Mental illness and FASD in SA’s young offenders

picture of young person in hoodie

Findings from a recent study by paediatricians and researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute has revealed the high rate of neurodevelopmental impairment in young people in youth detention in Western Australia.

Almost 90 percent of detainees suffered from some sort of impairment and over one third showed severe physical and mental impairment due to excessive alcohol consumption by their mothers during pregnancy.

‘We must be concerned about the risk that similar rates of neurodevelopmental impairment and foetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) exist among young offenders in South Australia’, said Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright.

‘This study highlights the vulnerability of young people, particularly Aboriginal youth, within the justice system and the importance of reliable diagnosis to identify their strengths and difficulties, in order to guide and improve their rehabilitation.

‘Young people with neuro-developmental impairments need early assessment and diagnosis, appropriate interventions and access to support.

‘Knowing if young people are affected by these disorders will enable our community to create more effective diversion programs when they come in contact with the youth justice system and better rehabilitation programs for those who end up in custody.

‘Diagnosing these disorders is a complex process requiring skilled practitioners but the investment would more than pay off in terms of diverting young people away from offending and helping those who do offend return as positive members of the community.

‘A submission made by the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders to the South Australian Inquiry into the Sale and Consumption of Alcohol in 2013 called for all people entering prison or juvenile detention to be screened for FASD.

‘The submission noted that “Current cognitive behavioural approaches used both in custodial settings and in the community are ineffective for individuals with FASD and it is highly likely that this is a contributing factor in high rates of recidivism.”

‘Understanding the prevalence of FASD in youth detention in South Australia is a crucial step in ensuring effective interventions to promote support and rehabilitation.’
You can download the Guardian’s media release from this link.

Young people speak about protecting their rights in residential care

Following up from Commissioner Nyland’s recommendation #136 in her August 2016 report on child protection systems in South Australia, the Guardian asked CREATE to ask some young people in residential care what they knew about their rights and how they thought that they could be best protected.

Here are some of the things they said.

You can download the above in text form from this link.

The Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter – February 2018

In this edition of the Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter:

  • The latest on the Youth Training Centre Visitor Program and the trial of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme for residential care
  • What young people in residential care know about their rights and how they believe they could be safeguarded
  • The importance of monitoring bodies to a healthy democracy
  • 70 years old this year and the UN Declaration of Human Rights has direct relevance to our work today
  • How listening to young people is at the heart of this country NGO’s practice.

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

Download the February 2018 Newsletter.

The place of monitoring bodies in a healthy democracy

picture of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian

With the upcoming South Australian election in mind, this is a great opportunity to reflect on the benefits of having a strong and robust democracy, and highlight what it means for the work of my office.

Since I started my role as Guardian last year I have been conscious of what a privilege it is to be leading a team entrusted to advocate for some of the most vulnerable South Australians. All children are relatively powerless because they can’t vote for the governments that make the laws that affect them. But children living in state care are often doubly so because they don’t always have ‘natural’ advocates, like birth parents or families, that other kids have.

Robyn Layton QC recognised this in the course of her review into child protection in 2003, Our Best Investment: A State plan to protect and advance the interests of children. Ms Layton recommended establishing a statutory office of Guardian because  ‘There is a need to ensure that those children who are most vulnerable and who are under the statutory guardianship of the Minister or otherwise in care away from their parents have their rights articulated and safeguarded….’ She further recommended that ‘The Guardian should report to Parliament and …. proactively check on such children and young persons to ensure their welfare.’

And so the office of Guardian for Children and Young People was established in 2005. The role has grown but it has always been about advocating, monitoring, reviewing, inquiring and advising government – in short, championing the best interests and rights of children and young people in care.

Just as with other monitoring bodies throughout Australia, our reports and advice and advocacy are not always comfortable for the government of the day. It is, after all, our very job to hold government and departments to account on behalf of those who do not have a voice.

No democracy is perfect but I believe we are fortunate that we live in a nation where we have governments willing to respect, and pay for, mechanisms that will hold them to account. This is the ideal of monitory democracy, which developed in the 1940s in the aftermath of atrocities committed by leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, who were initially elected, and popular.  Monitory democracy has evolved to keep a check on arbitrary power through continuous public scrutiny of government institutions, underpinned by an awareness and respect for human rights. (Professor John Keane has written extensively about this. See his article The Origins of Monitory Democracy in The Conversation (24 September 2012).

There are twelve Children’s Commissioners and Guardians around Australia and numerous other commissioners (for human rights and ICACs), Ombudsmen and other officers who work to hold power to account without fear or favour. In recent times we have seen Commonwealth government-initiated Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (Don Dale). Here in South Australia we have had the State Child Protection Systems Royal Commission (the Nyland Inquiry) and there have been various recent inquiries into juvenile justice by Australian states. Importantly, the Federal Government has recently ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), which will shine a light into places of detention throughout Australia and hold the States and Commonwealth accountable.

Around the world, in this second decade of the 21st century, we see ostensibly popular but authoritarian rulers on the rise and democratic processes increasingly under threat. As I go about my work as Guardian, I often reflect that neither Putin, in Russia, nor Erdogan, in Turkey, nor a growing number of governments in other places would tolerate the work of my office, let alone fund it.

Let us give thanks for strong democracies – and let us not take them for granted.



Australia Day 2018

As we spend this day with friends and family, we remember with pride that the original inhabitants of this land are the world’s oldest continuous civilisation.

We also reflect with sadness the work that remains to be done so that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians can take their full and confident place in a kind and culturally rich Australia.  We are committed to helping make that happen.

It’s all about listening to young people

West Coast Youth and Community Support’s Jo Clark (right) and Angela Perin are convinced that the key to good services is listening and acting on what young people say.

For CEO of West Coast Youth and Community Support (WCYCS), Jo Clark, the key to working with young people is listening to what they have to say and then acting on it.

‘By ignoring what young people say we risk undermining their confidence and their willingness to make decisions, making them more passive and more dependent.

‘Our Youth Advisory Committee sits at the centre of all of the programs and services we provide for young people. From a pool of about 25, we get 8 or 10 young people to weekly meetings where we discuss progress on the projects they are interested in and new ideas and issues they want to raise.

‘When we were setting up our new Youth Hub, over 200 young people responded to a survey asking what they wanted.  Some things, like free Wi-Fi, were expected but others, like a homework study space and tutoring, were also popular and they will be a part of the planning in 2018.’

‘I believe that the rights in the Charter of Rights are important for all of the young people  we work for, not just those in state care, and I particularly like the importance the Charter places on hearing the voices of young people – that is its real strength.’

Next to the Youth Hub is Youthoria, the town’s only cinema, providing valuable work experience otherwise unavailable to vulnerable young people. WCYCS’s Youth Programs Manager Angela Perin explains how, driven by the vision of a passionate group of young people, WCYCS acquired the cinema when it closed.

‘We have run it with young people for the last ten years, and for the last seven at break even or better.  But the real profit is in the training and employment opportunities for Port Lincoln’s young people and its benefits for the community and local community groups.’

Jo Clark explains that, with over 25 per cent youth unemployment and a very few Aboriginal people being employed in local businesses and government offices, she fears that Port Lincoln is storing up some serious social problems for the future.+

‘The local community and services have been able to put together some great collaborative work and Rotary have been fantastic but we have serious issues in homelessness, crime and unemployment and we really need major investment from the other levels of  government.’

Watching the golden children laughing and leaping off the Town Jetty into the Bay in the warm evening sun, you hope that investment is forthcoming.

Coordination and collaboration survey, January 2018

16 January 2018


In June 2017, nearly 400 government and non-government workers, carers and other stakeholders responded to a survey on how well coordination and collaboration were being managed between the various agencies of the child protection system.

In July we published the survey data and a deeper analysis of how people saw DCP and DECD working together.

During January, we will repeat the survey of people from all aspects of the child protection system about their perceptions and analyse the responses for the current state of cooperation and trends.

If you have knowledge and an interest in child protection, and you are able to dedicate five minutes to taking this confidential survey, please click the link below.

And please consider passing it on to colleagues and friends who may also have knowledge and information.

Yes, please take me to the survey.

Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) Meeting

photo of commissioners and guardians in a group

Pictured are the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians who met in Melbourne in November 2017.

14 December 2017

The Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) met on 15 and 16 November in Melbourne. 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 and promoting the safety and well-being of children and young people.

Download the ACCG November meeting communique now.

The ocean is my friend

11 December 2017

The Ocean is My Friend by Gutara, young woman in year 7 They don’t understand When their feet touch the sand Oh, I want to swim in the ocean They don’t know what they have done When they see that you are gone Oh, I want to swim in the ocean In the ocean I feel free Free to be me The waves they taste like tears And they wash away my fears Oh, I want to be in the ocean CHORUS The water is calling me, calling me, calling me The water is calling me, calling me, calling me I have never been quite so deep Have never had so many peeps The ocean she is my friend Me and her until the end Oh, I want to swim in the ocean CHORUS The water is calling me, calling me, calling me The water is calling me, calling me, calling me

This song lyric was offered to one of our advocates for publication by a young woman during a visit to a residential care house.  Thanks to Philip Ellison for the design.

This item first appeared in the November 2017 Guardian’s Newsletter which you can download now.

A community visitor for young people in residential care

logo for community visitor program

5 December 2017

A trial community visitor program for young people in residential care will be prepared by the Guardian’s  Office over the next few months.

Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s report, The life they deserve[1], recommended that a community visitors’ scheme be developed for children in residential and emergency care facilities[2]. The laws to enable such a scheme – the Child and Young Person’s Visitor scheme, have been included in the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

The trial, which is expected to run until June 2019, is in preparation for that scheme.  The role of a community visitor fits well with the Office’s existing roles which include visiting some children and young people in residential care and advocating for individual children and young people.

Community visiting schemes can play a central role in safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable people who are in institutional settings away from family and other supports. They provide an independent voice to make sure their views are considered when decisions are made that affect them. Community visitors protect and promote human rights by providing direct advocacy and personal support.

Such schemes have been implemented in many places around Australia and overseas. The South Australian Community Visitor Scheme, for example, has operated since 2011 to ‘further protect the rights of people with a mental illness who are admitted to mental health care units and limited treatment centres and people with a disability who live in a disability accommodation facility or a Supported Residential Facility’[3].

Similarly, the Queensland Office of the Public Guardian operates a community visitor program that is designed to protect the rights and interests of adults with impaired capacity and children and young people in out-of-home care[4]. Under that scheme, community visitors regularly visit children and young people in what are termed ‘visitable locations’ such as foster homes, homes of kinship carers, residential care facilities, youth detention centres and mental health facilities, to help ensure they are safe and well and that their needs are being met in line with approved standards of care[5].

In Australia, community visiting schemes are often legally required to provide a report on their work to the relevant Minister who makes it public by presenting it to Parliament. Such reports inform the public.  They provide independent scrutiny and oversight and are intended to inform changes in policy and practice to improve the system.

Under the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016, the Guardian has also been appointed Training Centre Visitor and the Office will also be establishing an inspection and visiting scheme for young people placed in youth justice detention.

Look out for updates on how these projects are progressing in future edition of this newsletter and via the Guardian’s Information Service.

[1] The Hon Margaret Nyland AM, The life they deserve: the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report (August 2016).

[2] Recommendation 137 states in full: “legislate for the development of a community visitors’ scheme for children in all residential and emergency care facilities”.

[3] Principal Community Visitor Annual Report Mental Health Services 2015-16, The South Australian Community Visitor Scheme (2016).

[4] Office of the Public Guardian Annual Report 2015-2016, Office of the Public Guardian (2016).

[5] Ibid.

This item first appeared in the November 2017 Guardian’s Newsletter which you can download now.