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.

What works best in residential care


In South Australia at 30 June 2008,166 children and young people on care and protection orders were in residential care. This was 7.6 per cent of all children on care and protection orders.

Residential care can be challenging both for children and young people and workers. Positive experiences are more likely when care is based on what we know from research and past experience.

Opinions about what constitutes good residential care will vary depending on who you ask. For our purposes, good care is measured by how children and young people experience it and its contribution to their everyday life and life outcomes.


This short paper provides information to policy makers, managers, social workers and residential care workers on what contributes to a positive residential care experience for children and young people. It is intended to stimulate critical reflection about current practice, including achievements and areas for improvement, and to facilitate practice that demonstrates our commitment to making it work for kids in care.

[to open this article in PDF format select What works best in residential care]

Child-sensitive records checklist

This checklist can help workers and their agencies ensure that case records and reports produced about a child or young person are child-centred and child-sensitive.

It is based on what young people have told the Office of the Guardian  about what information they think should be recorded and how it should be recorded.

The Child-sensitive records checklist can be downloaded as a PDF file from our website or printed copies can be obtained via our requesting materials page.

My first meal – the Youth Advisors confess

Nothing symbolises more the freedom and responsibility of being out on your own than cooking a meal. When food does not appear on the table and take-aways become boring or expensive, there is no escape – as three of our Youth Advisors recall.



I can’t remember the very first thing but it was probably something like spaghetti bolognese and it was probably terrible. My first housemate was a bit better at cooking than me so he did that and I did the cleaning…When it comes to cooking my specialty is gingerbread houses – that and biscuits and cakes generally.



I did a bit of cooking in residential care – helping out in the kitchen. But when it came to living by myself, I just figured it out. You need to say “I can do this.” Mostly it was simple stuff like pasta or fried steak with salad which worked pretty well.   I made a curry once. I put in the usual veggies and some beans and then about eight of these little red chillies. I couldn’t eat it, it was so hot. My Mum and sister managed to eat a bit but not me. I’ve never made a curry since.



I can’t really remember the first thing I ever cooked! But when I first moved out of home, stir fries were the best things that ever happened to me. Just chuck it all in stir it around for a while and eat it! Cheap and healthy… that’s how it was! Here is a cheap, easy as, YUMMY recipe.

Sara’s Fettucini Carbonara

Ok… you need

  • Fettucini
  • 2 onions roughly diced
  • about ½ kilo of bacon roughly chopped
  • 3 mushrooms cut into slices (if you like them)
  • small tub of cream
  • a teaspoon of nutmeg to taste
  • ground black peppercorns to taste

Here we go… Start by preparing the pasta. Fettucini is awesome, cook as per directions on back of packet. Once you have started boiling pasta, start on the sauce.

Fry onion, bacon and mushroom in frypan. Grind black pepper into frypan as cooking. Add a teaspoon of nutmeg and stir.

Once onions and bacon have browned reduce heat to low and add cream to fry pan. Drain pasta from the saucepan, once TOTALLY DRAINED.. put pasta back into the saucepan and add sauce.. mix all around and… EAT

Alternatives to ‘safe keeping’

picture of Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

I have had the privilege recently of hearing the views of many people with great expertise and wisdom on the topic of safe keeping. Safe keeping is the statutory confinement in a specific location of a child or young person where no offence has been committed but they are detained because their safety and wellbeing is at substantial risk.

There is growing interest in this topic across Australia. Both the Layton Report in 2003 and the Mullighan Report in 2008 recommended a secure therapeutic facility and arrangements in South Australia. The authors were understandably disturbed by the state’s seeming lack of ability to prevent young people from running away from state care and putting themselves at risk of grave exploitation. In June the Office of the Guardian issued a discussion paper on this topic and I thank those of you who responded to it and the participants of the round table discussion.
While listening to diverse opinions I formed the view that the government should not proceed with introducing the legislation and facilities for safe keeping for children. First, in the absence of other intensive therapeutic residential services, I am not convinced that it is necessary to detain children in order to engage them with an intensive service. Second, there is a high likelihood of abuse of purpose of the legal orders and facility because there is limited access to community-based therapeutic services and overdemand on the alternative care system. In other words, if we had tried other intensive therapeutic services first then the argument would be stronger for detaining some children to provide them with a service. But we have not. The therapeutic services for children and young people with high needs are thin on the ground.
Instead I suggest we implement a number of other reforms ahead of introducing safe keeping provisions. They are:
  • Improved intensive therapeutic services for children in existing residential and family-based care, including those in youth training centres.
  • Improved development opportunities and supervision for children in residential care including a higher staff to resident ratio.
  • Protective behaviours training and sexual health education available to all residents of residential facilities.
  • Smaller numbers of children accommodated in the residential facilities, from the 10-12 now to a maximum of six.
  • Greater control over admission to residential facilities to enhance resident cohesion and the therapeutic environment, and clearer definition of purpose of each unit.
  • Introduction of a strategy for assisting children with high and complex needs which recognises the need for intensive and highly-skilled case management and therapeutic care.
  • An outreach service that locates, engages with and supports children who are missing from placement or who are putting themselves at high risk.
  • Amendment to the Summary Procedures Act to restrain adults who exploit children by offering them shelter, drugs, or other goods in return for sexual favours.
There is a lot of support for better addressing the needs of children and young people who run away from their care placements and for whom the available help is not enough. I expect that we will see some changes in the next year that will make progress here. However, it will not be done by practice change and goodwill alone. We need a concerted financial and policy commitment to responding well to children and young people with high and complex needs.

The right to be loved

In 2005, a group of South Australian children and young people in care selected 37 important rights to go into their Charter of Rights. When the Office of the Guardian came to distil the essence of these rights into a few succinct quality statements for it’s monitoring framework, one of the last to be added was ‘This child is loved’.

It was not that we denied the importance of love but among the other precise and objectively verifiable statements it looked ambiguous and elusive. In the end, its claim to a place in the 12 quality statements could not be denied.

The benefits of being loved have been captured in Celebrating Success: What Helps Looked After Children Succeed published by the Scottish Government in June 2008. In a survey of young people in care, 23 of the 32 participants, when asked what helped them to be successful, immediately identified a person who cared about them.

I’ve got a good relationship with [my foster parents] – they treat me like their own child so I return it, you know?


Anne, foster mother of Daniel, says ‘He’s one of our own, always has been and always will be’ and her daughter Celia says ‘He feels like a proper brother and always will be’.

But beyond reciprocal affection, feelings of nurture, warmth and safety are implied by, and imply, a caring relationship. To a young person, being loved can mean…

Having nice things and not being dirty and cold and hungry all the time. And not having to do work all the time, being at some adult’s beck and call … having privacy, having your own room, having simple things that others take for granted, like deodorant and sanitary towels when you needed them.


The comments of the Scottish young people also demonstrate that being loved can open the way into a world of other positive connections and experiences.

They don’t leave you out or nothing … you feel like you are part of the family. They just treat us the way they treat their own son … my foster sister, who’s the same age as me, she’s actually got a daughter and when I see them, whenever I see my nieces and nephews it’s like ‘uncle Liam’ and it’s cool.


We were always involved…going along with my foster mother to dances and stuff like that which was actually great fun and a big treat … and there were holidays … it was a family situation.


Being loved gives fundamental lessons about how positive relationships work and sends powerful messages that go to the heart of one’s worth as a human being.

I think the most folk need is trust. If you can see that somebody trusts you it makes you feel happier, it makes you feel as though you want to get it right in your life. It makes you want to get your life sorted out and basically get on with it.


My foster carers trust me, and they love me like I was their own daughter.


The benefits of being loved are profound. The bonds of love are enduring, sometimes persisting through the experience of neglect and abuse. The bonds are diverse in form ranging from the robust affection of the workplace, the obligations and connections of a clan group, to the passionate singular attachment to a parent, sibling or partner. In all forms, the healthy loving relationships of children and young people in care are worthy of our closest attention. Can the child in care who you know name people who love her? Does the child you know have people who talk of their love for him?

Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review

6 November, 2008

For most children and young people, decisions about where to go to school, where to live and who they spend time with are made by their parents.  Children and young people in care have these decisions made in formal processes such as case conferences by a number of adults, some of whom a child or young person might not know (Thomas & O’Kane 1998, 1999).  Participation is important for all children and young people, but even more so for children and young people in state care.

This literature review examines the participation of children and young people who are in state care in decisions about their lives.  It focuses on individual case planning and review meetings as a venue in which participation can be exercised. Participation, of course, is also an ongoing process and participation can occur in other settings such as family group conferences.

You can download a PDF file of Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review and a PDF file of Summary of Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review from our website.

2007-08 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

The Office is committed to attend at least 12 reviews each quarter, arranged directly with the District Centre Manager.  This past year we have attended and reported on almost 24 reviews each quarter (94 in total), conducted in 13 District Centres. This represents 6.6 per cent of the reviews that should have been conducted in the year.

A PDF file of the summary of the Audit of Annual Reviews 07-08 can be downloaded from our website.

[ddownload id=”5334″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download the Summary”]

link to GCYP twitter