Universities reach out to young people in care

South Australia’s three universities have combined with DFEEST and the Office of the Guardian to design a brochure to encourage young people under, or recently under, guardianship to actively consider university study.

‘For some time now South Australia’s universities have been attempting to extend the benefits of university study to groups who may not previously have had the opportunity,’ said University of South Australia’s Consultant: Student Equity, Deb Tranter, who coordinated the three universities’ work on the brochure.

‘Following the Bradley Review into Higher Education, government policy is encouraging further effort into attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds and this brochure is an important first step in reaching young people in care.’

The brochure describes a range of options for uni entry, ways of funding study, the variety of courses available as well as telling some real-life stories of young people under guardianship who have made the journey to university.

While targeted to young people in their later years at high school, it also aims to influence the attitudes of adults who might support and encourage them.

‘We know that the positive attitudes and active support of foster carers, teachers, school counsellors, social workers and other adults are vital in promoting the educational success of young people in care,’  says Guardian Pam Simmons.

‘Getting the right information into the hands of these significant adults will be an important use of the brochure.’

Contributor to the booklet, Jessica Parker, recalls her route to qualifying for university.

‘Nobody from my immediate family had continued onto further study or considered getting a degree at university… The majority of my friends left about year 10 and only then I became serious about my future.  Support from my Aboriginal Support Worker was great and kept me focussed on success,’ she said.

The brochure will also highlight the different ways young people can access university study.

‘Some people in care will come to uni directly from school but there other routes.  Options after they have left school and even into their adult lives include TAFE, adult re-entry colleges, foundation studies at one of the unis or the Special Tertiary Admission Test,’ says Deb Tranter.

‘Many young people may not know that they are eligible for bonus points to help them qualify if they are on Youth Allowance, ABSTUDY or a Health Care Card, have studied certain subjects or come from some under-represented schools.’

The brochure is distributed to DECS school counsellors, through universities and can be downloaded as a PDF from the Guardian’s website (big file, might take a while!).

A new era for the Charter of Rights

With the Charter of Rights getting recognition in legislation at the end of last year and with its progressive inclusion in service contracts and practice guidelines, the Charter is operating in a changed world.

Since 2006, when the Charter was officially launched, the Office of the Guardian and the Charter of Rights Implementation Committee have worked in partnership with many agencies that serve young people in care to promote and implement the Charter.  To date, 43 agencies have chosen to endorse the Charter, committing to recognise it in their policies and apply it in their day-to-day practice.  These agencies provide a broad range of support to children in care such as alternative care, advocacy, cultural identity, disability, education and health services.

At its last meeting, the Charter  Implementation Committee decided on a major shift of emphasis. Over time, the need to promote the Charter has reduced.  Many young people, carers and workers are now very aware of it. While promotion will continue, the new focus will be on working with agencies to review and measure how well the Charter is being implemented and assess the benefits to young people.

In our statutory role of monitoring the wellbeing of children and young people in care, we already gather some information about the application of the Charter but this applies to a relatively small number of the endorsing agencies.  As agencies increasingly need to identify and measure how the Charter affects the services they provide, there is a great opportunity for the Committee and the Guardian’s Office to work with them.

Understanding how the Charter can most benefit young people in care can only be done in cooperation with those who deliver the services and building this relationship is vital.

Anticipating this new relationship with agencies, the Implementation Committee and the Guardian’s Office has set out some principles to guide its work.  We will:

  • where possible, use already existing processes to gather information
  • gather information from a variety of sources, including managers, workers and young people
  • make information gathering simple and user friendly
  • gather information consistently so that comparisons can be made over time.

We will be engaging with the agencies’ Charter Champions as planning gets under way over the next few months. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like to discuss ways to use and promote the Charter within your agency, please email or call Lisa Firth on (08) 8226 8571.

Physical restraint in residential care

In April 2009 the Guardian initiated an inquiry into the use of restraint in residential care facilities following reports from some youth workers and residents that physical restraint was used too often and young people were suffering injuries.  The inquiry was conducted by Associate Professor Andrew Day and Dr Michael Daffern and the inquiry report, Policy and Practice in the Use of Physical Restraint in SA Residential Facilities for Children and Young People, was released on 13 January 2010.  The full report is available for download and a summary.



The inquiry found that the use of physical restraint has been falling since 2007 but that it could be reduced still further.  Restraint should only ever be used where the young person is at risk of immediate and serious harm to themselves or to another person nearby.  It is a ‘last resort’ intervention.  It should not be used because a young person is cheeky, refuses instructions, is shouting or throwing things around.  It should only ever be used by people trained to restrain safely.

The vast majority of residential staff are extraordinary people and are doing a great job under very difficult circumstances.  The failures identified in the inquiry report are systemic failures and should not reflect on the many dedicated workers and managers, nor on the young people who act out their distress. The failures were with inconsistent policies and practices, too many residents housed together, not enough on-the-job training and reflection on incidents, and not enough specialist support for young people with high needs.

There were different rates of use of restraint in different places and generally there was lower use in non-government houses.  This was a function of the size and design of the facility and higher investment in training and support. We could not answer the question about whether South Australia had higher rates of use than elsewhere because the data is too inconsistent to make any comparisons meaningful.  Instead the researchers could say that the rate of use could be reduced further.

To minimise the need to use physical force five recommendations were made.  In summary these were to replace the large residential units with smaller home-like houses of three or four young people, provide more on-the-job training and support for staff, change the regulations in the Family and Community Services Act 1972 so that restraint is never sanctioned for non-compliance, have specialist advice more readily available for children with the highest needs and have more rigorous external monitoring so that patterns are picked up early.

So much goes well in our residential care sector and we learn as much from what works well – see our report What works best in residential care – as what doesn’t. We do though tend to review things that we are concerned about and that we want to do better at.  As one young interviewee said, ‘I know it takes a lot out of them emotionally,’ referring to youth workers.  Compassion and understanding is a great place to start.

Changes to the powers and functions of the Guardian

Pam Simmons Guardian

In late 2009 the Children’s Protection Amendment Bill passed both Houses of Parliament. Most of the attention leading up to this had understandably been on the extension of child safety practices to a wider range of organisations.

Also in the amendment bill, prepared as part of the government’s response to the Mullighan Inquiry Report recommendations, were changes to the powers and functions of the Guardian. Among other things, the amendments expressly recognise the independence of the Guardian, require the establishment of a Youth Advisory Committee, strengthen the Guardian’s powers to obtain and use information and create offences for obstructing or providing false or misleading information.

Everyone we have worked with over the past five years has cooperated fully and willingly, and backed the independence of the Guardian’s position. I anticipate that the new powers and penalties established in the amendments will be invoked only in exceptional circumstances and that the current spirit of open collaboration will be our predominant way of working.

Report on the physical restraint of children in South Australian residential facilities

[This article was first published in The Advertiser 13 January 2010.

The Use-of-Restraint-Report-2010 on which it is based and the Use-of-Restraint-Report-summary are both available in PDF.

Using force to hold, immobilise or move a child who is in danger can be a normal protective response.  Pushing, pulling and lifting may be necessary to protect the child or others nearby from immediate and serious harm.

I have just completed an inquiry into the use of physical restraint of children in South Australian residential facilities.  Residential facilities for children and young people in state care are run by government and non-government organisations.  Children stay for periods of a few days to a month.

Included in the inquiry were the youth training centres at Magill and Cavan.

I started the inquiry because we had heard from some young residents and staff that restraint was used often and children were suffering injuries as a result of being restrained.

In other countries children and young people have died in schools and residential facilities from asphyxiation as a result of physical restraint. Some methods of restraint are very dangerous, particularly when they involve neck holds, obstruction of the nose or mouth, or holding a child face down on the ground.

Thankfully, we did not hear of any incidents of children dying recently in children’s services in Australia as a result of a physical restraint. However injuries were confirmed, reinforcing the evidence that restraining a child can be dangerous.

Restraint also has a considerable psychological effect on both the child and the staff involved.

We found that the use of restraint is decreasing and awareness of its dangers is rising.

Nevertheless restraint was not uncommon and was sometimes used inappropriately, such as when a young person refused repeatedly to comply with an instruction and emotion was high.

Restraint is more common in the facilities which accommodate higher numbers of children; not because the staff are any less skilled than others but because it is so difficult to keep everyone safe in a home with ten young people compared to four. Some young people were restrained often and undoubtedly had extremely challenging behaviour.

Fortunately, the background research and findings make us confident that we can make all children’s residences safer.

First, we would have no more than four young people in any one house, maybe up to six in some circumstances.  Second, we would have a consistent positive approach to bad behaviour, and restraint would never be sanctioned for non-compliance or punishment.

Third, care staff would be well-trained and well-supported to act professionally, warmly and calmly.

Fourth, specialist advice would be provided for the care of children with extremely challenging behaviour and a review of all incidents would be done routinely.  And fifth, there would be rigorous external monitoring of use of restraint so that patterns could be picked up early.

The inquiry found that there are inconsistent procedures and practice in children’s residential facilities and a number of situations in which it was unclear how staff should manage difficult behaviour.   For example, plucking children from harm’s way is easy to defend as necessary but is it right to haul  a 14 year old boy out of bed on a third attempt to get him to school?  And is it right to immobilise with an arm hold a distressed 13 year old girl who is lashing out at anyone who comes near her?

It is these types of difficult situations that residential care workers routinely face, and they have to decide whether or not and when restraint is required.

Residential staff want the best for children in their care.  They need our support and government’s commitment to achieve this.

Within the next few years I hope to see the larger residential facilities replaced with home-like residences, specialist advice for children with high need and consistent guidance to staff on dealing positively with problem behaviour.

Numbers add up to cause concern

  • On an average day in SA there are 345 children and young people in some form of residential care, including those in secure custody.
  • Over a 27 month period (Jan 2007 – March 2009) there were 19 confirmed cases of injury of children in residential care as a result of physical restraint.
  • Most of those restrained are male.
  • Many residents will never experience a restraint but some are repeatedly restrained, usually over a short period of time.
  • Residential facilities for children and young people in state care are run by government and non-government organisations and children stay for periods of a few days to a few years.
  • In the past decade in Australia there have been incidents of serious injury of children in formal settings which have triggered inquiries, such as a 2006 WA Ombudsman’s investigation, a 2007 review by the WA Inspector of Custodial Services and a 2001 NSW Community Services Commission review.

link to GCYP twitter

Magill photo expo

This photo is just one of the dozens of remarkable images created by the residents of Magill Youth Training Centre in September.

Photographer and tutor Jeremy Watson said the images, produced after only a few hours of tuition and practice, were as good as those produced by some of his other students over many days and weeks.

‘We started out by getting the young people to pick out a couple of photos from a collection I brought and asking them to say why they had picked them and how they made them feel.

‘From the start the interest and enthusiasm were great.’

Very soon the discussion progressed to the genres of portraiture, landscape and close- up and then onto mastering the controls of the digital cameras newly purchased for the project.

‘After shooting we brought all the kids back and they had the chance to look at and evaluate their work on the monitor.’

In the words of some of the young people involved:

Taking pictures, it was fun.

I learnt how to hold steady the camera and how to use macro.

It’s not always about a front on photo, you can take them in all different ways.

It felt like we had freedom and fun with the photos.

I learnt how you can find good photos anywhere.

Program Coordinator at Magill, Julie Wright, said that it was great to be able to introduce a new activity for the residents and one which was so interesting and accessible to all of them.

‘Everything went off without a hitch, and since we bought the cameras staff are finding other ways to use them as part of unit activity and to document events.’

At the end of Child Protection Week, a photo exhibition of prints of selected pictures was staged for all residents, some staff and guests from the Office of the Guardian.

Viewers were very impressed by the originality and technical quality of the images produced by the young photographers while the residents were enthusiastic.

‘Now that it has gone so well’, says Julie, ‘we’ll be trying to organise more photography activities in the future and we are already looking for opportunities for some residents who’ve shown a real interest to continue their photography when they leave juvenile detention..’

View the Magill residents pictures collage in PDF.


A better way to manage young offenders

Public debate on crime usually goes something like this. Crime rates are soaring. Crime is worse than ever. The criminal justice system is soft on crime. The criminal justice system is loaded in favour of criminals. There should be more police. The police should have more powers. Courts should deliver tougher penalties. Greater retribution against offenders will satisfy victim’s demands.(1)

This should sound familiar. With some rare exceptions, it is the extent of the public debate we have in this state about what to do about crime. It is simple, satisfying and hooks into people’s fear and loathing. It has been used recently to argue a tougher line on young offenders.

The risk with a law and order response is that we may make a far greater crime problem when more young people are caught up in the criminal justice system and live with the label of young offender. Most young people grow out of committing crime and a no- or low-intervention approach is best. (2)

But what is to be done about those who are well and truly caught up in a lifestyle of crime? If I thought that longer sentences and more time in detention would work to reduce serious crime I would support it. But it won’t. (3)  It stops crime only for the period of time the young people are in custody. Imprisonment is no deterrence for repeat offenders and besides, they don’t expect to get caught. Boot camps, wilderness and scared-straight programs also won’t work. And doing nothing won’t work.

Targeted intervention works. Engaging those who are at most risk of re-offending, working with what puts them at most risk and working on what can be changed. This spells individualised plans and programs, delivered in a way that makes sense to the young person. If you think this sounds demanding and costly, it is. But it’s a sneeze next to the costs of a life-time of criminal behaviour.

There are successful proven rehabilitation programs which help repeat young offenders develop their moral understanding, to know what impact their crime has had, to learn to deal with problems differently, and to learn to think about and treat others as they themselves want to be treated. But these on their own also won’t work if the young person is homeless, scared, without money and hanging out with older offenders.

Returning then to the idea of incarceration, it seems an ideal time to work with offenders because, to put it bluntly, they are captive. The problem is that this is not their regular world so on release everything changes. The transition to living within the law in the community is critical to success. Indeed, the more that can be done outside of custody the better, including assisting with the very real problems of unemployment, low income, insecure housing and destructive family relationships.

It’s not easy being a youth justice worker. Everyone working within the youth justice system has to work with dissonant community expectations of punishment and rehabilitation. The problem is that approaches that rely on punishment don’t rehabilitate and instead increase the likelihood of a young person re-offending.

So, keep young people out of prison, wherever possible. Offer judges some real choices in sentencing. If young people are in custody, then use that time to help them learn. When they are released, assist with the problems on the outside.

If you want to read more about young offender programs see the Literature Review or Consultation and Recommendations from our Review of Programmes in Youth Training Centres.


1 Hogg, R and Brown, D (1998) Rethinking Law and Order, Pluto Press: Sydney cited in Cunneen, C and White, R (2002) Juvenile Justice: Youth and Crime in Australia, Oxford University Press: Melbourne

2 In this letter I am writing about serious and repeat offending. We do pretty well in this state with the one-off incidents of breaking the law through diversion strategies such as police cautions. One in five young people will face law enforcers within a formal setting and all but a few will not repeat the experience.

3 See, for example, Weatherburn, D, Vignaendra, S and McGrath, A (2009) The specific deterrent effect of custodial penalties on juvenile reoffending, Australian Institute of Criminology, report no 33 www.aic.gov.au

What’s been done – September to November 2009

The inquiry into the policy and practice of use of physical restraint in children’s residential facilities is nearing the end. The draft report has been written and is with Families SA for discussion. More than 45 people external to this office were directly involved in the inquiry and we received ten written submissions. Thank you to all who participated for your openness and commitment to improving practice.

The Charter of Rights Committee is reviewing the next stage of implementation beyond endorsement and promotion. It is likely to focus more now on compliance and reporting. As a result of this, some members of the committee will retire and we want to thank everyone who has participated in the past three years for your expertise and enthusiasm for seeing children’s rights honoured in your work setting.

The Report on the 2008-09 Audit of Annual Reviews was written and sent to Families SA and the Minister.  A summary of the report is available on our website.

Stage 2 agencies for implementing the Information Sharing Guidelines are well on their way to completing their agency procedures. The agencies within the Justice portfolio, Centacare and Australian Red Cross are participating in stage 2.

We received great entries from residents in the youth training centres for the Christmas card competition and, as usual, it was hard for the Youth Advisors to choose just two from among them. The Christmas cards are distributed this month to Families SA district centres for children under guardianship.

In September we welcomed Belinda Walker to the team of advocates. Belinda is a social worker with wide experience of working with young people and most recently as a witness assistance officer at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Physical restraint – what the literature tells us

In April 2009 the Guardian commenced an inquiry into the use of physical restraint of children in SA residential facilities. As part of the inquiry the researchers, Associate Professor Andrew Day and Dr Michael Daffern, reviewed the written evidence and theory on the effectiveness and safety of restraint.
Restraint can take several forms. Most think of ‘hands-on’ restraint, where one or more people take hold of the person to control them.
Restraining devices to limit movement are sometimes also used, as is seclusion in a room and chemical restraint with drugs to manage extreme behaviour. This inquiry focused only on ‘hands-on’ restraint.
The use of restraint on children or young people is regulated to some extent by conventions, legislation and procedures which, if not actually contradictory, come from different perspectives. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care, regulations to the 1993 Children’s Protection Act and government and non-government procedures all have implications for practice and the legality of practice. The tension lies between the rights of a child to freedom from coercion or force and the right to safety from harm.
There is little empirical basis to determine when restraint is appropriate. There is no evidence to support the view that physical restraint assists children or young people to learn self-regulation or that it helps them to acquire useful and appropriate interpersonal skills. Physical restraint is a potentially dangerous practice and discussion on its use is highly charged. Restraint can appear to a child like abuse, frightening them and alienating them from care givers who administer it. Restraint can lead to serious injury and death, and the evidence from overseas confirms the high risk and the adverse psychological impact on staff and residents. However restraint can, and is, used to prevent immediate and significant harm.
Attitudes to the use of restraint are divided among the young people in residence. In a recent Scottish study, for example, residents agreed with staff that physical restraint would ensure young people’s safety in some circumstances. They advocated the use of non-physical alternatives to de-escalate situations and reserving the use of physical restraint to a last resort.
Some researchers have noted a major reduction in the use of restraints when the behaviour management practices of care staff are examined and modified. Training and ongoing support for workers and carers in applying behavioural techniques has been shown to produce major reductions in the need for physical intervention in several settings accommodating young people. This suggests that regular review of practice is needed to ensure that restraint is only used when all else has failed and where there is a high risk of serious harm.
The inquiry is due to conclude in early 2010 and further information will be available in future newsletters.