Centres a risk to child safety

The time is long past when we confined destitute, orphaned or stolen children in large institutions, with many children to a room and their daily lives determined by routine, rules and discipline. What we know now, and some knew then from personal experience, is that such institutions foster depersonalised, distant and sometimes abusive relationships between staff and children and between children themselves.

Today, residential care is mostly provided in houses with three, maybe four, children with carers. The court has determined that it is unsafe for these children and young people to live with their families, and other family-like care is unavailable or inappropriate because it struggles to meet their high needs.

However, we also have six larger government-run residential units in metropolitan Adelaide. Each has between eight and 12 young residents.

Over the past 12 months 93 children and young people, one aged only nine, have lived in the units.

I consider these larger units to be closer to institutions than homes. The staff try their best to personalise these places but the simple problem is that the units house too many children. Any parent, teacher or youth worker would know that if you have a child or young person with high needs in your care, particularly serious behaviour and cognitive problems related to previous trauma, he or she needs special attention. That attention is, at the very least, difficult to provide in a household of ten young people with high needs and two or three staff.

Experience and evidence about institutions tells us that the risk of harm is higher when staff have only limited control over the ‘mix’ of residents and when residents’ high needs can make peer relationships threatening or hostile.  In larger residential facilities, these risks are hard to avoid.

Good residential care, in children’s own words, are where ‘it is nice and you feel safe’ and where ‘everybody trusts each other’.

For some time now, advocates for children in South Australia, including the Office of the Guardian, have pointed out the shortcomings of government- run residential facilities and recommended they be replaced with more appropriate models of care.

So it was all the more disappointing that the Government decided in 2007 to increase the numbers of residents in two of the existing units and to build two more 12-bed facilities. This decision is misguided and should be reversed.

The recent Mullighan inquiry report on allegations of sexual abuse of children in state care recommended a maximum of three children in residential facilities.  Many people who gave evidence to the inquiry about their time in institutions indicated that large numbers and the mix of residents contributed to a culture in which abuse could occur and remain hidden, in which goodquality relationships between staff and residents were difficult to establish and which made it harder for children to disclose abuse or be believed if they did.

Why then are decisions being made that fly in the face of the evidence about safety?

I am the first to acknowledge that we have a child protection and alternative care system under enormous pressure, with an average ten per cent annual growth in the numbers of children entering and staying in care. We do not have an equivalent growth in foster-care placements.

But the answer is not to treat children like a queue of people waiting for a bed. We have a responsibility to provide them with good residential care, not just care that is barely adequate.

Pam Simmons

Guardian for Children and Young People

First published in The Advertiser January 3,  2009.

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