Horses help target emerging youth offenders on Gold Coast

Horses help target emerging youth offenders on Gold Coast

Can four legs be better than two when it comes to diverting would-be offenders from entering the criminal justice system?

A program that uses horses to teach young people how to control their emotions and behavior is one of a series of proactive programs Gold Coast police and partner agencies are using to help prevent youth crime in the district.

Horses Helping Humans is funded by the Community Based Crime Action Committee (CBCAC), which is one of several committees set up across the state in 2020 as part of the Queensland Government’s Five Point Plan to reduce youth crime.

Horses Helping Humans, initially identified by police in Logan County, is a privately run program that matches the personality of each participant to a horse’s temperament, and includes an understanding of how body language affects communication.

It was developed by horse trainer and handler Sue Spence who has been facilitating the program for several years at her property at Tallebudgera.

Participants learn riding skills and learn to control their emotions and adjust their body language.

Detective Senior Constable Craig Andrew of the Gold Coast Child Protection and Investigation Unit (CPIU) has been instrumental in many of the district’s youth crime initiatives and has driven the horse program since its inception in October 2021.

He said using horses to break through to young people was a new approach that could resonate with participants and start them on a journey that improved their life trajectory.

“There are many studies that show that animals can be useful for therapy and in some cases can teach important life lessons more effectively than other people can,” said Detective Senior Constable Andrew.

“These horses come from challenging backgrounds, as do many of our contestants, and each has developed its own personality traits in response.

“One has a domineering personality, one is a follower, another is flighty and struggles to maintain focus.

“Some of our young people are followers and follow other children into crime. Some of them are domineering and engage in bullying behavior, while others suffer from ADHD and may struggle to maintain focus.

“The kids are matched with the horse that best teaches them what they need to learn as individuals,” he said.

Participants do not ride the horses during the program, but are taught equine skills such as leading the horses through a series of maneuvers. There is also a component of grooming and caring for the horses.

Convincing an animal to obey a command requires the right mix of patience and assertiveness. Detective Senior Constable Andrew said the program taught participants how to deal with anxiety and develop self-control.

“They start each session with breathing exercises to help them focus. They develop empathy and learn to adjust their body language to get the horses to trust them enough to follow their commands,” he said.

The personality of each horse is different, and they are adapted to individual participants.

Each course consists of three sessions of one and a half hours, with one session per week for three weeks. After the third session, the participant graduates from the course and receives a trophy.

Two police officers transport the participants to and from their residence and each session is followed by lunch, which expands the opportunity to break down barriers and build rapport between the youth and the police.

The Gold Coast CBCAC funds three participants per month, with referrals coming from the QPS Youth Co-Responder Team (YCRT) and partner agencies including Youth Justice and Education Queensland.

Detective Senior Constable Andrew said that while not all participants completed the program, those who did generally showed improved behavior and less offending.

“We target young people around the age of 11 who disengage from school and come to the attention of the police,” said Senior Detective Constable Andrew.

“These are often children who are in a transition period from primary school to high school.

“They are changing, they are becoming more independent and they are vulnerable to peer pressure, especially if they mix with the wrong crowd.

“After completing the course, parents, carers and schools report less conflict at home and improved school attendance and engagement.”

One participant, a 15-year-old girl, first came to the attention of the police in February 2021. Over the next few months, she was charged with 12 offences, mostly involving violence towards others.

She was disconnected from schooling and on bail for a robbery case when the YCRT asked permission for her to participate in the Horses Helping Humans program.

The girl completed the three sessions, which helped her deal with anxiety and control her emotions. Since then she has re-engaged with her schooling and has committed no further offences.

Another girl, aged 13, was identified as an emerging youth who associates with other known youth offenders.

In October 2021, she was warned for two property offences, which she became involved in after peer pressure from older youths.

She has completed Horses Helping Humans and another program funded by CBCAC, and no longer associates with the other youth offenders and has committed no further offences.

Detective Senior Constable Craig Andrew works with emerging offenders on the Gold Coast to prevent them from progressing into a life of crime.

Detective Senior Constable Andrew said that while the police had a strong focus on bringing the 10% of hardened youth offenders to justice, the right intervention at the right time in an emerging offender’s life was a crucial component in preventing youth crime.

“There’s a range of different proactive programs that Gold Coast Police and partner agencies are working with, and we’re open to trying different things to see what works,” he said.

“However, it is never a simple solution. There are usually multiple issues involved, including domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health, and you’re never going to address all of these issues with one program.”

Having been a police officer for 20 years, the last 14 with the CPIU, he said preventing young people from taking up a life of crime was both a frustrating and uniquely rewarding job.

“It’s another side of policing. You can arrest people, but there are other ways to work with children. It’s more holistic, but it’s harder to do and I enjoy the challenge.

“It can be frustrating because you don’t always get support from the parents and it’s also difficult to accurately measure success because you prevent something from happening.

“The rewards come when you know you’ve succeeded in turning a young person’s life around. It happens often enough to keep you going,” he said.

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