or offending teenagers and young people between the ages of 10 and 20, who are responsible for high-impact or recidivist offending.
Ballarat Inspector Trevor Cornwill said the roles were created as Victoria Police recognised youth offending had increased and that police needed to be more involved in providing support to steer youth away from offending.
The youth specialist officers work to provide a targeted response to young people, often from turbulent backgrounds but also commonly not, whose criminal behaviours cause significant harm.
With 18 years experience in general duties and an interest in youth issues, Leading Senior Constable Eleanor Bergheim was quick to put her hand up for the role.
She said it was rewarding to break down barriers and help young people on to a better pathway than a life of crime.
The officers' work is varied, from visiting the many young people in out-of-home care, youth hostels and schools to build a relationship, to checking in with those who have recently been interviewed by police to offer extra support, or to tracking down the on average five children reported missing from the city each day.
An integral component to the job is building a rapport with the youth so they feel confident speaking to police about any issues, from worries at home to peer pressure to commit crime.
"It's about early intervention. If we can divert some of the kids who are just starting to get involved in criminal activity, if we can catch them early enough and divert them to services, it can break the cycle," Inspector Cornwill said.
The last thing we want is for them to get into the youth justice system and then get exposed to kids who are older, who were committing serious offences, and start to go down that path of criminality themselves. We want to break that cycle.Inspector Trevor Cornwill
He said this could be as simple as getting a young person involved with a sporting club or giving them a role model to look up to.
Leading Senior Constable Bergheim and her colleague work with multiple services in an effort to divert youth from offending before they wind up in the justice system.
"We also try to break down that stigma of police with young people who are involved in criminal activity," she said. "By breaking down that barrier and building a rapport with young people we become someone they can approach if they are facing issues."
The officers engage with young people as well as with their family and carers to develop a clearer understanding of the context in which the offending is occurring and ultimately, what is driving it.
"This enables an approach to assist in identifying what may assist in the reduction of offending as well as opportunities to provide relevant referrals and supports to be put in place for both the young person and their family or carer and to help them identify more positive ways to contribute to their community."
Inspector Cornwill said it was important for police to follow-up with young people to determine the root cause of their offending, whether it is because they were offered drugs or other gifts so they did not end up in youth detention.
"We are not here to lock them up, we are there to find out what the cause of their offending is and what can be done to take them off that path," he said.
The officers work with other police and external support services like Berry Street and the Department of Education to provide support for the youth in an effort to curb their behaviour.
While youth are offending at younger ages than they have in the past, one worrying, but rare, occurrence is older criminals grooming disadvantaged youth to coax them into committing crimes.
Inspector Cornwill said police were seeing older criminals taking youth "under their wing" such as encouraging young people to steal cars or commit burglaries and teenage girls asked to perform sexual favours, all in return for drugs.
He said it was a problem police and support services were currently working through, but that it appeared the problem was stemming from a small proportion of adults targeting disadvantaged young people on social media or on the streets.
Inspector Cornwill said a decade ago it was 15-year-olds who were stealing cars but today, the perpetrators can be as young as 12 and were committing more serious crimes.
"Traditionally, kids would come to our attention by stealing something from the local shop, or breaking into a car or stealing petrol. Now some of the offending we see when they first come to our notice is if they've stolen a car and drive at 200 kilometers an hour down the highway," he said.
"So if we identify kids who are committing some of the lower end offending - we're involved with them as well - to try and stop it escalating into bigger and grander things, usually, they're the ones we have more success with."
Inspector Cornwill put the younger offending down to young people being exposed to so much more, from a younger age, through social media, television and life in general.
Contrary to popular belief, Inspector Cornwill said Ballarat's crime rate was declining, with crimes in the city perpetrated by about 50 offenders, including youth, which, in a population of just above 100,000 people, was a small proportion of the population.
The police are part of the pilot Multi Agency Support Team (MAST) which involves a number of agencies coming together to address the issues around youth-related crime.
For example, they work with schools to decipher solutions around if a child or young person is not going to school, such as if it is transport that is a barrier, if they are being bullied or if it is because they do not own the right uniform or equipment.
Being engaged at school, Inspector Cornwill said, was important so young people felt connected to people their own age.
Developing that relationship with a school also allows police to communicate in instances of family violence, so the school can make allowances for a child.
Inspector Cornwill said police were seeing success in reducing youth crime by working with a range of different services.
It's not just a policing problem, it's not just an education problem, it's not just the Department of Health and Human Services, it's all of us together as community leaders identifying the kids who are struggling who need some help.Ballarat Inspector Trevor Cornwill
Leading Senior Constable Bergheim said the majority of youth she worked with engaged with her and were happy to talk about the issues they were facing so police could identify why they had found themselves on the wrong path and what could be done to remedy the situation.
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