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.

CROC 20th Anniversary

5 November 2009

Twenty years ago the General Assembly of the United Nations formally adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), defining a comprehensive set of rights for people under eighteen years of age. At the time, this was a landmark event, displacing the idea of children being under the control and authority of adults and giving them the same civil rights and liberties as adults, whilst also recognising the role of parents as providers of support and guidance. Since then 190 nations have signed on to the Convention.

CROC contains 54 individual articles, with the majority of these articles identifying specific rights such as:

Article 12 – You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously.

Article 16 – You have the right to privacy.

Article 20 – You have the right to care and protection if you cannot live with your parents.

Article 28 – You have the right to a good quality education. You should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level you can.

Building on CROC

Building on the aspirations of CROC, the Office of the Guardian recognised that the rights of children and young people in care were not always easy to identify, often hidden within legislation, common law decisions and departmental policy. In 2005, we engaged with children and young people in care, carers and workers to develop the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care. The Charter:

  • informs children and young people about their rights and entitlements in the care system
  • empowers them to seek the best possible care
  • assists them to participate in decisions that affect them
  • documents what they can expect from the care system and
  • documents the commitments made by that care system.

The Charter’s 37 rights, are specific to children and young people in care in South Australia and put particular emphasis on active participation, stressing the young person’s right to express their opinion, know their culture, be treated with respect and be involved in decision making.

Since the Charter was launched in 2006, our advocacy, monitoring, investigative and reporting functions have been guided by the best interests of the child as expressed in the Charter.

Children and young people and their advocates make use of the Charter to safeguard children’s rights and identify issues and agencies make use of it when reviewing policy and practice guidelines.

…children’s rights are an essential part of recognising the inherent dignity and human rights of every human person, and … this is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

For further information on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, check out these links:

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

National Children’s and Youth Law Centre

The Council for the Care of Children which has a link to download a child friendly version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (PDF)

Also see the Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People Charter of Rights page.

Turning 18 – Youth Advisors – November 2009

For young people in care, turning eighteen can be a huge step.  It can be really exciting but quite scary at the same time.

In this post, some of the Guardian’s Youth Advisors answer questions and share their experiences about what it was like to turn eighteen and leave care.

What was helpful to you?

  • Having a strong relationship with my social worker was the key – it was comforting to know that there was someone there I could trust to answer my questions, to help with my fears and to teach me new things.
  • My support network was great. I used to catch up with one of my teachers each week to discuss any problems and this helped to balance my new found independence and home life with my schooling.
  • Living on my own for the very first time was really daunting. It was helpful to keep my friends close, inviting them home and keeping busy.
  • Being able to learn from my friends’ experiences helped as many of them already had houses of their own.
  • Accepting help from my friends and their families. Sometimes it can be hard, but it is important to know that it is okay to ask for help.
  • Getting out and meeting new people which helped to build my confidence.

What do you wish you had known?

  • I wish I had been more prepared … what it actually meant and what opportunities were available in my local community.
  • I wish I had taken moving out more seriously … taking more time to learn how to cook and how to manage a budget
  • That it’s okay to ask others for help – no one has to do everything on their own.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

  • Asked lots more questions before leaving care.
  • Reached out for help sooner, rather than later.
  • Focused on getting involved in things that would help build my self esteem and reduce my social isolation.
  • Learn how to manage money and a budget.
  • Gained employment before moving out…I didn’t know then how expensive everything is!!

What things did you learn?

  • I learnt a lot about myself, as well as how to budget, cook, manage my time … The good thing is that no one is there to judge you, so just take your time.
  • How to make my own decisions, no matter how scary they seemed.
  • That I had the potential to make it on my own, with the help of my support network.
  • It was okay to be afraid and to reach out for help whenever I needed it – and that didn’t make me a failure.

Participation of children and young people in decisions made about their care – guide to good practice

This guide to good practice is intended to encourage adults who are making decisions about children’s and young people’s care to work with them on those decisions.  This is not just about children’s rights, though that is clear, but about making good decisions.  Good decisions are not absolute and we do not have perfect foresight so we will make mistakes.  However good decisions are as much about the way we do it and the impressions we leave, as the decision itself.

You can download a PDF file of the Guide-to-good-practice-in-childrens-particpation .

2008-09 Audit of Annual Reviews

It is required by law in South Australia that there will be a review at least once in each year of the circumstances of each child under the guardianship of the Minister until the child attains 18 years of age (Children’s Protection Act 1993, Section 52 [1]).  The review panel, which is convened by Families SA, must consider whether the existing arrangements for the care and protection of the child are still in the best interests of the child.

The Office of the Guardian attends and audits annual reviews to:

  • provide further external accountability on review panels
  • provide some external scrutiny of case management practice and interagency collaboration
  • advocate for quality outcomes for children and young people.

We aim to attend ten per cent of reviews.  In 2008-09 we attended 93 reviews in total, conducted in 13 District Centres.  This represents 5.7 per cent of the reviews that should have been conducted in the year.

You can download a PDF file of the Audit of Annual Reviews 08-09 summary.

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link to GCYP twitter

CAMHS model of care

[link to CAMHS model of care]

This submission, made in August 2009, has been edited from the original to remove references to specific sections of the mental health consultation paper and clauses that may have identified individuals.

Quality contact between children and workers

Children in state care learn to work and negotiate with adults who are making important decisions on their behalf. They may have to meet with more adults in a year than most children have to do in ten. As one young person said to us, ‘It’s not just having no parents. That’s just the start of it. We have to deal with the government and social workers and lots of other people….’

The quality of the relationship with their case worker can make or break the important but fragile links between a child and the ‘state’ in its guardianship role. The relationship can make it easier or harder for a child to get what they need for safety and wellbeing.

Starting in November 2008, we conducted a review of the literature, sought the views of 28 children and young people, took evidence from 96 case files and convened a focus group of case workers for their views. In addition to our Youth Advisors, we engaged two young researchers to assist us, one who is in care and one who had been.

You can download Quality Contact between Children and Workers and Quality Contact between Children and Workers – Summary in PDF.link to GCYP twitter