Educating families provides wrap-around support to young people

Educating families provides wrap-around support to young people

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Youth Crime lawyer Miriana Smoljko
Youth Crime lawyer Miriana Smoljko

As the session stretched into its second hour, lawyer Miriana Smoljko realised how powerful legal information could be for people who need it. 20 parents from diverse communities and youth support workers sat in a classroom in Melton Secondary College in Melbourne’s north west, thoroughly engrossed in Miriana’s session. ‘It was supposed to go for 45 minutes but people kept asking questions about how to access legal aid, about what client confidentiality really meant and about how they could support their children in a police interview,’ said Miriana.

A passionate youth crime advocate working between the Melbourne, Sunshine and Werribee Children’s Court, Miriana believes sessions like these help her provide an inclusive and responsive legal service. ‘Young people are so hopeful and there’s so much potential to use the law as a positive change.  But when there are information gaps, particularly intergenerational information gaps, or where people don’t understand how the legal system works, it’s critical to engage with the community so they can support young people when they come to court’.

Miriana describes being a youth crime lawyer as a kind of teacher to often confused and desperate students – 

‘A lot of the work that we do is sitting with young people and trying to pick apart and unpack the law in a way that’s palatable and that they can understand. Young people are so appreciative when they have the opportunity to avoid a criminal record – it’s an amazing feeling when someone says "thanks for believing in me".'

But gaps in knowledge about a young person’s rights can negatively affect their legal cases. This is especially apparent in newly arrived communities. 'You’d watch records of police interviews where young people or their family members clearly couldn’t follow what was going on, because English wasn’t their first language – they didn’t know they could ask for an interpreter, or that they could give a ‘no comment’ interview’, she explains.

Miriana and our Community Legal Education team worked closely with community engagement officers from Youth Justice to identify the best ways to fill these knowledge gaps. They reached out to regional cultural liaison officers employed by the Department of Education, who are intermediaries between young people, their parents and schools. ‘These workers are a lifeline – they help parents sort out issues at school, they also support young people and their families if they get in trouble with the law’ she said.

The resulting education session has been delivered in a handful of schools, in consultation with other organisations like the Centre for Multicultural Youth and the Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre, which are also working to reduce the over-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the criminal justice system.

Community Liaison Officer for Melton Secondary College Robert Adeur said the recent session provided much needed information. ‘We look forward to more sessions, covering other important topics for parents and youth engagement. Let's keep this important platform for information literacy and support going’.

The issue of client confidentiality was a hot topic at the session with concerns raised that lawyers simply told their young clients not to talk to their families about their cases. ‘Many parents were of the belief that we tell kids that their families shouldn’t be in the room, so we explained client confidentiality, but we also let them know that at legal aid we want to try and address problems holistically, so if we can get the family involved and it’s a sensible thing to do we’ll encourage that.

They were just mesmerised by the new information and kept on saying ‘This is really powerful and helps us understand how we can help our kids’, said Miriana.

‘These legal education sessions in the west are a great example of different Victoria Legal Aid teams identifying reoccurring legal issues in this community and developing content that assists in hopefully resolving or reducing this legal need,’ said Managing Lawyer of Victoria Legal Aid's Sunshine office, Tamsin Mildenhall.

For Miriana, delivering education to the wider community has only enhanced her love for the job. ‘I hope this work flows into better legal outcomes for our clients because our work can make such difference in a young persons life.  It’s a great feeling when you bump into an old client and they’ll tell you about their new apprenticeship or training course and you see the hope in their eyes as they talk about how far they’ve come and you can compare it to the desperation you saw when you first met them.

It makes you continue to believe that giving people the right information they need at the right time and the Children’s Court jurisdiction can be used as an opportunity to positively change kids' lives’.

More information

Victoria Legal Aid are actively involved in preventative community legal education, running four state-wide programs for young people in different settings to address sexting, age of consent, consent, fines and driving, police powers and group offending. We have run 263 sessions on these topics to 7824 participants this financial year, often working in collaboration with community legal centres and the Department of Education and Training to run these programs.

If you’d like more information about these youth crime information sessions please contact Community Legal Education Coordinator Mark Tregonning by emailing mark.tregonning@vla.vic.gov.au or calling (03) 9280 3714.

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