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Interview with Jacinta Crookes, who works as a Women's Outreach Worker in the Living Free Project at TaskForce Community Agency. She talks about her work supporting girls and young women involved with the justice system, the challenges and rewards of the role and why she loves working for the organisation.

Inside TaskForce with Jacinta Crookes

Women’s Outreach Worker, the Living Free Project


Tell us about the Living Free Project.
Living Free works with girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 30 who are at risk of becoming entrenched in the Justice System. The primary aim of Living Free is to prevent this from happening. Evidence shows that previous incarceration and history of justice involvement is a risk factor for further incarceration. Parental incarceration is also a risk factor for children’s risk of re-offending, so we are hoping to break that cycle.

Working with 10-to-18-year-olds, we watch for criminogenic risk factors like school disengagement, unemployment, homelessness, drug and alcohol use, aggressive behaviours, antisocial peers, and early contact with police. For 19-to-30 year-olds, they are usually on a corrections order, but the aim is the same.

How does Living Free keep girls and young women out of prison?
For us, it is obvious that girls and young women are not offending because they want to offend.

They’re offending because they have history of trauma, poverty, family and sexual violence and abuse. We’re not born into this world on an even playing field.

We look at the person and their situation holistically. Justice or corrections can often take a very direct approach, which is more like trying to treat the offending as the primary issues. Our approach is to address the other needs our clients so that offending doesn’t feel like their only option.

We put a support network around them. We link them in with programs, activities, and gym memberships so they have alternatives to hanging out with antisocial peers. We help them attend doctors appointments so they can explore their mental health and alternatives to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. We might provide a food voucher so they don’t have to stress about feeding themselves and can instead focus their energy on staying safe in a family violence situation. These interventions might seem small, but they open up minds and options.

Why is the Living Free program important?
If you want to break that cycle of trauma, preventing one woman from ending up in the justice system helps prevent the next and maybe subsequent generations from ending up in the same position.

If you look at risk factors for children potentially ending up in the justice system, having a parent who has offended or has a criminal history is also a major risk factor.

The more that people are involved with the justice system, the more likely they are to end up staying in the system.

How do you work with girls and young women?
A lot of our work is assertive outreach to help reduce barriers to engagement and being able to access support.

We meet girls and young women where and when is convenient for them, working with them to identify what their needs are and, also, what their wants are.

We look at factors like mental health, physical health, sexual health, the trauma they’ve experienced, whether they trust the system and whether they trust professionals.

We help them build those professional relationships so that they can get the social support that they need and make referrals to the most appropriate services that can support them.

We also do a lot of case management, coordinating services behind the scenes, holding people accountable, and making sure the client’s voice is heard.

The key is helping the young person feel like offending isn’t the only option, that they can have their needs met in other ways.

How do you know Living Free is successful?
We are getting the work evaluated but we have no or very low incarceration rates, which is one measure.

But it is a challenging question because how do you properly measure preventative work?

Maybe I had a discussion with a young person about safe-sex practices and they didn’t end up pregnant. How do you measure that?

But we can see that when girls and young women are feeling really isolated, we can be that person that guides them and empowers them so that they can achieve those goals that they want to achieve, whether it’s employment or stable housing or whatever.

But at the end of the day, it’s helping people to see what the other options are and see the path. To see how to get there and have support in getting there.

When did you join TaskForce Community Agency?
I’ve been with TaskForce for just over a year. Initially, I was in a six month-role but I have been lucky enough to be offered a two-year contract, which I have very happily taken, because I love the team, I love the work that we do.

I couldn’t ask for a better workplace.

We have a joke in our team that being part of Living Free has kind of ruined us for future employment because we love it so much.

Without breaching anyone’s privacy, what is your best memory of helping someone through the program?
There’s a client who was referred to us by legal aid when she was sitting in the cells. She was bailed to our program without having anywhere safe to be. We got her into a youth refuge with the support of Salvocare.

She had experienced some severe mental health challenges. There was a history of family violence, she had a really poor relationship with her mother and had spent her whole childhood in and out of residential care.

There was quite severe drug use, alcohol use and she was disengaged from employment and education.

Today she is living in a share house, she’s going to TAFE every day. She’s completed her Cert II and III in General Education.

This is someone who left high school before completing Year 7. Now she is going on to study Certificate III in Community Services with the support of a TAFE scholarship.

She’s had a job and is actively applying for other jobs. She’s linked in with appropriate mental health services and is really engaging with them.

There is no reoffending. It’s amazing. She is just thriving. This is what Living Free does for people.

It doesn’t sound like working with Living Free is an easy job.
Working with living free is hard but very rewarding.

It can be challenging because we’re confronted with some heavy things every day, whether that’s someone discloses family violence or someone talking about suicide and self-harm and things like that.

Even just looking at the entrenched cycle of family trauma, intergenerational trauma, poverty and things like that, it can be really confronting.

But the fact that Living Free has so much flexibility means we can quickly make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

Sometimes people might say “you’re just giving them food vouchers. That’s not fixing an issue”. But if you can help someone feed themselves for a week, they can then attend their job interview or you take some of the stress off them so that they can flee a family violence situation.

That’s making a real difference to someone’s life.

And we get to see that on a daily basis.

Finally, what does an outreach worker do?
It’s kind of a combination of case management and assertive outreach. Although we’re on the ground a lot, we also do a lot behind the scenes to line things up and make the barriers to success just that little bit smaller.

You can support the work of the Living Free Project by donating here.

All donations over $2 are tax deductible.