The ‘Listening and talking with children’ forum

In June 2009, the Guardian’s Office and the Charter of Rights Implementation Committee hosted a forum to promote essential skills in communication with children and young people.

A presentation by Sara Bann and Ed King on behalf of the Guardian’s Youth Advisors opened the morning’s discussion.

Some of the output from the forum was published in July as Workshop-output-collated as well as a list of readings and other resources.

Magill Youth Training Centre

The axing of a new youth detention facility in the State Budget had condemned hundreds of young South Australians each year, some as young as 10, to spend their days in the grim decrepit confines of Magill Youth Training Centre.

Many will spend their nights on a mattress on a single wooden bunk in a 2m x 3m cell off a narrow corridor, unrelieved by a picture on the wall or a desk or a chair.

The toilets are down another corridor. Taps leak, tiles are broken and the cut-off doors afford no privacy. The windows are rendered opaque by grime, thick bars and wire mesh.

This tired and threadbare institution sabotages the efforts of staff to provide a safe and positive environment. It sends the clear message to staff and young residents alike that they are worthy of nothing better, seriously undermining the work of rehabilitation.

This decision is poor economics. For each of these young people we allow to graduate into a life of crime the cost to policing, the justice system and prisons is many times over the cost of rehabilitation.

It leaves South Australians in breach of international rules to provide ‘facilities and services that meet all the requirements of health and human dignity’ for juvenile offenders.

But most of all it is profoundly unkind and uncaring to some of our most vulnerable young people. I challenge any Minister responsible for this budget to spend an hour or two with the children in Magill and not feel deeply ashamed.

Pam Simmons


Published in The Advertiser 8 June 2009.

The world of work

Our Youth Advisors bring a diversity of experiences and views. Some of them are in paid employment; some of them are studying at school, TAFE or university. One of the things they have in common is that they are volunteers. Youth Advisors Sara and David recall their first experiences of work.

Dave the BuilderDavid: My first job was as a café assistant and birthday party host. It was a paid position and I learnt quickly that income is there one day and gone the next. It certainly taught me that I needed to budget more effectively!

I really liked the work environment and the chance towork with children. One of the best things was that we were to dress up for birthday parties. I think my best outfit was Bob the Builder. I had a lot of fun working there.

The thing that I remember most was having to go through the play equipment and make sure it was clean! That was a huge job but also an excellent excuse to play on the equipment.

That job taught me how to act in a professional manner in the workplace and that has been very helpful. It also taught me basic skills that I’ve been able to use in all other positions. I just wish I could remember how to use the coffee machine again!

Sara files herself_edited-1 copySara: My first job was a government traineeship within the Office for Youth. It was a great experience – it made me feel empowered and I felt that I was starting to achieve my own goals in life.

I got to do a lot of cool things – I started a project and worked with some kids at the Magill Flexi Centre and I also got to work with Che Cockatoo-Collins on an awards ceremony.

That job gave me on-the-job skills but also the chance to study at the same time. It gave me an opportunity to learn about government and get my foot in the door for other exciting jobs.

Participation, disability and the Charter of Rights

Adults’ attitudes towards children and young people with a disability, will impact on how they perceive, respect and act upon children’s rights. Under the medical model of disability the problems are seen to lie with the individual. The individual needs to change and adapt to circumstances (if they can) and there is no suggestion that society needs to change. In contrast, the social model sees disability as a normal aspect of life and that people with impairments are disabled by barriers in society, by its structures and norms.

Consider a boy, Matthew, who cannot hold open a door for long enough to get through due to weakness in his right arm. Under the medical model, Matthew is seen as a victim of his impairment. He may try and get someone else to hold the door open for him but he is not given control of his environment and therefore remains dependent on others. The social model includes Matthew and alters the environment to meet his needs. It sees society as having the knowledge and resources to offer solutions – such as in this instance, an electric or revolving door.

It is the social model that best supports the child’s right to participate. The appropriate degree of participation for an individual child or young person will be determined by the nature of the matter for decision or under discussion, the circumstances and their capacity to participate.

To make it possible for a child or young person with a disability to participate it is critical to find out how they usually communicate. They may use a combination of different communication methods including the use of pointing and gestures, pictures or symbols, spelling, sign language, speech generating devices or direct observation. Involving someone who is trained or familiar with a particular method of communication to encourage, assist or interpret on behalf of the young person can greatly help.

Information should be presented to children and young people with a disability in a way they can understand. Some pictures, photographs or symbols as a visual cue may help a child with a disability understand the types of things that will be discussed during a case planning session. A young person with a disability may choose not be to present at a meeting, but may spend some time with their worker or advocate prior to the meeting to express their preferences. They may complete a ‘What’s important to me’ activity to ensure that their views are accurately represented.

Participation in decision making by children and young people with a disability can be best supported if adults:

  • understand the child or young person’s disability • know how they communicate best
  • collaborate with and learn from specialist disability service providers
  • engage, as needed, the assistance of others with specialised skills
  • prepare and support the child or young person to participate
  • are proactive in identifying opportunities for participation
  • allow time to explore the options to promote planning and inclusion.


Amongst Australian children aged up to 14 years of age, approximately one in 12 has a disability and about half of these have a severe or profound disability that affects their ability to do day to day activities.


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

At the end of 2008 there were a total of 244 children under guardianship receiving a service from Disability SA and Novita, 12 per cent of the total.

Disability SA



Aboriginal kids in care

Gino websize

Gino Iuliano Advocate

In Australia Aboriginal children and young people are in alternative care at almost nine times the rate of other children. The size of the over-representation and the consequences mean we should take a look at some of the specific issues surrounding Aboriginal kids in care.

Perhaps it is hard for non-Aboriginal people to completely understand and feel the impact of the powerful network of relationships that hold together traditional Aboriginal communities where brothers and sisters are indistinguishable from cousins, and uncles and aunts take on many of the roles and responsibilities of biological parents in European families. Even for me as an urban Kaurna man, the network of relationships, support and obligations is more complex and extensive even than in my family-oriented Italian heritage.

The removal from family of an Aboriginal child comes at a great cost no matter how necessary and justified. The tearing away from kin and country causes great anguish and sadness and, as we have seen with many from the stolen generations, lives marked by despair and self destruction. Keeping children out of care by intervening early and supporting birth families to care better is ideal but these services are not always provided.

In our legislation and in our practice we make a special effort to maintain family and cultural connections for Aboriginal kids but sometimes the nature of Aboriginal communities and the fostering relationship can present particular issues.

Finding foster or kinship care within the child’s community would seem the best solution but resentment by biological parents can cause friction in close communities or when groups come together for events such as funerals. Finding foster care outside of their immediate communities, even with Aboriginal families, can mean a major separation from the child’s extended family, country and culture. For these children we need to make a deliberate effort to maintain and rebuild these connections.

Much of the day to day commitment to maintaining cultural connections inevitably must come from foster carers who provide the 24/7 care. We ask much from our foster carers in this regard. We look for and encourage carers who will welcome children into their families and develop enduring loving relationships with them. At the same time we ask that they consciously and deliberately support a cultural maintenance process that requires considerable effort, can be upsetting to the child and ultimately may lead to the child deciding to discard them entirely.

Having the right sort of conversations with foster carers at the start of fostering can help. Carers’ understanding of the importance to Aboriginal children of kin and culture and of building a realistic picture of their birth family is important, as is a mature acceptance by carers of the sometimes transitory nature of fostering.

Government and non-government agencies have services and resources to help. In the Aboriginal Family Support Service’s (AFSS) Mirror Families Project, a specially trained worker engages with Aboriginal family networks to build practical support which enables kids to be cared for within their own communities, mirroring what an extended family would provide.

Relevant and attractive tools like the AFSS’s Lets Talk Culture and Liz Tongerie’s soon to be published Aboriginal Life Story Books make the job of engaging Aboriginal kids about their kin and culture easier for workers and carers alike.

Families SA is set to provide additional support and structure to the way in which the maintenance of Aboriginal identity is built into case planning. A new practice framework, planning guide and planning template, supported by a rollout of training has been successfully trialled with social workers in regional areas.

Fiona Ward, Director Country, explained to me how Families SA will continue to direct all resources possible into building relationships with Aboriginal communities. She said that recognition of cultural issues is also fundamentally important for Families SA when addressing housing, health and education issues in partnership with Aboriginal communities and key to providing safe and healthy environments for Aboriginal children.

Prevention services like those provided under the Stronger Families, Safer Children  program are vital to bring about the required changes.

Paying attention to mental health



Pam Simmons Guardian

Most children and young people who come into care need assistance in achieving or sustaining mental health. This is hardly surprising given the high likelihood of early childhood trauma. The level of need and assistance required will vary but the key to successful intervention is timeliness and appropriateness to need.


We have become so used to rationing health resources that this sounds like a big ask. However, I have learnt from my conversations with experts that most of the healing work is done by the adults who spend the most time with children, such as carers, teachers and family. Regardless of who delivers the assistance, sound professional advice and timely intervention is needed.

In South Australia, we have good cooperation between Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Child Protection Services, the Youth Sexual Assault/Abuse Counselling Service and Families SA Psychological Services in providing therapeutic services for children in care. Since 2005 there have been improvements in timeliness and appropriateness as a result of the extra services under the Keeping Them Safe reform program and the Rapid Response commitment by government agencies. Assessments are now conducted within two to three weeks of a referral.

Late last year, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists adopted a position statement on the mental health care needs of children in out-of-home care. Among other things, the statement commits them to work collaboratively with state health departments and child welfare agencies to ensure all children in care are assessed.

It seems to me though that assessment is the easier bit to fix. The persistent gaps are with the follow-up services. Here, too, there have been steps forward and health services in general have been terrific in giving priority to children in care. However, I am hearing that children are waiting too long and that good alternative care arrangements are sometimes threatened by delays in getting professional advice and help. So in an attempt to understand better I asked what the most significant gaps are.

A delay of three or four months for a child who has been assessed as in high need of therapeutic assistance has an immediate adverse impact on their stability in placement and in school, and a longer term impact on their emotional and social development. Less often identified but equally important is the delay in working with traumatised infants and their primary carers. A child or adolescent’s distress and associated destructive behaviour often triggers the referral to therapeutic services. Much of this could be avoided if early work is done with infants and carers.

Other priorities for action were the development of more appropriate models for working with Aboriginal children and families, prompt professional assistance to carers when acute problems arise, specialist assistance to children and young people with very high need, and services for young people once they reach 18 years but are not accepted for adult mental health services. The good news is that those I spoke to were not short of ideas for tackling these problems.

The first gap that came to light did not, however, concern only children in care. Instead it was the torment of removing children from parents with mental illness. In 2007 a coalition of mental health and child advocates estimated that between 78,000 and 85,000 young South Australians live with a parent with a mental illness. Most continue to live as a family and the impact on children depends on the severity of the illness and access to support. The statutory child protection system cuts in only at the most serious end of disruption and isolation of children. Forty per cent of children taken into state care have mental illness of one or both parents as a major contributing factor. In 2007-08 this would have been about 180 children. South Australia needs to catch up with the other states and territories in implementing a strategy to assist children of parents with mental illness.

If we are serious about providing good care and education for children and young people, prevention of illness, good early childhood development, crime prevention, and strong families we will pay more attention now to the mental health care needs of children.

Let’s exhaust alternatives to jail for young people



Pam Simmons Guardian

With news reports of youth gangs and Operation Mandrake you could be forgiven for thinking that youth crime is on the increase. It is not. The trend is downwards. Over a ten year period to 2005 the fall in police apprehensions was 39 per cent. You could be forgiven for believing that young people who commit offences will do so again. Most do not.The implications are clear. Instead of addressing the problems some groups of young people face we would be adding to them by bringing them into the youth justice system for first and minor offences.


Most young people in South Australia are never in trouble with the police. In 2005, only 0.5 per cent of young people aged 10 to 17 years were apprehended by police. More than half of these did not warrant a court appearance.

For the most part, we have long accepted that we would treat young people as a special category when it comes to criminal justice in recognition of their underdeveloped moral reasoning.

Indeed it was South Australia that led the way in this country with the Children’s Act aged 10 to 13 are presumed to not be fully capable of understanding their actions unless a court can prove otherwise.

There is growing evidence that delays in moral reasoning will continue in to your early 20s and some jurisdictions have extended the principle of different treatment accordingly.

In SA there is a separate Court. The steadily falling youth crime rate is testament to a mostly good youth justice system.

That is why the recent proposals to change legislation so that young offenders are treated more harshly, including defining the offences when juveniles will face the adult court system, are so worrying. They are abrupt reactions to problems that have been with us for a long time and which, largely, we have handled sensibly.

We do well at steering first time offenders away from their second or third offence with crime prevention strategies, and cautions or family conferences following police apprehension. What we don’t want to do now is to counteract this success by widening the channel into the criminal justice system. Introducing anti-social behaviour orders, public shaming and mandatory sentencing could do just that.

Give someone a label, especially a young person, and they will live up to it. Becoming known in the neighbourhood as an “offender” or a “hoon” sticks hard and fast.

In the UK having an “Asbo” or anti-social behaviour order has become something of a badge of honour. Almost half the Asbos in the UK are breached at least once. A highly disproportionate number are imposed on black or Asian young people and the BritishInstitute for Brain Injured Children reported that 35 per cent of the orders were imposed on young people with a disability such as Tourette syndrome, autism or Aspergers syndrome.

The more vexing problem is how to stop that small minority, around 8 per cent, who persist in offending. Out of anger, it is tempting to punish and punish again. If your goal is to stop further crime however then brutalising young offenders, or any offenders, will defeat this.

Most repeat offenders are familiar with brutal environments and have experienced rejection, isolation, failure and cruelty most of their lives. Imprisonment can be a badge of honour, too, among some groups.

As many as 60 per cent of incarcerated young people are reported to be at risk of significant mental health problems.

There is little sympathy for young people who commit crime but it is not sympathy they need. We could instead offer, as other states and countries do, medium or low security facilities that focus on re-integration to the community rather than punishment.

We could ensure that our programs in detention centres deal with substance use, mental illness, post-abuse trauma and learning difficulties. We could introduce sentencing conferences that bring the young person’s family and community into the decisions about consequences and addressing causes of re-offending.

There are many effective alternatives to ongoing imprisonment. If we had tried these first, the call for longer imprisonment may be acceptable.

We have not and it is not.

Pam Simmons


(First published in The Advertiser 23 March 2007.)

The Guardian’s field consultation in 2008

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

I travel the state between September and December each year to ask agencies and workers how well the care system is working for children and young people. The information I collect is the basis of further discussions with key agencies and a report to the Minister. My thanks to the 295 people I met at 27 locations for their participation.

Below is a summary of what I heard.

Stability and security

The consultation indicates that the majority of children are in stable and secure placements but for the estimated one in ten requiring change, the options are few. Demand for emergency placements has substantially increased. There are reported improvements in the quality of care provided by commercial carers and residential care workers in transitional accommodation. The over-crowding in Families SA residential facilities and the consequent risk to residents is of deep concern. See Centres a risk to child safety.

The relationships between carers, social workers and alternative care support workers are generally good. The support to relative carers has improved as has their access to respite services, though the demand for respite still outstrips provision. Specialist training for carers in country areas is sparse.

Family contact and cultural identity

There is reported high compliance with parental contact requirements. There is some concern about whether this meets the needs of children. Reunification services should be readily available to young people who choose to return to families after long separation under state guardianship. Getting a mentor appears to be inconsistent. There is tension and hesitancy about how well knowledge of cultural identity is supported and some concern about delays in placing Aboriginal children with family. There are emerging child protection problems, including adolescents at risk, in refugee communities.

Health and disability services

The benefits of the Rapid Response commitment are still evident in cooperation between agencies, familiarity with the needs of children in state care and improved access to services. Waiting times for therapeutic assistance are growing again and are up to six months in some regions for high-priority referrals. Access to disability services has improved markedly overall although there are persistent issues for young people making the transition to adult disability services.

Education and development

Consistent with the 2007 consultation, participants reported mostly good communication between schools and Families SA, largely attributed to the introduction of Individual Education Plans. There is some indication, though, that momentum had slowed which has already been addressed by DECS and Families SA with refresher training offered. Predictably but regretfully the cooperation comes unstuck over payments to support children who need additional assistance in school. As a result children are disadvantaged by delays in school commencement or fulltime attendance. There was relief that the school retention program will continue in Families SA and that DECS continues to give priority to children and young people under guardianship.


Families SA workers reported satisfaction with the level of participation of children and young people in decision-making. However other evidence demonstrates there is much more that could be done to involve and empower children and young people in case decisions.

Relationship with case worker

There are reported improvements in case worker responsiveness, professionalism, consistency and communication from 2007. However there are a growing number of ‘unallocated’ cases where contact is minimal.


The overall impression is that, despite high demand, workers across agencies are focused on the children for whom they have a duty of care or guardianship. The growing sense of order and professionalism in Families SA continues, as does enhanced inter-agency work. While there is still much progress to be made in realising the benefits for children in respectful ‘care teams’ there are improvements in the day to day interaction between carers, social workers and carer support workers. Services and accommodation for children with high needs and stable placements for 12 to 15 year olds emerged as two significant issues. There was also a rising sense of indignation that collectively the state could not provide what children are entitled to.

What makes a good foster carer

In previous editions the Youth Advisors have had their say on what makes a good social worker and now they turn their attention to foster carers.

The Youth Advisors were asked by Families SA for their opinions as part of the Review of Foster Care Assessment and Training late in 2008 and this is some of what they wrote.

They told Families SA that children or young people in care want stability and security through consistent care and a daily routine. They wanted to be listened to sympathetically and involved in decision making…

…carers should know about the importance of involving children and young people in decision-making about their lives.

…but not always involved in all of the detail.

There’s some things that a child doesn’t need to be involved in, for example an argument between a social worker and carer about clothing allowance or arguments between lawyers.

Practical stuff was important like access to medical care – but also fun.

Some foster parents include you in all their family stuff, especially the fun stuff, but some foster parents don’t. Young people in care, they said, need to feel that it’s not being done just for the money.

Carers, the Youth Advisors thought, needed to have a knowledge of child development and safe caring practices and to understand trauma, attachment and mental health issues that might arise for young people in care. They needed to know how to support and maintain cultural ties.

A carer should be prepared to learn about the child’s culture in order to support that child’s connection with their culture and heritage.

Family based carers should be happy and stable and welcome the child into their home.

The focus for someone considering becoming a carer should be on wanting to provide a home and a heart for a child who can’t live with their family.

They should have good parenting skills, including being compassionate and being focussed on the child, and be willing to help children with their education and life skills.

A carer should enable the child or young person to continue with activities that they were doing before coming into care that were positive and contribute to their development, for example, family birthday and cultural celebrations.

The Youth Advisor’s input was presented to the reference group on family based care by Families SA Principal Social Worker Alisa Marshall who relayed back the reference group’s thanks for ‘an extremely valuable contribution’.