In the heart of South Brisbane, the Youth Advocacy Centre (YAC) stands as one of the outstanding, locally based organisations supporting those in need in our broader community.

The YAC is a not-for-profit Community Legal Centre that has a mission to increase young people’s access to justice, both legal and social.

Katherine Hayes, YAC’s CEO, sheds light on the organisation’s integrated casework approach, aimed at addressing core issues affecting young individuals involved in the court system. Beyond legal assistance, YAC helps them find housing, cope with mental health issues, return to school, and rebuild family relationships.


Among the current challenges for the organisation, Hayes highlights the pervasive “hysteria” surrounding youth crime and the resulting demonisation of young people. According to Hayes, the government’s focus on policing over prevention exacerbates these challenges.

“We’ve found a hardening of people’s attitudes to any kind of early intervention or diversion or assistance and that leads to difficulty with adequate funding of services such as early intervention with substance abuse programs, homelessness programs for young people and family support, because the government is focused on policing rather than prevention.”

Hayes says difficulties with young people not engaging in a pro-social manner with society must be addressed as early as possible. But because of the political climate, the focus is firmly on detention.

Hayes says anyone under 16 and homeless should be on the books for the Department of Child Safety, Seniors, and Disability Service. 

“But there aren’t any homeless youth shelters. That’s a real gap because many young people on our books have had difficulties at home and don’t have anywhere to go.”

Hayes says these young people turn to crime for two reasons: to eat and get by, but also to belong.

“They find belonging in criminal groups. And the way that they belong is to commit these crimes, which is obviously not good for them or the community.”

The impact of harsh laws is particularly felt in the Aboriginal community, with Hayes noting significant over-representation in detention centres, especially in Townsville.

“There are three detention centres in Queensland, one in Townsville, two in the southeast corner, where there is usually, about 60 or 70%, Aboriginal people. The over representation of Aboriginal people starts really young.”


Hayes says YAC maintains a strong relationship with the government “because firstly we’re funded by them, but also we engage in frank and fearless advocacy.”

“We provide feedback to the government all the time about what kind of issues young people experience in adult watchhouses over long periods of time. We advocate about how that’s damaging for them and about the harsh impacts of the laws.”

Hayes shares the story of a young 14-year-old Aboriginal boy to illustrate the challenges young people face.

“He is a beautiful boy, very immature for his age, who has been living on the streets of South Brisbane for about a year. He doesn’t go home because he feels it’s an unsafe environment. Child Safety closed their books on him, so he’s just been left to his own devices for the last six to nine months. He started stealing food and that escalated to an armed robbery with a Stanley knife – he held up a convenience store in West End. Now he’s on bail for that and his bail conditions are that he must go home every night. But his home is an unsafe environment.

“The new laws mean that it’s a crime every night he doesn’t go home to that unsafe environment. So that’s not the solution for him. He needs to have really intensive support to re-engage in school. He’s a bright, personable engaging young boy, and hopefully his path isn’t set in stone.”

Yuliana Indigenous Corporation supports such First Nations young people, providing them with a connection to their community and to their culture, by taking them on ‘on-country’ programs.

“Yiliyapinya is doing fantastic work, and we have Aboriginal workers here who work closely with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cohort.”

Katherine Hayes, Youth Advocacy Centre
Katherine Hayes, CEO Youth Advocacy Centre

Amendments to the Youth Justice Act

In August this year, the Queensland Government rushed amendments to the Youth Justice Act through parliament to exempt it from litigation for detaining young people in adult police watchhouses.

Hayes said at the time: “Queenslanders should be dismayed that the Government is once again dispensing with the human rights of our most vulnerable citizens. These are not bikies or terrorists: they are the kids that have been failed by all of the adults in their lives, and a significant number of them have been in contact with the child safety system.”

Hayes is concerned about the extended detention of young people in adult watchhouses and the government’s focus on changing laws instead of addressing underlying problems.

YAC has reported that in 2021-22, around 470 Queensland children – some as young as 10 – were held in adult watchhouses for periods of up to 14 days.

To reduce the number of children in adult watchhouses, Hayes says the focus should be on expediting court processes, as 80% of these children are on remand and have not been sentenced yet. Accelerating court procedures would lead to quicker resolution for these individuals, enabling their transfer out of watchhouses and creating space in detention centres.

“One of our clients was held in the Watchhouse in Maroochydore for about 34 days. In a room with no natural light, no fresh air and they were never taken outside to fresh air – they had no stimulation, poor food, little access to family and support services. It was terrible. That was one of the worst that we’d seen.” 

Hayes says summer is a peek period and she is concerned about how the government will be able to properly hold young people in the Watchhouse.

“I think morally we have an obligation under the United Nations Rights of the Child to provide them with access to fresh air, sunlight, educational stimulation, and in the Watchhouse they get none of that. It’s quite a hostile environment because it’s designed to hold adults who have been arrested for drunken disorderly or serious crimes, not kids.”

Intervention and Diversion

Hayes acknowledges that appropriate sentences should be applied for serious crimes. However, she stresses the importance of rehabilitation during detention designed to provide therapeutic support for young people.

When young people commit murders, rapes, and car theft, they are dealt with under the law and do receive quite significant sentences. And that’s how it should be. What we want to happen is while they’re in detention, they receive as intensive rehabilitation as possible because detention on its own just leads to reoffending. 80 or 90% of kids in detention re-offend. So, if we’re not doing rehabilitation in detention, there’s no point; it’s not a deterrent. It’s not fixing them without rehabilitation. 

“Rehabilitation means access to therapy, counselling, mental health support, education, and then support once they leave the detention centre. At the moment, they get 72 hours of support, but that’s just not long enough for them to reintegrate into society. They don’t have supportive networks. So, it’s a big gap.”

Victoria and South Australia both have a focus on early intervention and diversion from the youth justice system, Hayes says, and their incarceration and youth crime rates are low.

Queensland has the most children in detention of all Australian states and territories.

Hayesbackground is corporate law, and she took on the CEO role over 18 months ago.

“It’s been really challenging with a completely different set of skills, but very satisfying in terms of being able to make just a little bit of difference.

YAC primarily receives funding from the state and federal governments, as well as through philanthropy, and council grants. Hayes emphasises the importance of sustainable funding to provide essential services and continues advocating for systemic change in youth justice.

“It would be good to embed YAC as an organisation that can provide a real, adequately funded services, because every organisation like ours is underfunded and overwhelmed with demand.”

“We’ve found that the complexity of issues has risen so that young people are on our books for longer. That reduces the number that we can treat.”

Solutions, not cul-de-sacs

Damien Atkinson. Chair of YAC said in his annual statement that the challenge for YAC this year has been to harness the community’s interest in doing things differently.

“We need to be informing the debate with solutions that create paths, not cul-de-sacs. And we

can do that, with so many ideas: maternal health, better accommodation options, substance abuse facilities, fast- tracking sentencing, proper bail support, on-community programs, re-integration services following detention.”

He challenges the Government to look to a whole-of-government plan, rather than reacting to the loudest voices.

Ending on an optimistic note, he says:

“YAC is in a fantastic position. We have passionate staff, an excellent CEO, a committed board and – not to be underestimated – a prudent and talented treasurer. We are working closely with the officers of the Department to ensure that, whatever politics populate our shared landscape, we provide young people with the very best services, and allow them all the choices and the dignity they deserve.”


Aside from its support services, YAC may provide young people with essential items to help them achieve their goals. Donations may fund:

$25 – Birthday cake for a homeless child

$50 – Hygiene products 

$100 – Identification e.g., learners’ licence, passport 

$250 – Sporting club fees or a school uniform

$1000 – 30 hours of personal support 

If you want to support the work of YAC, you can donate here –