Beyond Wildman River

Youth Rehabilitation through a Tough-Love Approach

 My desire is that this short discussion paper will stimulate informed debate that will result in effective policy implementation to help build a stronger and more cohesive community and our strengthen hope that we can leave a more positive legacy for our children.

Elements of the programmes described in this framework already exist in the Territory but lack sufficient support, recognition or coordination.

In light of heightened community concern over youth crime and compounding social dysfunction, we have no option but to develop better tools to contend with an urgent and monumental challenge.

This is a fight requiring courage and resolve, a fight we must win for the sake of today’s youth and tomorrow’s society.  We are obligated to work to leave a better legacy for our children.

Alternative programmes of a similar nature have operated before. Nearly two decades ago the Territory’s Wildman River Programme earned respect in many quarters for an innovative approach to juvenile rehabilitation. It has since closed.

It is time to draw upon past experience and add current Australian and international best practise to establish improved programmes to strengthen our youth.

This outline describes a framework upon which programmes can be developed to meet varying levels of need; from leadership training for mainstream youth, to early intervention for youth at risk and rehabilitative programmes for offenders.

This type of programme is most effective for 12 to 18 years, the ages when change is most likely embraced and embedded.

What does the Programme Look like?

 The programme uses a combination of personal challenges, adventure experiences and community involvement to enable significant and sustainable change.

The key elements are:

  • Removal from a dysfunctional/familiar environment;
  • Challenging of established beliefs and behavioural patterns;
  • Rebuilding through exposure to different environmental demands; and the
  • Provision of a supportive group setting and models of appropriate behaviour.

The programme should be physically and emotionally challenging and completion seen as a significant achievement; a rite of passage.

The duration of the programme should be from four weeks to three months depending upon the client group; leadership development, youth at risk or juvenile offenders.

The core programme should be delivered in an outback location, remote from familiar surrounds.

Once again depending upon the client group, the time spent remote may range from partial withdrawal (return to school for sections of the programme) to full withdrawal (live-in for the duration).

In order to establish a stronger foundation upon which to build it is important that successful completion of the programme is celebrated publicly at a graduation ceremony.

The programme must provide sufficient structure and discipline to allow the educational, psychological and emotional needs of participants to be addressed. This function of the programme is beyond a traditional ‘boot camp’ definition as it seeks to not only break down the old but focuses on rebuilding. The underlying issues are deeply ingrained and often generational.

The programme team must be suitably qualified and trained.  The crew must not only include those with skills to conduct outdoors activities but also those with clinical/ counselling experience.  Training could be sourced from practitioners within the Territory and interstate.

An essential component of this programme is the involvement of indigenous leaders with cultural authority.

A thorough screening and assessment of the staff and participant’s physical and emotional status is required for effective placement.

Through a combination of outdoor living, exercise and healthy food, the programme is designed to facilitate detoxification from harmful substances, promote physical fitness and build a healthier mental outlook.

Central to the programme is the bush survival component.  The bush is a great teacher and offers its own natural therapy.

Exercise and healthy living have a positive impact on mental health.

A strongly held view is that outdoors survival activities promote independence, self reliance and trust in others. Something the urban environment doesn’t readily provide.

A typical programme will consist of two or three hikes, from a few days to a few weeks.

By careful preparation and execution of each phase of the survival component participants will be taught powerful lessons about themselves and about life, such as:

Effort and reward – push on to the river and you will be rewarded by a great camping place.

 Decision and consequence –  If youdon’t carry the pack youwill have nolunch.

 Personal Challenges

Participants should be provided with suitable and appropriate personal challenges in order to broaden their skills base and strengthen self confidence.

This is a sample list of challenge activities:

  • Intensive English and Maths tuition
  • Journal keeping
  • First Aid qualifications
  • Maps and compass reading
  • Horsemanship
  • Swimming and water safety
  • Abseiling
  • Fire lighting and survival skills
  • Traditional indigenous skills
  • Cooking
  • And many more


 Community Engagement

There are two aspects of this area of the programme:

1. Involvement in work of value to the community they are a part of.

 This could be environmental or heritage work, assistance at Riding for the Disabled or the seniors village or helping at a community event.

  1. Meeting people who work in the community and hearing their story.

 This achieves a twofold aim; to learn about career options and to meet successful people who were once teenagers.  Their story may provide the inspiration needed to make better life choices.   

Parental Outreach

An important component in providing sustained change is to engage the family and focus efforts particularly when the teenager is on the programme.

Parents, significant relatives and care providers are an important part of this programme.  Coordination of services must occur before during and after the youth’s involvement on the programme.

Through this contact additional family support should be facilitated where needed.

By strengthening the family any changes arising from completion of the programme will have a better chance of being sustained.



Author: terencekennedy

I live in the North of Australia in a city closer to Jakarta than Canberra. My view of the world is flavoured by the easy reminder that Australia's address is within a South East Asian neighbourhood.

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