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.

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Helping neglected children


Pam Simmons Guardian

Dramatic events in several states, including South Australia have sparked nationwide interest in the neglect of children. While we would all wish that the responses to children’s needs were swift and adequate, and certainly prevent tragedy, this cannot be guaranteed. No child protection system is foolproof. What we aim to do is to make it as strong and responsive as possible.

Neglect is an awkward concept to work with because it depends so much on prevailing standards of care, which change over time and over cultural context. It is very difficult to assess what is ‘good enough parenting’. Let’s not forget too that the concept of ‘neglect’ has a particular shameful history in its use against Aboriginal families. The Bringing Them Home report provided evidence of Aboriginal children being seen as one and the same as neglected children.

Regardless of the difficulty of defining neglect, it is seriously damaging for children and that is why the public debate should be welcomed, albeit preferably not in the heat of real or just averted tragedies. The public will help decide what the child protection system will respond to by discussing what are acceptable standards of care and safety and by learning about responsibilities before statutory intervention.

The underlying features of neglect such as low income, substance abuse, homelessness, the burden of sole parenting and mental illness, are complex and often chronic. The child protection system, in its narrow sense, is not well placed to deal with these entrenched problems and services to support the family must come from other quarters. However, someone must take responsibility for working closely with the family to progressively address the needs of the children. The community does not care who does it as long as it is done.

One of the uglier sides of the recent public attention was the damning of ‘welfare mothers’ for having more children. Birth rates are falling across every social group and are falling faster at the lower end of the economic range. However, it is reasonable to question whether a one-off lump-sum payment like the baby bonus is the best way to offset the significant costs of having a child. The debate here leaves open the bigger question for Australia of a paid maternity leave scheme paid to all regardless of employment and replacing the baby bonus and maternity payments. It could be accompanied by a children’s trust fund with payments to all children at birth and at regular intervals for use on turning 18.

It is not acceptable to say that the responsibility for children’s wellbeing rests solely with individual families. Good outcomes for children are not determined by leaving families alone nor by the wealth of a country. Good outcomes are decided by policies which focus on family support, valuing parenthood, early childhood services and reducing inequalities. And for children at high risk we need a robust child protection system that responds confidently to family problems and children’s needs.

What makes a good social worker? – the director's cut

Last edition the Youth Advisors asked some young people, a youth support worker and a social worker, ‘What qualities make a good social worker for children and young people in care?’ This time it is the turn of the Families SA Executive Director.

A good social worker must:

  • have the appropriate qualifications. They will have studied, can show that they have thought about the theory and understand the link between theory and practice and have an ability to apply the learning and skills.
  • have the right personal qualities. They must have passion, believe in what they do, believe they can make a difference and want to work with children and young people in care.
  • have a good work ethic.
  • be robust and grounded with good coping skills, and a good life/work balance in their own lives.
  • be a good listener who is able to listen with empathy and understand the individual they are working with.
  • be a problem solver and be organised and methodical. • have the necessary skills for their work duties such as client work, whether working with children or adults, presentations (for example in court) or case planning.
  • have a sense of fun. They must be energised and have ways of looking after themselves.
  • work within a team and cooperate well.
  • have a commitment to ongoing learning, reflective practice and continuous improvement.
  • have integrity and honesty, recognising the power imbalance between them and their clients and not taking advantage of it or of a disempowered young person.

Safe Keeping Orders in South Australia

As a result of growing interest and support for introducing safe keeping provisions in South Australia the Guardian for Children and Young People wants to understand better the views, risks and benefits of safe keeping for young people at risk.  In addition, the Minister for Families and Communities has recently requested the Guardian provide advice in relation to the recommendation made in the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry final report that a secure therapeutic facility be established in South Australia.

This discussion paper has been prepared to elicit views on whether there is a need for safe keeping provisions, the concerns and risks in instituting safe keeping provisions and what can be done to address those risks. The responses will inform the policy advice the Guardian provides to the Minister and the Guardian’s position in relation to this matter.

A PDF file of the discussion paper Safe Keeping Orders can be downloaded.

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Helping families care for kids

While more children are in state care, families at risk have been neglected by successive governments in South Australia. The erosion of funding for intensive services for families in serious trouble stems back to the 1990s and by 2006-07 this state spent only $4.81 per child compared to a national average of $30.07. Our expenditure in this area has fallen 10 per cent since 2002-03 while the national trend is a rise of 81 per cent over that same period.

This is important because, at the same time, South Australia has had a 37 per cent rise in the numbers of children in state care. In response to this the government has significantly increased expenditure on child protection and alternative care.  However, much of the additional expenditure is meeting demand from the previous year.  We are chasing our tail on child protection.

Our response to child abuse and neglect has largely narrowed to what the government agency can do in investigating reports, seeking court orders and removing children, as a last resort. The social worker faced with a child at risk has too few options. They can pick up the pieces but they do not have the time to get in early to stop the downward spiral.

Most other Australian states and territories face the same problem of a growing number of reports of child abuse or neglect and escalating demand for out of home care.

Projections in NSW show that, if current trends continue, one in every five children born in 2007 will be reported to the Department by the age of 18.

This is a shocking prospect. If we do nothing other than remove children at risk we will have many more in state care than five in a thousand, as we have now.  But the more probable scenario is that the child protection system becomes so overwhelmed with investigations, court orders and removals that the truly high-risk situations get missed.

Further, the more children we take into care the less likely we are to be able to provide a safe caring alternative.

Another approach, and one that seems to be working in Victoria, is two-pronged: invest well in looking after children in state care and invest equally well in helping families in trouble. This is not simply parenting classes, information brochures, and fortnightly visits by a nurse, all of which are good. This is something much more intensive to help families with major and protracted problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, spiralling debt and mental illness.

Early evidence in Victoria shows that where a sustained effort to help families in high need has been made, child protection reports, substantiations and court orders have fallen.

This is not cheap. Victoria commits around $75 million per year for family support services, $22 million of that in intensive services. This state reports around $2 million for intensive services. South Australia has recently spent wisely and well on universal children’s services such as home visiting and children’s centres. These universal services will benefit all children but children most in need require something more.

We understandably question why abusive or neglectful families should be given a second chance. Fair enough – a child’s safety and wellbeing comes first. But children need families and the state cannot always provide an effective substitute.

Removing children to punish parents also punishes children. It is not done lightly and, in most cases, the decision to remove children permanently is not done suddenly. But we would be so much more confident that we were doing right by children if we had first seen what their parents could do, with help.

Pam Simmons

Guardian for Children and Young People

This piece was first published in The Advertiser on 30 May 2008.