Education of young people in care

For children and young people in care, the benefits of education go far beyond grades—it’s an opportunity to meet friends, learn new things and find a sense of stability. The Guardian’s report, Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2018 looks at how well the system serves their needs and identifies a number of ongoing trends.

In 2018, 60.9 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in South Australian Department for Education (DE) schools, up from 57 per cent in 2017. The remainder may be enrolled in non-government schools, below school age or not enrolled for other reasons.

In the same period, 34.7 per cent of children and young people in care in DE schools identified as Aboriginal, which compared to 6.4 per cent of all students in the DE population.

Absence and attendance

Children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools show a higher rate of absence at 13 per cent, compared to 9.5 per cent for the general school population. Absence rates are higher for students in secondary school than for those in primary school.

The report also finds Aboriginal children in care are more likely to be attending school than Aboriginal children not in care.

Suspension and exclusion

According to the report, suspension and exclusion rates are consistently higher for children and young people in care than the broader cohort. The DE defines suspension as times when the student does not attend school for one to five days and exclusion as when the student does not attend for four to ten weeks, or the rest of the term or semester for students over 16.

Students in care in DE schools are suspended at a rate four times higher than DE students not in care and the report identifies violence and the main reason for suspension.

Learning and intellectual disability

The proportion of children and young people with an identified disability continues to be significantly higher for those in care than the broader school population.

In 2018, 30.3 per cent of students in care in DE schools were classified as having a disability, compared to the state average of 9.8 per cent.

NAPLAN results

Data consistently indicates children and young people in care in DE schools achieve poorer outcomes in NAPLAN in relation to meeting the National Minimum Standard.

Participation rates in NAPLAN testing are low for students in care in DE schools. While many have valid reasons for not participating, this makes tracking the experience of young people in care difficult. For example, only around half of eligible Year 9 students participated in NAPLAN testing in 2018.

Check out the Guardian’s report Children and young people in state care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-18 for further analysis, available below.

National principles for child safe organisations

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found many organisations had failed to protect children and to respond appropriately when information about abuse was disclosed.

In response to findings and recommendations from the Royal Commission, the Australian Government commissioned the development of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell led the development of the National Principles, in consultation with relevant peak organisations, children and young people, and Commonwealth and state governments.

Reflecting the ten child safe standards recommended by the Royal Commission, the National Principles go beyond sexual abuse to include other forms of harm to children and young people.

The National Principles apply to government, non-government and commercial organisations, including early childhood services, schools, out-of-home care, sports clubs, churches, youth groups, health services and youth detention services.

The ten National Principles put the best interests of children and young people front and centre. They cover all aspects of what organisations need to do to keep young people safe—from the culture of the organisation and the role of families and communities, to the recruitment and ongoing training of staff and respecting equity and diversity.

Many organisations across the country already work hard to ensure children and young people are protected from harm. The National Principles are not intended to override existing measures, but create a national minimum benchmark.

How will they be implemented?

In February 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Principles.

Alongside the National Principles, the National Office for Child Safety (NOCS) was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the Australian Government’s response to the Royal Commission. The NOCS will work with state and territory governments and organisations to lead the implementation of the National Principles.

In South Australia, the Department for Education will lead the implementation of the National Principles with state-specific resources and supporting tools to be developed. Organisations providing care to children and young people will need to continue to meet the Child safe Environments: Principles of Good Practice while the implementation of the National Principles is progressing.

How can an organisation adopt the National Principles?

Each National Principle is accompanied by key action areas and indicators that act as a guide for organisations to ensure they are implemented in practice.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has developed a range of tools and resources to assist in the implementation of the National Principles. An introductory video provides further explanation on the development and future implementation of the National Principles and a Learning Hub and Practical Tools provide organisations further guidance.

For children and young people

The National Principles are about putting children and young people at the centre of practice. The AHRC has developed resources for children and young people and a version of the National Principles in child-friendly language. It also covers information for parents and carers how to identify an organisation is child safe.

 

External monitoring, charters and conventions come together to improve youth justice detention

Events at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2016 alarmed the community and shone a spotlight on the unsuitable treatment and environment in youth detention centres across the country.

Riots, like those seen at Don Dale and other detention centres, demonstrated how complaints and concerns among residents could fester unaddressed and escalate without appropriate and timely intervention. It is essential that the wellbeing of residents and staff in institutions closed to public view is assessed and monitored to ensure young people in juvenile detention, who are some of our most vulnerable, are protected.

Improving and strengthening the way places of detention are monitored is one way to prevent mistreatment. In jurisdictions across Australia there are processes in place to investigate and review detention facilities.

In South Australia, the Training Centre Visitor Unit (TCVU) conducts visits to both campuses of the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC). Legislated in the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016, the Training Centre Visitor protects and promotes the rights and best interests of young people on remand or sentenced at the AYTC. This allows the visitor ‘to act as an advocate for the residents of a training centre to promote the proper resolution of issues relating to the care, treatment or control of the residents.’

The ability to make a complaint to an independent person, like an official visitor, is also one of the rights in the Charter of Rights for Youths Detained in Detention Centres.

In March, the TCVU released a report about its pilot visiting program and review of records. During the pilot, residents raised issue with the frequency of unclothed searches. By identifying these kinds of resident concerns and raising them with AYTC management and the Minister, external visitors can draw attention to degrading procedures as well as potentially preventing the issue from escalating. Readers may have seen a recent article in the Advertiser in which Penny Wright, the Training Centre Visitor, made it clear that she did not support the continuation of excessive and intrusive strip searching and methods such as ‘squat and cough’.

This preventative approach will be further refined following Australia’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT is an international agreement that’s main aim is to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention.

Australia has three years in which to fulfil its obligations and develop an independent National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) to comply with its obligation under OPCAT. The NPM conducts inspections of all closed spaces and places of detention. Australia joins 88 other countries as a party to OPCAT, 71 of which have designated their NPM.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been conducting consultations on how Australia should implement OPCAT.  The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also coordinating an assessment about how a ‘diffuse’ NPM model might operate across State and Territory jurisdictions.  At the moment it is unclear what Australia’s NPM will look like and what the involvement of existing monitoring bodies will be.

The TCVU will conduct its first formal inspection of the AYTC in the final quarter of this year. It will be informed by the work and information gained during the program of visits and reviews of records that have been implemented since mid-2018. This inspection process is being developed so it will be compliant with OPCAT requirements.

Around the world, jurisdictions similar to Australia are having success with models of juvenile rehabilitation that are radically different to those here. Much stronger independent oversight and monitoring will increase transparency and identify problems before they intensify. Success can also be measured by the way these programs challenge and force reconsideration of the largely penal model that dominates Australia’s thinking.

A new focus on family

By Guardian Penny Wright and Malcolm Downes

The State Government’s newly announced strategy An Intensive Support System for South Australia’s children and families promises a more sustained and holistic response to child protection by shifting the focus to families.  Under the strategy the Child and Family Assessment and Referral Networks (CFARNs), the Child Wellbeing Practitioner and Strong Start programs will be brought together in a new Intensive Support Unit to be formed in the Department for Human Services.

The family, in its many styles and structures, remains at the core of human society.  It is how we care for each other, a basic economic unit, a basis for our sense of who we are, a psychological comfort and a vehicle for raising our children.  It is also the site of some of our greatest problems, of violence, abuse and neglect.  Over generations it can perpetuate our noblest aspirations but also nurture our darkest failings.  For some families, problems with poverty, debt, unemployment, drug misuse, mental illness, family violence, insecure housing and contact with the justice system combine to create major barriers to the enjoyment of the relative wellbeing and wealth that our community has to offer.

Informed by the research commissioned on the back of the Nyland Royal Commission into the Child Protection System in SA, the Department’s planned Intensive Support Unit promises to focus squarely on the families with the most entrenched and challenging issues.  It aims to work with families to identify issues they face and coordinate the services and supports they need in sustained way.  In the past we have striven to ‘rehabilitate’ the individual young offender or ‘cure’ the person with a mental illness without regard for the social circumstances they came from and to which, in all likelihood, they will return.  The Department’s new strategy will refocus the bulk of the family support, domestic violence and children’s support services that it provides and contracts on these families.

‘Troubled Families’

The rationale and structure resembles the Troubled Families program that has been in place in the United Kingdom since 2012. The program recently released its National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015-2020: Findings Evaluation overview policy reportIn the UK program, intervention is based on a keyworker who builds an understanding of problems and of the individual family dynamics. They look at the totality of what’s going on and use what the report calls ‘a persistent and assertive approach establishing a relationship with the family and working closely with them to make sure the family resolve their problems’. The keyworker agrees on a plan with the family and local services so that interventions are sequenced and coordinated and there is a shared ownership of outcomes among service providers.

The evaluation report shows some headline gains including an almost one-third reduction in children being taken into care after a 19-24 month intervention and a one-quarter reduction in young people receiving custodial sentences.  The economic benefits and net budget savings modeled in the report make a strong argument for the UK Government to persist with the program.

We should anticipate that the South Australian strategy, like Troubled Families, will encounter some challenges as it is rolled out.  Services will need to adapt their practice, data collection and information sharing to a family-based way of working – and being funded.  We can look to the NDIS as an example of the difficulties a change of service and funding model can produce for clients and providers if not well managed, no matter how well intended. The shift to a payment-by-results model can produce distortions in the provision of services and a gaming of the system if not well-conceived and managed from the outset.

Aboriginal families

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new strategy will be how well it addresses the outcomes for Aboriginal families. The last Closing the Gap report confirmed that, after more than ten years of investment, we still struggle to provide services to the Aboriginal community that are culturally safe, trusted and effective.  If we shift the focus to families we will have to understand and embrace an Aboriginal concept of family which is very different in how it operates to the white European model on which much of our current system is based.  On top of that we will have to translate what words like ‘disadvantaged’, ‘troubled’, ‘struggling’, ‘complex’, and the many other policy terms governments use, mean to Aboriginal families. It will need to develop an understanding of how Aboriginal families define their needs and what success means to them.

To its credit, the new DHS strategy explicitly acknowledges the necessity for serious Aboriginal involvement in the design and governance of the new system and in the decisions that affect the lives of Aboriginal families and children.  Getting this right for Aboriginal families will be a touchstone for the success of the strategy as a whole and its ability to serve the very diverse set of groupings and relationships that we call ‘family’ in the 21st Century.

New resources help children and young people in residential care have a say

graphic from one of the having a say posters

New resources, available today, will give children and young people in residential care information about their right to make a complaint and be heard.

Developed by CREATE Foundation, in conjunction with Office of the Guardian, the resources provide information and tools to assist them raise issues that concern them.

Central to the new feedback process is the the Post Incident Reflection Form, developed with input from young people in residential care.

Also available is a set of posters, brochures and two videos which tell children and young people in residential care about their rights and ways to address issues.

The resources have been developed in response to a recommendation from Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s 2016 report The Life They Deserve.  Recommendation 136 from that report proposed that the Guardian’s Office develop an educational program for children and young people in residential care to explain and promote their rights and give them encouragement and the means necessary to have their voices heard.

The live action video shares the stories of young people who relate some of the incidents they faced while living in residential care. It also advises young people in care why it’s important to understand their rights.

For younger people, an animated video describes the Post Incident Reflection Form and how a child in care has the ability to make a complaint at any time.

If resolving an issue with residential care staff does not work, children and young people are encouraged to fill in a complaints form or phone the Complaints Unit directly on 1800 003 305.

Printable files of the posters can be downloaded now from the Resources page of the Guardian’s website and printed copies of the posters and booklets will be available to be ordered from that page in February.

Safety in residential care

graphic of residential care

When we take children[1] into the care of the state, a prime responsibility is their safety.

We have matched comments about safety given to the Office of the Guardian by children during our monitoring visits and advocacy with those from the December 2016 Royal Commission paper Safe and Sound.  There were overwhelming similarities.  In this article we blend the two sources to consider the questions ‘do children feel safe’, ‘when do they feel safe’ and ‘what would they suggest to make things safer?’

How safe do children feel in residential care?

Residents often feel unsafe in residential care. Bullying and harassment are common. Adolescents report that they are frequently worried by the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Older residents say that the impact of witnessing violence, self-harm and the abuse of fellow-residents, leaves them stressed and feeling unsafe.

Children generally think it is unlikely that they would be abused or harmed by a worker, although a small number report that they have encountered or heard about abusive staff. Some are concerned by the behaviours of ‘creepy adults’ and those who try to create inappropriate and overly-familiar relationships with them. Children assess how safe workers are based on their past experiences of abuse, by watching the adults’ behaviours and by how other residents act around them.

Many children describe residential care as feeling unsafe due to its instability and frequent changes of staff. Some relate times when they were moved to less safe residential care placements for no reason than that other young people could take their rooms.

A few adolescents report that adults outside of residential care take advantage of children in care, exploiting their need for a sense of belonging, accommodation and money. A few report that some children in residential care engage in prostitution.

When do children in residential care feel safe?

Children feel safe in a placement that is home-like and where young people feel welcome.  They like it where things feel ‘normal’ and where adults look out for them.

They want to see that organisations and workers take a resident’s safety seriously, that they are interested and take measures to protect them.

They feel safe when there are cordial relationships with their fellow-residents and workers, and that there are other supportive relationships, such as with a social worker or teacher, with people outside of the unit.

Really building relationships with kids works, because then they feel safer to come to you with pretty much any problem.  They’re not going to come to you with problems, even if it’s something as simple as being bullied, they’re not going to come talk to you if they think you don’t like them or don’t listen.

Safe and Sound, p 66

Stability and predictability are important.  Children need to know what is going to happen, and that any difficulties with fellow-residents can be resolved.  Routines, reasonable rules and an opportunity to have a say in decisions give them confidence and sense of control.

They believe that when they are safe, children and young people feel relaxed and calm and are less likely to be aggressive and to harm each other.

Younger residents tend to value security measures such as locks on doors, surveillance equipment and alarms.  In contrast, for older residents, these measures reinforce their sense that residential care is not home-like and is unsafe.

How could we make things safer?

Placements

Find more suitable care arrangements, particularly for those who are younger and more vulnerable and make better placement decisions that allow residents to have a say in how they are matched with other residents. Treat residential care as a long-term arrangement and make sure that changes are kept to a minimum.

Staffing

Train staff about the things that can harm children and their vulnerabilities, particularly their inexperience about sexual relationships and exploitation.  Have sufficient numbers of properly trained staff so that they have the time to develop relationships, are around and have the time to watch out for threats.

Cooperation

Train staff to take on parent-like responsibilities for protecting residents from harm.  Get staff to discuss with residents the risks and how to keep themselves safe. Get staff and residents to work together to identify safety risks and develop ways of dealing with them. Staff need to take the initiative in enquiring after residents’ safety because it is easier for staff to ask residents if they are being harmed rather than waiting for them to report it. Try to create an atmosphere where there are positive relationships between residents where young people can look out for each other.

Hearing the resident’s voice

Staff need to be prepared to listen when residents raise concerns and to be understanding and patient, even when the issues do not seem important at first.  Residents need to be informed that it is OK to raise an issue, what sorts of issues to raise and how to do it.  Make sure that it is safe to do so and that they will not suffer retribution.

A lot of the time it can feel like nothing happens [when an issues is raised] or it gets lost or stuck in the system… No matter what, [issues] should be followed up by someone and the young person should be kept in the loop with regular communication.

Young person in residential care

The Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme that is hosted in the Office of the Guardian is now well under way and we look forwards to presenting more of the views of children and the state of the system in future articles.

[1] We use the term ‘children’ to include children and young people up to the age of 18 years. We use terms such as ‘adolescent’ and ‘pre-teen’ to refer to specific age ranges within that group.

The Guardian’s Year in Review 2017-18

year in review cover

At June 2018 there were 3,695 children in out-of-home care and 3,402 on care and protection orders in South Australia. Many of those children will have thrived in stable, safe and loving placements. Supported by dedicated adults, many will have made the hard journey back from trauma and neglect, developing strong identities and building friendships. Some will have excelled at school, in sport, music or the arts.

However, it is also true that for many children our state continues to seriously fail its obligations as parent.

In the Year in Review 2017-18*, the Guardian considers some of the successes and the delays in the child protection reform process that still leave many children in less-than-ideal circumstances.  She looks at the slow transition to a system based on prevention and early intervention, to improvements in foster and kinship care services and to the ongoing problems challenging residential and emergency care.  Therapeutic care for all children as envisioned by Commissioner Nyland and significant progress in listening to the voices of children in care still seem some way off.

The Year in Review 2017-18 is now available for download.


*The Year in Review 2017-18 uses material originally published in the 2017-18 Annual Report

Security and stability of placement dominates requests for advocacy

picture of suitcase

The Guardian’s Office received a record 96 in-mandate[1] requests for advocacy in the first quarter of the new year, representing 127 children and young people.

This was an increase of 35 per cent in inquiries and a 24 percent increase in the number of children represented compared to the preceding quarter.

Last year the Office averaged 64 in-mandate requests per quarter.  This follows the trend of an increase in the number of requests for advocacy and in the complexity of the issues raised.

The top five people who initiated in-mandate requests in July-September 2018 were:

Adults in the child’s life                                  42

Children and young people themselves      33

Department for Child Protection staff          10

Health, education and youth justice              5

Non-government organisations                     3

The top five presenting issues (by inquiry)[2] were:

Stability and security of placement              29

Safety                                                                21

Participation in decision making                   18

Contact with significant others                      15

Appropriate care                                               24

These are also the top five issues identified in the Guardian’s 2017-18 Annual Report and substantially the same as those reported in previous years.

The 33 children and young people who requested advocacy directly were in the following care arrangements:

Residential care                                             16

Adelaide Youth Training Centre                     5

Relative care                                                    4

Foster care                                                       2

Commercial (emergency) care                       2

Unknown                                                          4

 

[1] The Guardian is mandated by legislation to promote the interests of children and young people below the age of 18 years who are living in out-of-home care.  Another 17 inquiries were determined to be not within the Guardian’s mandate and those callers were assisted to make contact with a more appropriate organisation.

[2] Young people often present with multiple, interrelated issues.  Presenting issues are counted as primary and secondary and these are added to achieve the numbers reported.

New way to challenge DCP decisions starts this October

SACAT signpost

Children and young people in care will soon be able to seek an external review of decisions made by the Department for Child Protection (DCP) as to their placement, care, education and health.

On 22 October, the final sections of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 will come into operation.

This means the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT) will have the power to review certain decisions made by the DCP.

SACAT is designed to be an easy to access, low cost and user-friendly method of resolving civil claims or disputes and seeking review of government decisions.

Most decisions (those made under Chapter 7 of the Act and excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able.  We discuss appeals about contact decisions below.

A child or young person must first request that DCP review the decision, and if they are not happy with DCP’s review, they can then apply for an review of that decision at SACAT. This application must be made within 28 days of receiving DCP’s review.  SACAT may grant an extension if they are satisfied that special circumstances exist.

The legislation also provides that in these proceedings,

…a child or young person to whom the proceedings relate must be given a reasonable opportunity to personally present to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal their views related to their ongoing care and protection.

SACAT plans to be flexible in order to to support a young person’s participation and comfort.  This might include taking their views off-site or separately and preventing contact and cross-examination by other parties.

SACAT will also be able to obtain information from DCP.  This will include information such as the young person’s current situation, any history of abuse or trauma and the availability of an advocate for the young person.

In the end, the SACAT has the power to affirm the DCP’s decision, vary the decision, make its own decision or send the matter back to the DCP for reconsideration.

This is new territory for SACAT and DCP so there will be considerable work taking place to ensure that this process is as child-friendly as possible, and to ensure that the voice of the child or young person is at the centre of the decision-making.

How this will play out for children and young people in practice depends how we address these and other issues.

Delays in resolving issues. Under the arrangements as they seem today, it is possible that several months could elapse between an unsuitable decision being made by DCP and that decision being reversed by SACAT.  Three months is a long time in the reality of a child in care.  Unsuitable decisions on placement, education and health could cause irreversible damage and disruption to a young person during that time.

Who is to be the child’s advocate? The review process is complex so it is likely that few reviews will be mounted by a young person without the support of an adult advocate.  Who will this be? The young person’s DCP social worker may lack the knowledge to advocate (as we have seen in some NDIS matters) or the will to oppose the views of colleagues and superiors. A child’s social worker could face a conflict of interest.

Other adults closely involved in the matter may not be able to separate their own emotional and material interests from those of the young person.  Advocacy support may come from a body such as the Office of the Guardian or by the appointment of a duty solicitor to act for the young person.

What about Aboriginal children and families? How well will the process be able to manage the language, location and cultural barriers that might discourage Aboriginal children and their advocates seeking a review and being able to represent their position effectively if they do?

What is a review-able decision? What if a young person or their advocate believes a decision falls within scope, but the DCP doesn’t? There is some guidance.  Decisions made under Chapter 7 of the Act (excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able. Section 84 of the Act sets out review-able decisions relating to the placement, care, education, and health of children and young people in care but deciding what is review-able may not be simple in practice.

Additionally, can a refusal to review be itself reviewed? Would this be referred to the DCP complaints unit, by appeal to the Ombudsman or by some other mechanism still to be devised?

Disputes over contact arrangements

Legislation recently passed through Parliament  which means that, from 22 October, children and young people will be able to apply to the Contact Arrangements Review Panel which can affirm, change, or set aside contact decisions.   The child or young person will have 14 days after the DCP’s decision to apply for review although there is provision for ‘special circumstances’ to extend that time. Right now, it is unclear if a decision made by the Contact Arrangements Review Panel can be appealed or reviewed.

For more information, check out the Internal reviews page on the DCP website and the SACAT website.  SACAT have told us that they expect to be developing more materials explaining the review process in the next few month.