Should we extend the age of leaving state care beyond 18? – Poll results

graph of poll results

A huge ‘thank you’ to the 310 people who responded to the poll and particularly to the 177 who contributed to the over 11,500 words of comments.  It will take us a bit longer to prepare a report that will do justice to the quality and diversity of the comments.  In the meantime, here are the major themes.

The majority of respondents to the poll favoured the extension of support to young people in state care beyond the age of 18.  The reasons they gave were broadly of four types:

  1. Birth parents in our community frequently support their children with accommodation, education, finance and in many practical ways beyond the age of 18.   So should the state as parent.
  2. Children in care often have histories of neglect and abuse leading to developmental delays and the effects of trauma and their schooling is often affected by disrupted childhoods. This diminishes the capacity of many to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood at 18.
  3. High rates of homelessness, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems, substance abuse and unemployment and low levels of education and training demonstrate that many young people exiting care at age 18 are unprepared by the system to cope without further support.
  4. Recent research has demonstrated that human brain development and the capacity for self-regulation continue into the mid-twenties and beyond.

The right to opt out

Some respondents pointed out the legal and civil-liberties problems of extending the age of guardianship beyond 18.  Many stressed that it was essential that care-leavers should have the choice to opt in to the services provided and have a say in what services were made available and how they should access them.  Many stressed the right for young people to opt out of care situations they did not like.

How long should support last?

Many disputed the idea of setting a particular age at which support should cease and proposed that a marker could be used such as completion of education or training, stable accommodation or employment.  Others favoured a professional assessment against a set of psychological indicators to show when a person no longer needed support.

What services should be provided?

A wide range of services and supports were proposed which included financial and other support for foster and kinship families to enable young people to stay on beyond 18 at least until education and training were complete.  Some pointed out existing and proven services that could be extended and developed.  Others noted that current transition planning left many young people unprepared and that extra resourcing and new approach was needed to transition.

A fuller analysis of comments later.

Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) May 2018 meeting

ACCG members in Perth: Back row (left to right) Andrew Johnson, Phillip Brooks, Helen Connolly, Judge Andrew Becroft, Liana Buchanan, Natalie Siegel-Brown, Colin Pettit, David Clements, Penny Wright, Cheryl Vardon. Front row: Jodie Griffiths-Cook, Colleen Gwynne, Janet Schorer and Megan Mitchell.

The Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) met on 15 and 16 May 2018 in Perth, Western Australia.  The ACCG comprises national, state and territory children and young peoples’ commissioners, guardians and advocates.

The ACCG is currently focusing on

  • achieving better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people
  • promoting children and young people’s engagement and participation
  • upholding the rights of children and young people in youth justice detention
  • improving the safety of children and young people in organisations
  • promoting the safety and well-being of children and young people and
  • ending violence against children and young people

Download the ACCG May 2018 meeting Communique now.

Should we extend the age of leaving state care beyond 18?

picture of girl on jettyMany communities are questioning whether young people leaving state care at their 18th birthday are fully equipped to take on all of the demands of adult life.  Birth families often provide emotional and practical support to their offspring well beyond their teens.

One solution proposed has been to extend the age of leaving care beyond the current 18 years.  Does this deserve serious consideration in South Australia? Please contribute to the conversation via the Guardian’s 30-second poll.


Take me to the poll

We will post the results next week.

Backpacks for SA kids

picture of toys on the rack Backpacks 4 SA Kids is an amazing not-for-profit operating out of an industrial park north of Adelaide that provides care packs for children and young people in state care and in homeless and domestic violence shelters. Rachael Zaltron, who set up and manages it, took us on a tour.

“In 2017 we sent out 2,628 care packs to children and young people in state care and in domestic violence and homeless shelters as well as nearly 2,500 Christmas presents.  Eighty percent of what we send out comes from public donations.

girl packing a bag“Most of the work is done by volunteers.  We get 30 to 40 at each of our packing sessions.

“Backpacks contain the fun stuff like toys, games and books but also plenty of useful items like clothing and hygiene products.  Each back pack is checked three times to ensure that the contents are of high quality and suitable for the child.

“In the school holidays we are happy to see many children come in to volunteer packing the backpacks.  Children volunteering from local schools and the community learn a valuable practical lesson in understanding and helping other young people.

box of clothes“All of our back packs are matched for age or size and the gender.  As adolescents seem to be getting bigger, we are now including some adult sizes.

“We are always on the lookout for another place where we can make a contribution.  Last year we provided 52 ‘home starter packs’ of everyday home items to families trying to set themselves up in new accommodation and we are doing that again this year.

You can get in touch with Rachael via Facebook, the website or at hello@backpacks4sakids.org

You can read the full article in the Guardian’s May 2018 Newsletter.

The Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter – May 2018


In this edition of the Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter:

  • The Guardian on the necessity for collaboration and cooperation in child protection
  • A community group doing fantastic work providing backpacks for young people in care and escaping domestic violence
  • The short but eventful history of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Some things we can learn from Commissioner Lander’s inquiry into events at the Oakden nursing home.

Plus what the Office has been up to over the last few months.

Download the May 2018 Newsletter.

Community visitor programs – what we can learn from Oakden

[Oakden residents] lacked any voice themselves. They were entirely dependent upon others for their care and their safety”. – Commissioner Lander, p190 1

There are many lessons to be learned from the report by Commissioner Bruce Lander QC on the events at the Oakden nursing home, many of which can be applied to other facilities in our state.

Residents of the Oakden facility should have been protected from abuse and mistreatment by layers of overlapping protections which were the the domains of many different people at different levels of government, administration and service provision.

They, their families and the community, would have expected government and senior departmental officers to provide adequate resourcing and oversight and to have policies and procedures in place to ensure suitable levels of care, management and supervision. The training and professional standards of the staff working there should have provided another level of protection. Effective complaints procedures for residents and concerned others should have provided additional safeguards as should have accreditation inspections by external bodies.

Finally, the residents of Oakden relied on community visitors to bring an independent and critical eye to the conditions they experienced.

Commissioner Lander set out in forensic detail how each of these layers of protection failed and his report sounds a warning for any organisation that provides care for vulnerable people in a closed or secure environment.  Regarding the operation of the relevant community visitor scheme (CVS) –

…consideration needs to be given as to whether the CVS in its current form is an appropriate safeguard for those suffering mental illness who are housed or treated in treatment centres, limited treatment centres, or authorised community mental health facilities. [p307]

Commissioner Lander’s critique of aspects of community visiting at Oakden raised questions for all such schemes, not just those visiting mental health services. The Guardian’s Office is currently in the process of establishing two separate community visitor schemes, so the issues he described are instructive as we attempt to craft models for the protection and wellbeing of young people in residential care and in youth detention. These are some of the issues.

Should schemes use volunteers or paid visitors?

Volunteers are assumed to bring into the institution expectations and standards reflecting those of the broader community. Because volunteers are not paid, that could potentially mean larger numbers of visitors within a given budget allowing more frequent visits.  But is it reasonable to expect volunteers to accept the rigorous selection process, training and complex tasks required of a visitor? Commissioner Lander noted that some visitors to Oakden may not have had the necessary skills and support to identify problems, report them and intervene on behalf of residents. He favours a model in which visitors are paid, comprehensively trained, and operate within a rigorous model that has sound documentation and effective accountability mechanisms…


This is the first part of a longer paper which goes on to consider the use of volunteers as visitors, the concept of visiting versus inspection, unannounced visits, visitor independence and the place and value of visitor programs. For the full version, download Community visitor programs – what we can learn from Oakden.

1 Oakden: A shameful chapter in South Australia’s history.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 70 in 2018 and of it’s many grandchildren, the most widely ratified is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). To mark the anniversary, this is the second in the series of short articles about understanding, promoting and safeguarding rights, particularly those of children growing up in care or detained in youth justice facilities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of international human rights law and has inspired more than 80 international human rights treaties and declarations.  As time passed, and with reflection and experience, international human rights instruments have become more focused and specialised, to address the circumstances of specific social groups and their issues.

Before the Convention on the Rights of the Child

The CRC was not the first international attempt to protect the rights of children.  It was preceded in 1924 by the Declaration on the Rights of the Child made by the League of Nations.  The League was a forerunner to the United Nations which folded when it was unable to prevent the onset of World War Two. The Declaration was re-adopted in an extended version by the UN in 1959 as the Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

The date of its adoption, 20 November, has been adopted as Universal Children’s Day.

These earlier Declarations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are acknowledged in the preamble to the CRC.

Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the CRC is a global document that has been translated into over 500 languages and several child-friendly versions.  Nearly 200 countries are now party to the treaty, including every UN member except the United States.  The US contributed significantly to the drafting of the CRC and signed it in 1995 but successive administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton and Obama, have failed to pass the necessary legislation to ratify it.

The CRC took 10 years to draft.  It sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.  It defines a child as any human being under the age of eighteen, unless the age of majority is otherwise defined locally.  It was adopted by the United Nations in 1989.  It entered into force in 1990 when it had been ratified by a required number of UN member states which had passed enabling legislation.

The Optional Protocols

In the succeeding years, three Optional Protocols (OP) have been added to the CRC to address particular issues affecting children. These are treaties in their own rights that provide for procedures with regard to the treaty or address a substantive area related to the treaty

The OP on the involvement of children in armed conflict, sometimes known as the ‘child soldier’ treaty came into force 2002 at the same time as the OP on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The OP on a communication procedure, which came into force in 2014, sets out an international complaints procedure for child rights violations, which enables children and their representatives to bring complaints about violations of their rights to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child if they have not been fully addressed in national courts.

Supporting documents

The UN has also produced other documents to enhance the implementation of the CRC by member states.  Two examples that are especially relevant to child protection and juvenile detention are the 1985 Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (known as the Beijing Rules) and the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Most UN documents tend to be discouragingly dry and text-heavy but we have a liking for the colourful material produced by the Scottish Children’s Commissioner, especially this poster of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Working together for children in care

photo of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

When the state takes over the parenting of a child, that parent has many faces, many hands and, hopefully, many hearts.

Pointing the way to a new and better child protection system, Commissioner Margaret Nyland wrote in her preface to The Life They Deserve

The new agency cannot operate in isolation. It should coordinate and collaborate with all other relevant departments and organisations, both government and non-government, to give children better outcomes.  It must also be proactive and engage the community to play its part in developing programs and systems…

Many of the good things we see happening for children in state care, and we do see many good things happening in our work, happen when the hearts and the hands of adults come together to recognise and understand a child’s needs and stay together to work through to a good outcome.  The joy for the child, but also for the adults, is palpable.  It is one of the reasons we do the work we do.

Sadly, some of the worst results we see for children are when people and organisations fail to work together closely and respectfully in the child’s interests.

Our recent survey of the state of cooperation and collaboration in child protection asked respondents to rate levels of cooperation and collaboration.   We chose 19 different relationships drawn from those identified in the work of Commissioner Nyland as being crucial to an effective child protection system.  In analysing the results, we applied the standard that cooperation and collaboration should occur either ‘frequently’ or ‘always’.  By that standard only one of those critical relationships was scored as achieving a pass mark by 30 percent of the respondents.  Most of the others were scored much lower and many were in single figures.   There were two areas that had improved since an identical survey conducted in June 2017 but it’s fair to say the improvements were small and were from a very low base.  Allowing for the limitations of the survey, it is clear that respondents thought that we are still far short of Commissioner Nyland’s ideal.

Just as useful for me, were many of the comments.  There were a few heartening stories of good and effective cooperation but there were many more of key stakeholders being omitted from case planning and decision making and important information remaining unshared.  Many attributed the failures to workload issues but others referred to organisational culture, policy and training.

My office observed a sample of the Annual Reviews of young people in state care over a period of ten years to 2017.  Annual reviews have been long mandated in the Department for Child Protection, and its earlier incarnations, in order to review the situation of each child and young person in state care.  It is a time to reflect and review and plan for the child’s future outside of the day to day pressures. It is a time to place a child at the very centre of thinking and caring. Annual Reviews occurred for up to 80 per cent of children in care in most years but attendance at the planning sessions by other than social workers and supervisors was rare.  In our report Office of the Guardian Audits of Annual Reviews 2007- 2017 we summarised:

Most offices have, over the 10 years of these audits, conducted annual reviews with only Department staff present with carers represented occasionally and birth parents and other professionals very much the exception.

If, as Margaret Nyland concluded, cooperation and collaboration are essential to an effective child protection system then major cultural and practice change is essential.  I look forward to supporting and contributing to such relationships, as my office grows into its new roles.

Aboriginal children and young people in care and juvenile detention 2016-17

The proportion of Aboriginal children not placed according to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle has continued to rise.

South Australia’s Aboriginal1 children and young people are vastly over-represented in in state care and in detention centres, according to the Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2018 (ROGS 2018) and the trends are not positive.

The ROGS 2018 data on child protection showed that at 30 June 2017, Aboriginal children and young people comprised 33 per cent of all of those on care and protection orders and were 7.3 times as likely to be in out-of-home care as non-Aboriginal young people. In 2010-11 Aboriginal children and young people were 6.1 times as likely to be in care.

The proportion of Aboriginal young people placed according to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (i.e. with kin, within their community or with Aboriginal families), has been declining in recent years from 76.4 per cent in 2009 to 62.5 per cent in 2017, below the national average of 67.6 per cent. (See the chart at the head of this story.)

Though comprising 33 per cent of children and young people in care, Aboriginal children and young people comprised 38 percent of the population in residential care.

The ROGS 2018 data on youth justice services showed that in 2015-16, 58 per cent of the population of 10-17 year olds in youth detention were Aboriginal and that proportion has been growing in recent years. South Australia had significantly higher rates of detention of Aboriginal children and young people than the Australian average.

We present more data and charts about this subject from ROGS 2017 in the Guardian’s Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People in Care and/or Youth Detention from the Report on Government Services 2016-17.

Download the Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People in Care and/or Youth Detention from the Report on Government Services 2016-17 now.

1 Aboriginal community preference in South Australia is that the term Aboriginal is inclusive of Torres Strait Islander people, a usage we generally adopt in our reports