A nest-egg for young people leaving care

picture of Pam Simmons

Guardian Pam Simmons

A young woman we have been working with on a project here at the Office of the Guardian is setting up house, for the second time.  The first attempt didn’t work out and she lost most of the few household goods she had bought. The Transition to Independent Living Allowance of $1500 was spent the first time around. She is 19 and she has no family to help with even a fridge or a bed, some basic furniture and a few creature comforts.  She is determined though and without a trace of self-pity.

Children’s Trust Funds (CTF) were launched in the UK in 2005 for all children, although since replaced by Junior Individual Savings Accounts.  A CTF was a long-term, tax-free savings account which the government contributed to with a modest grant at birth but with a little more for children from low-income families.  Top-up payments were made at some birthdays and with more for those in low-income families. The funds accumulate and mature on their 18th birthday.

A great deal has been learnt about individual trust funds. Contrary to their equalising purpose they can further entrench inequality because parents on higher incomes are more likely to contribute funds and to assist with wise financial decisions post-18.  Also, young people who struggled with learning may have benefited from financial support before they turned 17.

With these lessons in mind it is an idea worth exploring further, at least for children in care if not for all children.  It could work something like this.  On the granting of a long-term care and protection order an account is opened with a deposit equivalent to the amount the child would have received from birth and then topped up each year. An additional lump sum is deposited at 16 years to assist with leaving care costs.  A limited amount can be withdrawn before 18 for educational purposes.  It could be matched dollar for dollar between Commonwealth and State governments.  Financial management skills and assistance would be part of the package.

In South Australia this would be supplemented by the Dame Roma Mitchell Trust Fund for Children and Young People, which provides small grants to children and young people who are or who have recently been in care.   This Fund has made a difference to the opportunities young people have for educational attainment and in developing skills and interests.  It goes some way to narrow the gap between what the state department can provide and what many other young people get from parents.

What we have in place for young people leaving care is inadequate and a trust fund would only be a small part of the answer, but it could even things up a little among young people who get ongoing family support and those who do not.

What if the young woman I mentioned at the start had a small fund of her own to draw on so that she could furnish her room and pay for her driving lessons which would mean she could safely get home at midnight from the hotel job she was almost offered?  Such a fund could transform her new venture into homemaking from a time of anxiety into an empowering adventure with an increased chance of success.


The importance of contact with siblings

Pam Simmons Guardian

I write this letter fresh from the joy of spending Christmas and New Year with family. This followed the release in mid-December of the report of our inquiry into the significance of siblings and contact with siblings when children are in care.  The link between the two was not lost on me and I thought hard about the ‘what ifs?’.  What if I had not grown up in the same house, if we had not fought each other for mum’s attention, if we had not stood by each other when things got tough, if we had not loved each other?

There are significant obstacles to children and young people in care enjoying the same close relationships with their siblings.  They are often separated in their early years and sometimes live at some distance from each other.

The findings from the inquiry though supported the common belief that most children benefit from contact with their siblings.  Beyond this, it gets far more complicated for those who are trying to do the right thing by children in care.

Common definitions of siblings may not apply because children can include both biological and foster relationships in their idea of family.  They may be situation and time-dependent, such that the child has a brother now but he may not be a brother in five years time when they no longer live under the same roof.  Aboriginal definitions of sibling relationships are likely to include children of maternal aunts and paternal uncles.

We found that children have clear preferences and insights about contact.  They hold views about each brother and sister, rather than the group as a whole.  Problems arise when two siblings have different views about the amount of time they want to spend with each other.

Children want face-to-face contact. Telephone or social media contact does not substitute. But children also want the contact to be natural and fun, relaxed and free from tension.The success of sibling contact partly depends on the insight and support of the adult carers and social workers.

The inquiry was enlightening and moving, with heartening stories of close bonds between siblings, assisted by carers and social workers, and some stories of heartache and loss.  The case file evidence demonstrated how difficult it can be for social workers to manage expectations but also how parental access arrangements overshadow contact among brothers and sisters.
The inquiry concluded with seven recommendations for change to policy and practice which would give greater emphasis to listening to children and balancing their needs with adults’ needs.
As one young person interviewed for the inquiry said, ‘She’s my sister and she will always mean something to me.’

You can download the full report

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or a summary of the main findings and recommendations in PDF.

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Charter of Rights gets legal status

Pam Simmons Guardian

In late 2009 the Children’s Protection Amendment Bill passed both Houses of Parliament. Most of the attention leading up to this had understandably been on the extension of child safety practices to a wider range of organisations.

In one relatively small part of the amendment bill something important to children in care passed into law, that is that there will be a Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care. The Charter has served us well in promoting rights and raising awareness of needs but it has not, until now, been required by law.

Mentored and led by experienced Youth Parliamentarian David Wilkins, they sat up late into the night preparing their arguments. They presented their Bill to the two Houses of Youth Parliament and won overwhelming support for it. They met with the Minister to argue their case. And just three years on they have made history.

Thank you David Wilkins, Mellita Kimber, Bryston Scarsbrook, Jessica Parker, Nathanael Jefferies, Casey Sheppard, Ed King and Bianca North. You have done good.

Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia

It is widely acknowledged that children and young people under guardianship are highly disadvantaged in achieving a good education. This does not mean they are not capable, nor that individual educators and carers do not support them. It does mean that we can do more to overcome the significant obstacles the students face with recovering from trauma, changing schools, and early neglect.

In February 2007 we commenced an investigation into improving educational outcomes for students in care. The Office engaged Ms Julie White and Ms Helen Lindstrom to investigate what was available now for children in care and prepare an ‘ideas’ report on additional action required to improve children’s experience of school and learning. In the subsequent months they conducted a review of the literature in Australia and overseas, summarised the strategies currently in place in this state, interviewed children and young people under guardianship or formerly under guardianship and interviewed a range of stakeholders.

Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia and a summary of Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia can be downloaded as  PDF files.

Download the Summary Report here.

Download the Full Report here.