12. Youthlaw Social Work Placements

Ariel Couchman



Youthlaw is a not for profit state wide free community legal centre for young people under 25 years of age. Established in 2001 through a unique collaboration between North Melbourne community legal Centre and major law firm (then Blake Dawson, now Ashurst) half our funding is from state and federal governments and half through philanthropic trusts, donations & fundraising. We rely heavily on volunteers and placement students and pride ourselves on training up and mentoring university students to become lawyers and social workers of the future. Youthlaw provides legal services, advocacy, law reform and preventative education programs. Our approach is to be empowering and advocate within a human rights and social justice framework.

With a small number of lawyers (10) and social workers (2) we prioritise assisting young people with legal need that is not being met and that if not addressed could lead to big impacts such as engagement with the criminal legal system, mounting debts & fines and abusive relationships. Young people we work with include those at risk of homelessness, with mental ill health and/or disability, those who have experienced or are experiencing family violence, child protection care leavers and disadvantaged young people with few means and support.

Social work trained youth practitioners work side by side with our lawyers in our family violence program. Together they assess and respond to the young person’s legal and non-legal needs, building on an emerging body of practice and evidence that indicates that integrated legal and social work practice is a means of providing effective, holistic services for people experiencing complex and intersecting legal and social support needs. Our other services are integrated with community and youth organisations to enable clients to be assisted by a range of services.

In December 2019 at the invitation of RMIT and Rob Hulls (previously Victorian Attorney-General), Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ), Youthlaw moved into the RMIT Innovation hub. We joined two other community legal centres and CIJ to become a justice innovation centre, with a strong focus on introducing RMIT law and social work students to social justice and multi-disciplinary practice.

What were the placements you offered during last year and this year?

Over the past year, we have hosted four social work placement students. They had the experience of working in a multi-disciplinary practice, lawyer & social worker both working together with clients assisted by our Family Violence program and also working more broadly with other staff at Youthlaw and with external community workers.

One student started with us just before the Covid-19 pandemic restricted face-to-face work. She worked primarily with our Family violence team comprising a lawyer and youth social work practitioner. Student tasks included supporting the family violence program staff with creating and maintaining client files data collection, updating internal databases, tasks associated with referrals to specialist services, developing research papers on integrated practice and documenting a knowledge base for students working within this program in the future.

Placement at Youthlaw was an exhilarating experience where I gained a thorough understanding of the various roles social workers need to undertake when working collaboratively with other disciplines to address larger social issues. Placement at Youthlaw was also a great way of practically applying and understanding social work values of professional integrity and respect. [Student]

From March 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, staff, volunteers and placement students could not remain working in the office. We moved staff and students to working from home remotely. Our phone service and all our services quickly moved to remote. This presented challenges to mentoring and providing face-to-face client experiences for students to observe and participate in.

Major challenges of this placement were remote learning and limited direct practice due to the impact of Covid-19. However, the team at Youthlaw worked closely with me ensuring that I completed my placement successfully and efficiently. [Student]

Image 20 Youthlaw Online Meeting © Youthlaw.
This image is used in this book with the permission of Youthlaw and is not to be reproduced without permission. For more information, go to https://youthlaw.asn.au/.

Despite the disadvantage of limited client contact Youthlaw used the remote environment to develop other crucial skills for a competent social worker:

I was able to develop a reflection paper that explored some of the ethical and legal conflicts that arise when social workers and lawyers work together. Exploring the conflicts unfolded the challenges in integrated practice such as legal privilege versus social worker obligations to report. [Student]

I gained in-depth knowledge of the family violence sector and the various support services in Victoria. This period of working remotely also enhanced my ability to utilise technology for various communication processes. I gained an increased confidence in communicating with stakeholders. [Student]

We put in place structures to guide and support our staff and students to work from home during this challenging time. With generally lower client numbers due to Covid-19 there was also an upside, providing time for some staff and students to partake in the relevant professional development opportunities.

The team at Youthlaw ensured that I was well supervised and supported. I had the opportunity to expand my knowledge by attending various online educational events and workshops. I had regular supervision session. These sessions gave me an open and safe space to disclose any challenges I was facing, contributing to a very productive placement. [Student]

Another student commenced with us in June 2021 after having completed half of her research placement with CIJ, RMIT. This research placement focused on seeking feedback from young people and stakeholders to facilitate further improvement of our Family Violence program. Student tasks included developing interview and survey tools for young clients who have been supported by the program and stakeholders we work with and get referrals from, and write summaries, analysis and recommendations from the results of the interviews and surveys. The student started her placement in the office when restrictions had eased. After about 6 weeks, Melbourne was in lockdown again and she completed the balance of her placement working remotely from home.

I found it challenging to work from home while navigating lockdown restrictions and maintaining self-care. I did greatly appreciate the time that I was able to come in in person and interact with staff. This allowed me to pick up knowledge and collaborate with others in ways that was not possible while working from home. [Student]

We supported the student in the office with the early phases of her project and in particular be there for her first couple of interviews with young people. She showed great fortitude and sensibility conducting the balance of interviews from home.

I conducted interviews and surveys with young people who had received legal help and other support from the Youthlaw Family Violence team. I made it a priority to ensure that the questions were appropriate, sensitive and as non-intrusive as possible while still encouraging valuable feedback for the service. [Student]

In July 2021, Semester Two, we welcomed two further students to Youthlaw. Within a week, we were in lockdown again and this has continued up to the writing of this chapter. With our previous experience and with staff now well adapted to remote work we were more prepared & less challenged than last year. RMIT was also very positive and helpful and we had the assistance of our onsite CIJ social worker who has provided induction to all students being placed at Pelham St, and is providing on-going social work practice supervision.

The students are working with our lawyers in a number of programs including our fines service. They have had opportunity to develop practical skills, gain knowledge about the justice system and the community legal service sector and and learn about collaborative and integrated practice with frontline youth services.

Their main tasks include:

  • Working with our lawyers to assist young people with non-legal issues and link them with appropriate services.
  • Providing reflections, information and support to lawyers about appropriate referrals and strategies to work with for a young person about the non-legal issues they are dealing with.
  • Providing reflections and documenting ways to work with lawyers in this integrated approach to delivering our legal services.

As the students stated during their placement:

I am really enjoying my placement and the many new learnings l am encountering at Youthlaw. Even though placement has been entirely remote (so far), the team have embraced me virtually sharing their knowledge and experience in a very welcoming way. I have really sunk my teeth into learning about integrated practice & the benefits and challenges in a socio-legal environment. [Student]

I’ve been very fortunate to observe the lawyers and young people [virtually] in the Friday Fine’s and Pelham St Legal clinic and apply & contribute a social work lens to the issues and supports the young people may require. In addition through the family violence team l have been able to gain knowledge about the work being done across the sector in the Adolescents Using Violence in The Home (AVITH) space and attending community legal centre network meetings and professional development… [Student]


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Partnerships with the Community: Social Work Field Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic Copyright © 2022 by Ronnie Egan; Betty Haralambous; and Patrick O’Keeffe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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