Support the family and the child

Pam Simmons Guardian

People are rightly angry at child abuse and neglect. It seems decent common sense to investigate all claims of abuse. But even in an ideal world we may not want to go down the investigation route in every circumstance. Child abuse notifications range from clear evidence of sexual and physical abuse to concern about lack of parental presence or truancy at school.

In South Australia the most common type of abuse substantiated in 2004-05 was neglect which makes up 42 per cent of the total. At 35 per cent emotional abuse was the next most common. Of course all are signs of a child in need of attention. And herein lies the crux of the matter.

Before leaping in to sending two investigating officers around to the child’s house to question the family, good child protection workers consider what is the best approach in the child’s circumstances. Sometimes it should be heavy-handed and decisive.

More often than not though a supportive approach to the family as a whole will benefit the child in the long run.

Put yourself in the child’s world. Mum or dad may be having a very rough time and you’re copping some of it. You do want someone to help but you want them to help your mum and dad as much as help you. Children generally have such strong bonds to their families that they’ll put up with barely adequate parenting in preference to being separated.

The difficult decision required of the child protection worker and other professionals is what is the best approach that both keeps the child safe and protects what is dear to the child. I don’t envy them that decision, a decision they have to make every day. I also don’t envy them the disappointment when the help the family needs isn’t there. That’s when the cycle of re-notifications starts and the child is at risk of escalating tension, neglect or abuse.

Lack of timely family help is one possible reason for the 45 per cent rise in notifications in South Australia over the past five years. The other likely reasons are heightened public awareness and greater willingness to report. Health professionals are reporting a rise in the use of amphetamines by adults. Child protection professionals are reporting a rise in the number of children neglected because of drug-affected parents. We can remove the children and place them in an overstretched alternative care system, temporarily or permanently. And, sometimes, your inclination is to do just that and punish the parents.

The 32 per cent rise over the past five years in the number of South Australian children coming into care suggests that this is a growing response. But again, if you asked the children they would almost certainly say they wanted their parents to do better by them.

So, if for no other reason than putting children first, we have to think about support for their birth family and what the best approach will be.

Drug and alcohol services, parenting support, mental health services, secure housing and practical home assistance may be just what the child needs – for his or her parents.

This is not an argument or excuse for inaction. There are sizeable gaps in the child protection system and one of those is in the capacity to investigate notifications.

We could keep putting dollars into investigations but we have to make choices. The bigger gap, in my view, is in capacity to respond to family crisis or persistent problems.

In plugging this hole, we can curb the growth in notifications, investigations and children in care. I know where I’d put my money, and more of it.

[This article first appeared in The Advertiser on 5 January 2007.]

Do we like children?

Pam Simmons Guardian

Recent amendments to child protection law have a renewed focus on child-safe environments designed to keep our children safe at school, at clubs, at camps and in churches.

A lot of this activity is about restrictions, such as keeping certain people out,  increasing adult supervision of children, limiting movement in cars and open space.

This is done with the right motives. We have a special responsibility towards children that comes with being dependable adults.

Truly child safe environments do not pen children in but offer freedom to explore, move, participate and engage. They’re increasingly referred to as child-friendly environments or child-focused or child-centric.

They look different because children are present, usually in person and sometimes in symbols. It requires us to really like children, to have them participate and voice

opinions. It requires us to consider how they see the world.

But what does participation and engagement have to do with child safety? Evidence here and overseas demonstrates that children who are encouraged to be present, to be heard and to engage are also much more likely to speak up when they feel unsafe. Indeed, it is a major determinant of protection and early disclosure.

Disclosures by children of abuse have been dismissed in the past and partly account for the extensive and belated reparation required now as a result of formal inquiries. So listening and believing is essential too.

While adults readily accept that children have rights to be safe from harm and free from exploitation we often find other rights challenging. Rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and to express views come smack up against strong Anglo traditions of ‘protecting’ children from major decisions and changes, and silencing them in adult company. Obviously child-environments like schools are streets ahead on participation. But the right to be safe from harm is partly dependent on the right to be heard and to express views.

Frequent contact between children, young people and adults who have genuine interest in their wellbeing is a protective measure and a winning one.

‘He wants to be here’

August 13, 2006For many reasons, children in care are excluded from schools at a much higher rate than their peers. Malcolm Downes recently visited a small primary school to distil inspiration and some lessons from their work with a boy we will call Carl.

When 12-year-old Carl joined Rick Whitehead’s year 6-7 class at Gumeracha Primary School at the start of 2006 some things were going to go right for him for a change. But it didn’t seem likely at first. A traumatic personal history and some bad experiences at previous schools had left him perpetually anxious and angry, prone to walk out of class when asked to do school work and colourfully abusive when confronted.

Angela

Rick and Principal Angela Clacherty were not unprepared. They knew something of Carl’s history and just two weeks into the term met with Families SA and Education’s Student Inclusion and Wellbeing and Behaviour Support Coordinator to work out what could be done. A small table in a corner of Angela’s office became a refuge where Carl could safely work out his anger and frustration by pounding plasticine into extreme and sometimes beautiful shapes when tension in the classroom became too much. Fortuitously, Carl shared two of Rick’s passions, sport and music.

Rick

‘His eyes lit up when he saw the drum kit set up at the back of the class,’ Rick recalls.

The start of the football season also saw Carl playing for Gumeracha juniors wearing the same black and white club colours that Rick had worn a few years earlier.

Carl has developed a good relationship with Kassie Wildman, the energetic School Services Officer who works with him as a consequence of that first meeting. The four hours per week of support she provides has enabled him to tackle some tasks and situations that would have previously sent him racing outside.

He is enrolled in the music program, doing guitar on Monday and drums on Wednesday.

‘Occasionally he says he doesn’t want to go to music but after a bit of encouragement he usually does,” observes Rick, ‘but I think he just wants the extra attention.’

Still, Carl’s integration into the school community has not been smooth or easy and is far from complete.

‘Carl has good days and he has bad days and sometimes a bad day will be triggered by something outside of school,’ says Angela.

‘Tomorrow is a new day’ has become something of a mantra for Carl and those working with him, she explains.

The school has an excellent relationship with Carl’s carers, an aunt and uncle who are willing to provide the time and the commitment that he needs. There is trust and a sense of partnership that makes sure that issues that cross the boundary between Carl’s home and school life are supportively addressed.

Talking to Rick and Angela it becomes clear that their own close communication and shared willingness to work creatively and flexibly with Carl is one of his major assets in the school. Angela admits that not all teachers, including some on her own staff, would accept or be comfortable with the latitude that Carl is shown. A photo of Carl proudly holding up a school project beams down from above Angela’s desk and Rick comments on his great sense of humour. They clearly like Carl.

For Carl’s classmates too, these two terms have been a journey.

‘It became clear to them right from the start that Carl was troubled. There were questions and some resentment with a few kids asking why he got favourable treatment, why they had to do work and he didn’t,’ said Rick. He and Angela explain how these questions led to challenging discussions about rules and fairness and also about Carl’s needs and place in the class. Carl is now a part of the class. The minor disruptions are tolerated, his achievements are celebrated and some members of the class even take special pride in looking out for him.

Even with all that has been achieved, the future presents some challenges for Carl and his school. Rick estimates that he is at year three in his school work and admits that, with 24 other children to teach, he cannot put in the one-to-one tutoring that is needed. Carl’s emotional state still limits his ability to concentrate and academic progress is slow.

Next year he will go into year seven and beyond that there is the major challenge of high school.

For the time being, the immense achievement of his teachers, principal, carers classmates and support agencies to date are eloquently summarised by Angela Clacherty when she is able to say of Carl, ‘He wants to be here.’

Social worker checklist

This checklist was developed with the input of children and young people in care to assist workers to provide the child or young person with information about what is happening to them when entering or changing placement.  You can download the Social Worker Checklist from our website.

Doing more than is practicable

Today, I am going to talk about some of the things we can do to equip children and young people in the care system for when they leave our care. In doing so, I am going to begin by referring to a particular section of the Children’s Protection (Miscellaneous) Act 2005, Section 3 part B, where one of the objectives is

To ensure as far as practicable that all children are cared for in a way that allows them to reach their full potential…

This section refers to our obligation to help children and young people achieve their potential, yet, like many other aspects of the legislation, it contains the rider ‘as far as is practicable’ and therefore could suggest minimum standards or just our statutory responsibility.

I want to talk about the importance of doing more than is practicable, of doing more than fulfilling our statutory responsibility, and to emphasise how important it is to proactively work with children and young people so that they can reach their full potential. I shall also discuss the consequences if we do not.

I will therefore be focusing on the things that we need to do to prepare young people for leaving care that I call ‘non-concrete’ or the ‘non-tangibles’ as opposed to the concrete things, like budgeting, using a washing machine, accessing services etc.

Download a PDF pf Angela Andary’s keynote address to the Leaving Care Conference—April 2006 Doing more than is practicable – How can we assist children and young people in care to reach their full potential?


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Charter of Rights launched

Charter launch 2006Lions roared, parrots squawked, monkeys howled and the first Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care in Australia was launched.

In a lunchtime ceremony in the Rotunda of the Adelaide Zoo on April 19, young people involved in the development of the Charter explained why they felt that a clear statement of rights for children and young people in care was important.

Reflecting on her time in guardianship, 19 year old Rachel Hopkins said, “Most kids don’t know what to expect when they go into care.

“They want to know why them and what is going to happen next. The Charter will help clear up a lot of those things and make sure they know it’s alright for them to ask questions.”

Eighteen year old David Wilkins who chaired the event said, “Children in care want to feel like any other children – they want to have the same opportunities and support.”

“It’s really important for children in care to know they have rights. For those coming in to the system, this Charter will be able to provide them with information to help them deal with being placed under guardianship.”

Surviving a simian heckling that he said rivalled even that of his parliamentary colleagues, Minister for Families and Communities, Jay Weatherill congratulated the children and young people, carers and the many professionals whose work created the Charter.

“Children and young people are placed under guardianship when they are unable to remain in their family home making them among the most vulnerable,” he said.“They need to know they can expect to be treated well and cared for properly while they are under guardianship. It also is crucial for them to know they have options if something goes wrong. The Charter is a great way of telling them this and preventing problems such as abuse.

“We are going to ask people and organisations providing care to endorse the Charter and build it into their ways of working with children and young people including their performance standards and reporting process,” he said as he officially launched the Charter.

The launch was attended by more than 100 children and young people and about the same number of carers and other interested adults. After the launch they joined the Office of the Guardian staff for a hotdog and gourmet sausage sizzle and were entertained by young DJ Ben and Dr Blot the clown before spending a sunny afternoon at the Zoo.

The Charter and the value of formalising rights for children and young people in care will be promoted strongly over the next few months.

To read the Charter and to view the promotional materials, visit the Charter of Rights page or contact the Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People on 8226 8570, email [email protected]

“There’s no point in her being at school…” homelessness and children

The following are excerpts from an address to the Homelessness SA forum on the impact of homelessness on children, 31 March 2006.

There’s no point in her being at school, it’s not like you can sit her down at night and read her books, with this stuff going on around us.

homeless family in a private hotel

Pam Simmons Guardian

Children come into care to protect them from harm. Their families cannot care for them for a variety of reasons. This ranges from parents who cannot get enough support to care for a child with profound disabilities to parents who seriously and criminally abuse their children. The contributing factors for Aboriginal children are steeped in their families’ history of separation and alienation.

It is of no surprise that the factors that place families under stress and lead to the separation of children from their care are similar to the factors that contribute to homelessness. These are domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, intellectual disability, low incomes, transience and poor family supports, among others. There is significant overlap between homelessness and children being in care.

You’re just a totally isolated unit as a family, friendship just doesn’t come into it. Even the kids, they’re like ships in the night, you know? None of us have any relationships, it’s really weird.

homeless family

 The impact of homelessness on children is huge but has largely been overlooked. In the past we have treated the family as a homogenous unit with the parents representing and protecting the interests of the children. It is only since the 1980s with growth in the study of children, and the consequent ‘discovery’ that they were social actors, and the commitment to children’s rights that we have started to consider the needs of children as linked to but also distinct from the family as a whole.

From a child’s perspective, homelessness may look like this: losing pets, leaving treasures behind, being in strange and threatening environments, being separated from friends and sometimes siblings, changing or missing school, falling behind, insufficient food, persistent illness with no treatment and adults distracted all the time.

It happened lots. I just got used to it. They’d just come and pick us up and take us when mum was going psycho.

In their own words, Create June 2004

Children in care who are often changing placement are homeless but have not been considered as such. It is not our notion of what homelessness is. But the definition of ‘secondary’ homelessness covers such circumstances – constantly moving between relatives or friends because of no home of their own.

We do know that young people who are in state care use homelessness services. In South Australia at 30 June 2005 there were 190 young people on care and protection orders and in independent living arrangements such as private board, renting on their own, engaged in a program of learning to live independently and living with their partner and children. It has been estimated but not confirmed that 100 of these young people drift in and out of homelessness services. We don’t have accurate data here.

There are many things we still don’t know. We don’t know how many families were homeless when the children were removed. We don’t know how many children have been separated from their parents because residential services couldn’t accommodate children. We don’t know how well our homelessness services meet the needs of children or how safe children are while there. We don’t know how many homeless people are care leavers but we suspect it is a significant number. We don’t know how, or if, homelessness services should be integrated with alternative care.

We do know though that child safety starts with awareness of children and empowerment of children. So we can proceed without perfect knowledge to improve our approach to children in planning and providing homelessness services.