Cuts hit youth help service


THE axing of a program that helps hundreds of vulnerable children has dismayed its North East co-ordinator.

Sarah McQualter said she did not understand the state’s decision to cut funding to the School Focused Youth Service, which this year has helped more than 250 North East children at risk of suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, offending and early school leaving.

“For it to be taken away when funding is so tight, that is a concern,” she said.

“Especially as we’re not going to get a headspace for at least two years.

“To axe it altogether when it’s been successful for 15 years, to me it doesn’t make sense.”

The $7.5 million Victorian program connects schools with community services and offers funding for programs to help vulnerable people aged 10 to 18.

Since 2009 the program, which runs out of Gateway Community Health, has funded more than 30 projects from Wodonga to Mount Beauty and up to Corry­ong.

Set up by former premier Jeff Kennett in 1997, it was a key recommendation of the Suicide Prevention Task Force.

However, Ms McQualter said in recent years the regional focus had changed from suicide prevention to early intervention.

The program will be reviewed in the remaining seven months, with funding cut by June 30.

Ashley Gardiner, spokesman for Education Minister Martin Dixon, said a new strategy for vulnerable children was expected to be implemented in the second half of next year.

He did not specify what the new strategy would be.

Ms McQualter said she was concerned a new strategy might not meet the needs of regional areas and be introduced in time to meet the gaps left by the June 30 cut-off to the School Focused Youth Service. 

“What’s going to replace it?” she said.

“It’s fine if you review it but it certainly met a significant need.

“We already have areas with difficulty accessing services, it’s going to be even harder without the School Focused Youth Service and we don’t have a lot of services in rural and regional areas.

“If there’s nothing to replace it, I’d hate to think what will happen … there are a lot of cuts happening to youth programs.”

The review follows the release of the government’s Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, released in January.

Mr Gardiner said the new strategy would not neglect rural and regional areas in favour of metropolitan Melbourne.

“The government understands the challenges faced within rural and regional communities in relation to vulnerable young people, including the north-east of the state and intends to consider this as part of the consultation process,” he said.

Leading Sen-Constable Kevin Mack, of Wodonga police, said the service had funded worthwhile programs which otherwise might not have had a chance.

He had been involved with last year’s “Re-engagement and Pathways” program for young men at risk of leaving school and in trouble with the law.

He said small amounts of money had “made a huge difference to young people’s lives”.

“It is sad, the programs have had some real benefit for young people … but were the programs sustainable over time? I can’t answer that,” he said.

“The government has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure programs are well worth the money spent.

“Really, the government has been very obscure with what they’ve said about the review, but they need to be because they don’t want people pulling the new model apart and saying that it won’t work.”