9 March 2024

“After hearing stories from other young people...I felt compelled to do something about the injustices they had experienced.”

Image: Tom Allsop, CEO Peakcare, Malakai, and Luke Twyford, CEO and Principle Commissioner of Queensland Family and Child Commission smile at the camera.

Malakai is a proud Waka Waka and Kukuyalanji man with Fijian heritage who spent his childhood in foster and residential care and experienced periods of homelessness. Now, Malaki draws on his personal experiences to advocate for changes to the child protection system, with support from the Next Steps Plus team.

The following story is of Malakai’s own experience and in his own words.

“From the age of 9 months, I lived in foster care with my foster mother. We've got a really good relationship; she's like my auntie now,” Malakai shared.

“We went through a challenging period together when I was a teenager. I didn't understand why I wasn't with my parents, and I really struggled with this. I started taking it out on my foster parent, acting quite hateful towards her, through no fault of her own.

“I found another place to go, running off to live with a friend. His mother became my foster carer for the next two years. She supported me in getting connected with my dad.

“My father was a bit of a heavy drinker. And when I went to hang out with him, he just gave me free rein over what I wanted to do. I mimicked his behaviour and started to drink a lot as well. This led to my care placements breaking down, and I ended up homeless for a while.

“In 2021, I started getting back on my feet. I moved into residential care, which was really good. There were some very supportive workers there, and they got me into a lot of physical exercise. We’d often go for 7km walks and go to the gym together, which was beautiful,” Malakai reflected.

After his time in residential care, Malakai moved around a lot, eventually settling in Toowoomba, where he connected with Next Step Plus Case Manager Chris Brice, who helped Malaki set himself up in his own place.

“Chris and the team at Next Steps Plus supported me with finding my own place and getting things for the house, like my TV, desk, and chairs. They also helped me access funding to start some driving lessons. They would also catch up with me regularly and check in to see how I was doing,” Malakai said.

Through Next Steps Plus, Malaki also connected with Amy Pagano, Manager Specialised Programs, who helped him get started on his advocacy journey.

“Amy has been a great support. She knows I have pretty strong opinions, and when opportunities for advocacy have come up, she has been like, ‘let’s get you in there’, and supported me to get involved .”

After hearing stories from other young people in care, Malakai felt compelled to do what he could to improve the child protection system.

“There are people going through a lot through the system, and I've got a little brother that's currently in residential care as well. So, it's quite personal for me,” Malakai shared.

“The stories that you hear were definitely a contributing factor to me becoming an advocate.

“I’ve got a heart to help people."

"After hearing stories from other young people who have experienced care, I felt compelled to do something about the injustices they had experienced.

“Some of the things I am advocating for are for changes in the residential care system, particularly around ensuring young people are aware of their rights in the system,” Malakai continued.

Image: Malakai, Tom Allsop, Luke Twyford, and a group of young people at the Queensland Family and Child Commission.

“I am also advocating for more programs to support young people in residential care or those who have gotten involved in crime. We need programs in place that give these young people something to do, teach them a new skill and provide a sense of accomplishment. I’ve seen programs like these change lives.”

Since starting his journey as an advocate, Malaki has had the opportunity to share his story in a number of public forums.

“Last year, I spoke at the Life Without Barriers Leadership Summit in Sydney with another young person, Dakota. I was able to tell my story, and I feel like that's something that needs to happen at every one of these conferences,” Malakai said.

“You’ve got all the leaders there, and they're talking about what’s working and what isn’t throughout their organisations. To have young people there, sharing their personal experiences, these leaders hear some powerful messages that give them real insight into what is happening on the ground. I appreciated having the opportunity to do that.

“Wherever there is the possibility of getting a young person in to talk about their experiences, I’d love to see organisations ask themselves, ‘How can we incorporate a youth advocate?’ and do 'what they can to make it happen'.”

Image: Malakai stands on stage, delivering a speech at the Life Without Barriers Leadership Summit.

Malakai also had the opportunity to broadcast his story to a broader audience on ABC Radio in an interview with Luke Twyford, CEO, Queensland Family and Child Commission.

“Recently, Amy supported me in attending an ABC Radio interview with Luke Twyford. I've never been in that kind of situation before, and it was all so professional it took me a moment to process. But it was a great opportunity to talk about my time in residential care and what I am advocating for in a public forum,” Malakai said.

“There were actually some hate comments coming through while I was on the air; they read out a message from a guy that was like, ‘I live near a residential house, and they’re always breaking things and being disruptive’, which is a common view people have about young people in residential care.”

“It was good to be able to challenge those types of views and show them that with the right support, there is so much these kids can do."

Image: Malakai taking part in an ABC Radio interview with Luke Twyford.

"The people who supported me and were there for me in my time through care helped me to believe in myself, and I was able to change,” he continued.

“That change was only made possible through people who believed in me and told me I could do it, rather than the people who judged me because those people would only push me further down.”

Amy shared that Malakai handled the interview like a professional.

“Malaki did a remarkable job. I think it’s likely he will receive more speaking gigs. I have made him promise to give Life Without Barriers the first look in if he starts to get overbooked!”

Image: Malakai and Luke Twyford posing with the Bananas in Pyjamas after their ABC Radio interview.

When asked what he plans to focus on next, Malakai shared he is focused on amplifying the voices of young people in care and sharing their stories.

“I've got a business mentor, someone who's been in the business world for quite some time; together, we’re talking through a lot of ideas. I want to share young people's stories with people, whether that's in the form of clothing or podcasting. So, we’re figuring out exactly what that looks like together.”

Next Step Plus is a support system for Queensland youth aged 15-25 to develop their skills and knowledge to live independently and to provide them with additional support and services that they need.

The program helps young people who have been in out-of-home care with practical advice and support for things like managing money and entitlements, housing and accommodation, training and preparing for work, keeping safe, having strong and healthy relationships and legal advice.

After care

Giving young people who are leaving care the support they need to build independent lives.

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