Too hard? A new project exploring vulnerability and young people

By Dr Catherine Robinson, Researcher, Social Action and Research Centre

As a returning Tasmanian expat and academic, my shift home and into the community sector has been a time of very exciting upheaval. Since I began at SARC in February this year, I have experienced that unique benefit of being the ‘outsider in’ as I work on new configurations of professional belonging and know-how.

I have begun my role as a social researcher with SARC by meeting with as many people within and beyond Anglicare to gather opinions on where new research, insight and energy is currently most needed in Tasmania. Very quickly in response to my open questions, the issue of highly marginalised young people in Tasmania has been brought up. In fact, the multiple struggles faced by this group are a passionate concern for many working across youth, housing, child protection, out-of-home-care, homelessness and other youth support services. It is encouraging to note the development by the state Department of Health and Human Services of a new Youth at Risk Strategy, for which consultations have recently been announced.

It would seem that energy is currently building in Tasmania to drive forward better understandings of, and responses to the needs of, older children and young people who are often described as being ‘highly vulnerable’. At this time then it is more critical than ever to review the ways in which we conceptualise and talk about the issues faced by ‘vulnerable teens’. What life experiences do they have? What are the geographic, community, systemic, institutional and household settings in which they seek to survive and grow?

What do we mean by ‘vulnerable’?

In particular, it is important to think about what is meant by ‘vulnerability’ and to think through how young people become vulnerable, and where we understand vulnerability to lie — within systems of government? Within welfare services? Within communities? Within young people themselves? Such thinking will be critical to the ways in which solutions to the challenge of ‘vulnerable’ youth are imagined. Further, developing a robust and locally-embedded dialogue about what it means to be a ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ youth will be critical in the positive engagement of the broader Tasmanian community to which all young people belong.

I am currently developing new research which will contribute to the ongoing effort across government and non-government sectors to address young people’s experiences of vulnerability. This research aims to broadly review the issues faced by highly vulnerable teens in Tasmania. In my work, highly vulnerable teens constitute a specific group of adolescents aged 10–17 years, who due to a range of factors are unaccompanied, living without secure care arrangements usually in temporary homeless services or informal accommodation, are at high risk of repeated contact with the juvenile justice system, and at high risk of cumulative trauma, physical injury and potentially, early death.

The project will qualitatively explore the nature, drivers and effects of vulnerability, assuming from the outset that vulnerability is a structural and systemic circumstance which has dire and devastating personal triggers and effects in the lives of some Tasmanian young people. As such, the project aims to map key pathways into vulnerability and to explore young teens’ lived and felt experiences of being vulnerable. This will include critical consideration of the key vulnerabilities in the contexts and systems of care and protection that teenagers may encounter and fall through, such as parental and out-of-home care, education, juvenile justice and homelessness support, and will also include engagement with the ways in which teens manage, resist and survive vulnerability in day to day life. The project outcomes will be a nuanced account of high vulnerability in lives of teens in Tasmania and a framework for discussion about how to achieve better outcomes for this group.

In summary

The aims of this project are:

  • To provide a critical account of the ways in which structural, systemic and personal factors work to increase and sustain high vulnerability in the lives of teens in Tasmania.
  • To develop a framework for discussion about how to achieve better outcomes for highly vulnerable teens in Tasmania.

The project responds to the following research questions:

  • What does the concept of ‘youth vulnerability’ mean, and how useful is it?
  • What drives vulnerability in the lives of teens in Tasmania?

I am very keen to receive your feedback and insights, so please do not hesitate to contact Catherine ( with your thoughts.


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