March for Brosnan

Working as the Pentridge Prison chaplain for 30 years, Father Brosnan was acutely aware of the need to support young offenders upon their release from prison. ‘There are three things needed by people upon their release,’ he often said, ‘a place to live that is decent, a job that they can handle and friendship, and the hardest to provide is friendship.’

The Jesuit Order had already responded to these needs by setting up the Four Flats program in Hawthorn in 1977. Four Flats  was a small halfway house for young men released from prison and juvenile justice centres. Following Father Brosnan’s retirement from Pentridge in 1985, funds were raised to extend the Four Flats program and establish the Brosnan Centre, which opened in 1987. At present 25 staff (mostly youth and social workers) continue to support young offenders aged 17–25.

The centre targets those who are at most risk of reoffending upon release. These young people often come from families where there is a history of abuse, violence, or family break-down where their parents have been unable to take care of them. Many have spent much of their youth in institutions, or moving between foster homes. In other cases, their offences have led them to be rejected by their families.

‘These young people are one of the most needy groups. One of the most fragile and vulnerable,’ says Brosnan Centre manager Peter Coghlan. ‘To the public they may look and act tough, but what’s under the surface? That’s all a sign of being vulnerable or fragile … Social justice is about really putting your neck on the line for people who need you.’

The key to the Brosnan Centre’s success is establishing a trusting relationship between the young people and the workers at the centre. The centre pioneered the practice of prerelease engagement with young offenders—workers regularly visit prisons and juvenile justice centres to begin building these relationships.

Brosnan Centre workers devise an individual ‘exit’ plan for young offenders, which includes assistance with accommodation, vocational training and employment, drug, alcohol and mental health problems. The workers ensure that the young person has the necessary paperwork for Centrelink, Medicare, and a bank account. Upon release, the centre provides basic material needs such as clothing, food, transport tickets and telephone cards.

The centre directly assists young people to find information about suitable employment arrangements including supported employment schemes, courses and jobs. Supported accommodation for releasees is available at two houses. The house in Carlton accommodates up to four young people. Perry House, in Reservoir, is a purpose-built house designed for young people with an intellectual disability. From this supported accommodation, young people move on to transitional housing, where they are accommodated until they are able to obtain their own public housing.

Quantifying the success of agencies such as the Brosnan Centre is difficult. The greatest measure of success is the period of time the young people are able to stay out of the criminal justice system. If they can start to break the release-offence-incarceration cycle, then that is success. ‘They may not reoffend at all,’ says Coghlan. The centre frequently receives ‘good news’ stories from former young offenders.

Mike was a young offender who’d been in prison and hadn’t had contact with his family for a number of years. He and his case worker worked through Mike’s family issues with the aim of re-establishing contact. Just prior to Christmas, Mike decided to try to reunite with his family. Last week, his mother rang the centre to let everyone know that everything was working out well.

Jason was involved with the centre 20 years ago. He’d come from a horrific background, and had been in and out of youth training centres and prisons for years. He called recently to let the workers know that, despite all the trouble, he was now happily married with three children and was running a successful small business.

‘Apparently,’ says Coghlan, ‘if you were ever going to give up on a young person, it would have been him. But the workers didn’t give up. They persisted and persisted and took him as far as they could.’

The Brosnan Centre’s work extends beyond providing direct assistance to young offenders. Following in the footsteps of Father Brosnan, the centre undertakes a broad advocacy role. The staff give talks to schools, community and parish groups and service clubs to try to promote awareness of the work the centre does, and to try to change the public perception of young offenders. In keeping with the Jesuit Social Services purpose to build a more just and inclusive society, the Brosnan Centre also advocates for broader social change.

This was the ethos of social inclusion behind Father Brosnan’s work. His openness, warmth and generosity were legendary. ‘Even the young people who didn’t have experience of him helping them, loved him,’ says Coghlan. ‘He was a great man, and a real character.’

Next month, to celebrate Father Brosnan’s life and work, the Brosnan Centre’s patron, Garry Lyon (former Melbourne Football Club captain), will launch ‘March for Brosnan’ month at the Brosnan Centre.

March for Brosnan events

Picnic in the Park: A fundraising picnic in the park will be held on Sunday, 20 March, at 12.30pm at Pentridge Village Estate in the Father Brosnan Community Park, Coburg.

Getting Schools on Board: Brosnan Centre staff will give talks to schools about the centre, and are seeking support through donations (funds raised by ‘uniform-free days’), or by collecting materials (hairbrushes, shaving cream, deodorants) to make hygiene kits for young people.

For further information, donations or volunteering, please contact the Brosnan Centre on 03 9387 1233.  

Louise Clarke is a freelance writer.

 

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