Consistent with the Code of Ethical Practice for the Victorian Youth Sector (Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, 2007) social justice and human rights are foundational for youth AOD services.
Young people who are clients of youth AOD services are affected by structural inequalities within society which interact with personal experiences to marginalise them from mainstream social institutions, and limit their access to many of the social and economic resources enjoyed by the majority of the population. This type of concern is recognised in the strong emphasis placed upon social inclusion by the current Australian Government (Australian Government, 2010). While national and state level policies tend to focus on broad factors operating within social institutions and structures, the principle of social inclusion must extend to consideration of the effects upon individuals. Individuals affected by social processes of disadvantage and marginalisation have a right to assistance from services aimed at ameliorating social exclusion and facilitating access to the resources that should be available to all members of the community.
The social justice and human rights value position emphasises the responsibility of society in general, and publicly funded services in particular, to respond to identified need. This human rights based ‘responsibility’ needs to be distinguished from an ‘instrumental’ position. An instrumental position gives primary value to particular types of outcomes, and withholds services or divests resources if those outcomes cannot be achieved due to technical limitations within services, or the failure of potential clients to meet eligibility criteria. This does not mean however that particular outcomes, such as improved physical and mental health or reduced alcohol and drug use, generally favoured by instrumental health and welfare programs, are not also valued and intended.
When structural inequalities operate to exclude particular populations, service providers who prioritise the value of social justice and human rights strive to create opportunities for the inclusion and participation of these populations. For highly vulnerable young people, services can be one of very few safe settings available for social inclusion. Youth AOD services also provide a bridge for connections to other services and institutions that may be less accessible.
Achieving equal access and equal opportunity in the long term demands giving special attention to the barriers that contribute to exclusion. Thus while youth AOD services work with all young people at risk of harm from drug and alcohol problems, a commitment to social justice and human rights demands prioritisation of those young people at greatest risk, those who are the hardest to work with, and who are the most vulnerable to exclusion. This means that programs are designed to maximise accessibility, engagement and retention of these young people.
Social justice and human rights based values emphasise the dignity and worth of every person, and respect for self-determination. Social exclusion de-values human dignity, and denies the worth of excluded individuals. Creation of opportunities for inclusion and participation among those most vulnerable to exclusion communicates the message that these individuals are valued members of society and that their contribution is valued. To maximise these benefits, opportunities for inclusion must involve meaningful participation by clients.
For young people with complex needs whose developmental stage and psychological issues place them at high risk of engagement in harmful behaviours, self-determination needs to be balanced by consideration of the safety of the individual and the needs and rights of others including other clients and service providers. While self-determination cannot be absolute, and guidance is required, it can be safely nurtured for the future by providing opportunities and learning experiences around decision-making, including decisions about an individual’s own treatment goals and service plan, and the design of group-based programs and activities offered by services.
This understanding of self-determination within a social justice and human rights framework is critical to distinguishing our approach from that of charity on the one hand, and instrumental approaches on the other. While services that provide and improve access to basic material and social resources are of intrinsic value, there is also the intention of enhancing the capacity of young people to have a say in their own future. This demands a high degree of openness on the part of service providers regarding the outcomes that are sought. By contrast, highly instrumental approaches that prioritise particular outcomes chosen by policy makers or service providers can inadvertently work against self-determination by de-valuing the priorities, ideas and creativity contributed by clients.
The social justice and human rights foundation of youth AOD work demands a scope of practice that reaches beyond helping those individuals most affected by social inequalities. Recognition of the role played by social factors in causing and maintaining injustice, discrimination and marginalisation conveys a responsibility for effort at the social level to eliminate or ameliorate the action of those factors.