Safety in residential care

graphic of residential care

When we take children[1] into the care of the state, a prime responsibility is their safety.

We have matched comments about safety given to the Office of the Guardian by children during our monitoring visits and advocacy with those from the December 2016 Royal Commission paper Safe and Sound.  There were overwhelming similarities.  In this article we blend the two sources to consider the questions ‘do children feel safe’, ‘when do they feel safe’ and ‘what would they suggest to make things safer?’

How safe do children feel in residential care?

Residents often feel unsafe in residential care. Bullying and harassment are common. Adolescents report that they are frequently worried by the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Older residents say that the impact of witnessing violence, self-harm and the abuse of fellow-residents, leaves them stressed and feeling unsafe.

Children generally think it is unlikely that they would be abused or harmed by a worker, although a small number report that they have encountered or heard about abusive staff. Some are concerned by the behaviours of ‘creepy adults’ and those who try to create inappropriate and overly-familiar relationships with them. Children assess how safe workers are based on their past experiences of abuse, by watching the adults’ behaviours and by how other residents act around them.

Many children describe residential care as feeling unsafe due to its instability and frequent changes of staff. Some relate times when they were moved to less safe residential care placements for no reason than that other young people could take their rooms.

A few adolescents report that adults outside of residential care take advantage of children in care, exploiting their need for a sense of belonging, accommodation and money. A few report that some children in residential care engage in prostitution.

When do children in residential care feel safe?

Children feel safe in a placement that is home-like and where young people feel welcome.  They like it where things feel ‘normal’ and where adults look out for them.

They want to see that organisations and workers take a resident’s safety seriously, that they are interested and take measures to protect them.

They feel safe when there are cordial relationships with their fellow-residents and workers, and that there are other supportive relationships, such as with a social worker or teacher, with people outside of the unit.

Really building relationships with kids works, because then they feel safer to come to you with pretty much any problem.  They’re not going to come to you with problems, even if it’s something as simple as being bullied, they’re not going to come talk to you if they think you don’t like them or don’t listen.

Safe and Sound, p 66

Stability and predictability are important.  Children need to know what is going to happen, and that any difficulties with fellow-residents can be resolved.  Routines, reasonable rules and an opportunity to have a say in decisions give them confidence and sense of control.

They believe that when they are safe, children and young people feel relaxed and calm and are less likely to be aggressive and to harm each other.

Younger residents tend to value security measures such as locks on doors, surveillance equipment and alarms.  In contrast, for older residents, these measures reinforce their sense that residential care is not home-like and is unsafe.

How could we make things safer?

Placements

Find more suitable care arrangements, particularly for those who are younger and more vulnerable and make better placement decisions that allow residents to have a say in how they are matched with other residents. Treat residential care as a long-term arrangement and make sure that changes are kept to a minimum.

Staffing

Train staff about the things that can harm children and their vulnerabilities, particularly their inexperience about sexual relationships and exploitation.  Have sufficient numbers of properly trained staff so that they have the time to develop relationships, are around and have the time to watch out for threats.

Cooperation

Train staff to take on parent-like responsibilities for protecting residents from harm.  Get staff to discuss with residents the risks and how to keep themselves safe. Get staff and residents to work together to identify safety risks and develop ways of dealing with them. Staff need to take the initiative in enquiring after residents’ safety because it is easier for staff to ask residents if they are being harmed rather than waiting for them to report it. Try to create an atmosphere where there are positive relationships between residents where young people can look out for each other.

Hearing the resident’s voice

Staff need to be prepared to listen when residents raise concerns and to be understanding and patient, even when the issues do not seem important at first.  Residents need to be informed that it is OK to raise an issue, what sorts of issues to raise and how to do it.  Make sure that it is safe to do so and that they will not suffer retribution.

A lot of the time it can feel like nothing happens [when an issues is raised] or it gets lost or stuck in the system… No matter what, [issues] should be followed up by someone and the young person should be kept in the loop with regular communication.

Young person in residential care

The Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme that is hosted in the Office of the Guardian is now well under way and we look forwards to presenting more of the views of children and the state of the system in future articles.

[1] We use the term ‘children’ to include children and young people up to the age of 18 years. We use terms such as ‘adolescent’ and ‘pre-teen’ to refer to specific age ranges within that group.

The Guardian’s Year in Review 2017-18

year in review cover

At June 2018 there were 3,695 children in out-of-home care and 3,402 on care and protection orders in South Australia. Many of those children will have thrived in stable, safe and loving placements. Supported by dedicated adults, many will have made the hard journey back from trauma and neglect, developing strong identities and building friendships. Some will have excelled at school, in sport, music or the arts.

However, it is also true that for many children our state continues to seriously fail its obligations as parent.

In the Year in Review 2017-18*, the Guardian considers some of the successes and the delays in the child protection reform process that still leave many children in less-than-ideal circumstances.  She looks at the slow transition to a system based on prevention and early intervention, to improvements in foster and kinship care services and to the ongoing problems challenging residential and emergency care.  Therapeutic care for all children as envisioned by Commissioner Nyland and significant progress in listening to the voices of children in care still seem some way off.

The Year in Review 2017-18 is now available for download.


*The Year in Review 2017-18 uses material originally published in the 2017-18 Annual Report

New resources and a learning game for young people leaving care

A group of young people with care experience boldly reclaimed the term ‘GOM’ (for Guardianship of Minister) with the recent launch of the GOM Central website and the GOM City phone app.

The launch was the culmination of seven months of hard work by project manager Eleanor Goodbourn and the focus group of people who were, or who had recently been, in state care.

‘The need for a project like this had been discussed long before I arrived in April,’ she said.

‘Relationships Australia SA has been providing post care support services for a long time now but were aware that there were some young people who were not accessing service in the current form.

‘Was there a way to support and assist young people who did not access services? In particular, we thought about those who had left care and suddenly found themselves isolated and lacking some of the basic skills you need to get along living on your own.

‘We ran an online survey, testing some ideas about a website and brought the results back to our focus group.  The idea of a game app. caught the imagination of the focus group right away and that became the germ of GOM City.

GOM City

Mighty Kingdom, who are a locally-based but internationally known game developer came on board for the game app.  It was their first venture into social learning games and they were very enthusiastic.

‘Playing the GOM City game teaches some basic skills like budgeting, remembering important events and managing a household.  But the current form of the game could be only the beginning.  There is huge potential in the framework of the game to add in other levels to incorporate other skills.

‘We have made sure that the skills taught in the game align with the Australian Core Skills Framework so those skills can be formally recognised in other domains.  We will be looking for funds to develop this aspect further in the future.

‘You can download the app. free at the iOS App Store or from Google play.

GOM Central

‘The GOM Central website is for all young people in care or who have been in care.  We’ve got a lot of information and links that they can dip into any time when they need it.  We also have a number of videos featuring young people with stories about their time in care, letting them know that they are not alone and they have experiences in common with others. They also share advice and information. One of things we learned in focus groups is how important peer to peer learning is with this group of people.

‘The site also hosts a blog which offers visitors the opportunity to share experiences and knowledge.

‘The young people who have been on this journey with us are the real heroes. They generously shared their ideas and experiences and trialled the games – and you may see some of them on the videos!’

 

The Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians November 2018 meeting

phot of ANZCCG meeting attendees

The Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians have become the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ANZCCG) with the inclusion of our colleagues from across ‘the ditch’.  The ANZCCG met on 12 and 13 November 2018 in Adelaide and comprises  comprises national, state and territory children and young peoples’ commissioners, guardians and advocates.

The ANZCCG is currently focusing on:

  • responding to the over-representation of Indigenous children and young people in disadvantage
  • child-focused oversight (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment)
  • the age of criminal responsibility
  • children and young people needing greater attention in policy and services
  • the detention of children and young people in police facilities, in breach of minimum acceptable standards

Further, the collective voice of the Australian members of the ANZCCG highlighted the following
matters:

  • the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
  • children and young people in immigration detention
  • children and young people who are criminalised for behaviours related to disability or trauma

Download the ANZCCG November 2018 meeting Communique now.

Some favourite artwork from young people in care

We would like to share with you some of our favorite artworks from young Aboriginal people in residential care that have come to our notice in the past year.  Please click on the thumbnails to see a bigger version.

Australia’s NGO Coalition reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

front cover of child rights taskforce report

UNICEF Australia, as convenor of the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, consulted with 572 children and young people in 30 locations around Australia.  This report contains their words and far-reaching recommendations to governments about how the rights of children and young people can be protected and promoted in Australia.

You can download the report from the Office of the Guardian website.

The Training Centre Visitor’s Annual Report 2017-18

graphic of annual report

The first Training Centre Visitor was appointed in December 2016 to visit, advocate, inspect, inquire and investigate matters relating to the residents of youth detention facilities in SA and provide advice to the relevant minister.  This first report covers the establishment phase of the scheme and some individual advocacy with visits proper commencing after the period covered by this report.

You can download the Training Centre Visitor’s Annual Report 2017-18 now.

Security and stability of placement dominates requests for advocacy

picture of suitcase

The Guardian’s Office received a record 96 in-mandate[1] requests for advocacy in the first quarter of the new year, representing 127 children and young people.

This was an increase of 35 per cent in inquiries and a 24 percent increase in the number of children represented compared to the preceding quarter.

Last year the Office averaged 64 in-mandate requests per quarter.  This follows the trend of an increase in the number of requests for advocacy and in the complexity of the issues raised.

The top five people who initiated in-mandate requests in July-September 2018 were:

Adults in the child’s life                                  42

Children and young people themselves      33

Department for Child Protection staff          10

Health, education and youth justice              5

Non-government organisations                     3

The top five presenting issues (by inquiry)[2] were:

Stability and security of placement              29

Safety                                                                21

Participation in decision making                   18

Contact with significant others                      15

Appropriate care                                               24

These are also the top five issues identified in the Guardian’s 2017-18 Annual Report and substantially the same as those reported in previous years.

The 33 children and young people who requested advocacy directly were in the following care arrangements:

Residential care                                             16

Adelaide Youth Training Centre                     5

Relative care                                                    4

Foster care                                                       2

Commercial (emergency) care                       2

Unknown                                                          4

 

[1] The Guardian is mandated by legislation to promote the interests of children and young people below the age of 18 years who are living in out-of-home care.  Another 17 inquiries were determined to be not within the Guardian’s mandate and those callers were assisted to make contact with a more appropriate organisation.

[2] Young people often present with multiple, interrelated issues.  Presenting issues are counted as primary and secondary and these are added to achieve the numbers reported.

New way to challenge DCP decisions starts this October

SACAT signpost

Children and young people in care will soon be able to seek an external review of decisions made by the Department for Child Protection (DCP) as to their placement, care, education and health.

On 22 October, the final sections of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 will come into operation.

This means the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT) will have the power to review certain decisions made by the DCP.

SACAT is designed to be an easy to access, low cost and user-friendly method of resolving civil claims or disputes and seeking review of government decisions.

Most decisions (those made under Chapter 7 of the Act and excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able.  We discuss appeals about contact decisions below.

A child or young person must first request that DCP review the decision, and if they are not happy with DCP’s review, they can then apply for an review of that decision at SACAT. This application must be made within 28 days of receiving DCP’s review.  SACAT may grant an extension if they are satisfied that special circumstances exist.

The legislation also provides that in these proceedings,

…a child or young person to whom the proceedings relate must be given a reasonable opportunity to personally present to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal their views related to their ongoing care and protection.

SACAT plans to be flexible in order to to support a young person’s participation and comfort.  This might include taking their views off-site or separately and preventing contact and cross-examination by other parties.

SACAT will also be able to obtain information from DCP.  This will include information such as the young person’s current situation, any history of abuse or trauma and the availability of an advocate for the young person.

In the end, the SACAT has the power to affirm the DCP’s decision, vary the decision, make its own decision or send the matter back to the DCP for reconsideration.

This is new territory for SACAT and DCP so there will be considerable work taking place to ensure that this process is as child-friendly as possible, and to ensure that the voice of the child or young person is at the centre of the decision-making.

How this will play out for children and young people in practice depends how we address these and other issues.

Delays in resolving issues.  Under the arrangements as they seem today, it is possible that several months could elapse between an unsuitable decision being made by DCP and that decision being reversed by SACAT.  Three months is a long time in the reality of a child in care.  Unsuitable decisions on placement, education and health could cause irreversible damage and disruption to a young person during that time.

Who is to be the child’s advocate?  The review process is complex so it is likely that few reviews will be mounted by a young person without the support of an adult advocate.  Who will this be? The young person’s DCP social worker may lack the knowledge to advocate (as we have seen in some NDIS matters) or the will to oppose the views of colleagues and superiors. A child’s social worker could face a conflict of interest.

Other adults closely involved in the matter may not be able to separate their own emotional and material interests from those of the young person.  Advocacy support may come from a body such as the Office of the Guardian or by the appointment of a duty solicitor to act for the young person.

What about Aboriginal children and families?  How well will the process be able to manage the language, location and cultural barriers that might discourage Aboriginal children and their advocates seeking a review and being able to represent their position effectively if they do?

What is a review-able decision?  What if a young person or their advocate believes a decision falls within scope, but the DCP doesn’t? There is some guidance.  Decisions made under Chapter 7 of the Act (excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able. Section 84 of the Act sets out review-able decisions relating to the placement, care, education, and health of children and young people in care but deciding what is review-able may not be simple in practice.

Additionally, can a refusal to review be itself reviewed? Would this be referred to the DCP complaints unit, by appeal to the Ombudsman or by some other mechanism still to be devised?

Disputes over contact arrangements

Legislation recently passed through Parliament  which means that, from 22 October, children and young people will be able to apply to the Contact Arrangements Review Panel which can affirm, change, or set aside contact decisions.   The child or young person will have 14 days after the DCP’s decision to apply for review although there is provision for ‘special circumstances’ to extend that time. Right now, it is unclear if a decision made by the Contact Arrangements Review Panel can be appealed or reviewed.

For more information, check out the Internal reviews page on the DCP website and the SACAT website.  SACAT have told us that they expect to be developing more materials explaining the review process in the next few month.