Going the distance

Going the distance

Across the south-west corner of Queensland, Chris Morris is tackling a ‘hidden issue’ among children in the youth justice system.

As the first speech pathologist in Australia to be employed by a juvenile justice department outside of a detention centre, Chris sees first hand how language disorders often go undetected.

“Research from NSW shows 74 percent of young offenders have oral language skills below the average range for their age, with 40 per cent showing severe difficulties,” he said.

“It means they can’t understand or express themselves to a level that most of us can.”

These difficulties can have far-reaching implications.

“Language disorders affect all areas of an individual’s daily life,” Chris said.

“It affects their social, emotional and behavioural development, which can impact on their ability to build meaningful relationships, and engage in school or work.

“Language disorders can also affect a young person’s ability to comply with their youth justice orders, participate in the court process or engage in programs — this limits their ability to make positive changes.

“Unfortunately, it’s often a hidden issue because a young person can be experiencing communication breakdown, but to everyone else it looks like they’re misbehaving or disinterested, or that they’ve simply got a bad attitude.”

Chris Morris

Chris’ patch extends from Ipswich to the borders of South Australia and New South Wales, as well as the South Burnett area.

“By working full-time within Youth Justice, I’m able to treat young people in a way that’s tailored and meaningful to them,” he said.

“I can problem-solve with them, rather than simply make a clinical diagnosis and general recommendations.

“This means immediate support, and most importantly it enables the young person to apply what they’re learning straight away in every-day situations in the community. 

“Overcoming these difficulties can be truly life changing.”

One of Chris’ clients, Maria*, is 16 years old and lives about 5 hours out of Brisbane.

“Maria struggled at school, had low-level literacy skills, and often couldn’t understand what teachers were saying,” Chris said.

“She felt inadequate and ashamed about this, so she dropped out.”

By working with Chris and a regional psychologist, Maria took a new direction and decided to pursue a job instead.

“We did plenty of exercises to tackle communication barriers that could emerge, such as job interviews, how to start conversations with co-workers, and how to problem-solve or ask for clarification if you don’t understand instructions,” he said.

“I’m pleased to say she’s now got a job which involves interacting with team members and the public, and is working towards getting her licence.

“She hasn’t reoffended, and she’s even been promoted to a position where she’s training other staff.

“This has had an enormous knock-on effect on how she sees herself and how she values herself.”

As a speech pathologist, Chris is able to assist young people with a range of issues.

This includes communication difficulties associated with intellectual disability, hearing impairments, autism, foetal alcohol syndrome disorder and a range of congenital and acquired disorders.

*not her real name