How would you invest in child protection? – survey results

chart of survey results

Two weeks ago we asked our colleagues and friends to spend a hypothetical $100 to improve child protection in South Australia.  These were their top five choices:

#1 More early intervention and family support (29.6%)

The range of comment showed that this meant different things to different people.  Varying interpretations included using education and public campaigns to reduce unwanted pregnancies, decreasing the social isolation of parents, removing children from ‘failed’ mothers or families at birth and building the capacity of struggling families to become suitable parents.  Several respondents noted that supporting Aboriginal families entailed culturally suitable practice, engaging Aboriginal communities and the use of Aboriginal staff.

#2 More therapeutic placements for children in care (10.1%)

Trauma-informed care, therapeutic placements and related matters occurred very often in the comments.  Training in understanding a responding to trauma was proposed for foster and kinship carers, residential care workers, social workers and even management and policy makers.

#3 More effort to recruit foster carers and kinship carers (8.5%)

Good family-based care was noted as the best out-of-home care placement option by many respondents.  Poor remuneration, lack of support and bad treatment at the hands of DCP and NGO staff were cited as reasons why families did not take up fostering or did not return to it.  More rigorous selection, training and review for foster carers could improve the quality of foster care and make it a more attractive option for more people.

#4 More psychological services for children in care (8.3%)

Comments included many calls for much greater access to psychological services for children entering and during their time in care.  This was seen by some as a natural complement to therapeutic care.

#5 More child protection report investigators (8.2%)

Comment on this was limited and concerned mostly the conduct of investigations and the interface with the court system.  A report on the lack of response to child protection reports by the former Families SA was current at the time of the survey, which may have influenced responses.

Download the full report, including all comments, as a PDF.

The Youth Justice Administration Act 2016 – some devils in the detail

YJA Act graphic

The introduction of the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016 sought to consolidate the administration of youth justice and bring up to date with other relevant pieces of legislation to reflect best practice in youth justice.  It also established the role of Training Centre Visitor, now occupied by Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright.

Like much legislation, it is dense and detailed and, as is frequently the case, the devil is in the detail.

In this paper commissioned by the Child Development Council and the Guardian, Miranda Furness examines the legislation from the point of view of how it affects young people’s wellbeing and best interests, respect and dignity, vulnerability, care and cultural identity. She highlights simple inconsistencies, (what is a ‘youth’?) and significant omissions of definition (what is ‘wellbeing’ and what are ‘best interests?)  She considers how the Act relates to other legislation and to international instruments and draws implications for the work of the Child Development Council, the Training Centre Visitor and the Guardian.

You can read this concise and important paper on the Guardian’s website now.

How well did children in state care do in the state education system 2016-17?

In South Australia in 2017, 57 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in Department for Education (DE) schools.

The Guardian’s latest report Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2017, is now available.

The report explores how well the state school system is providing for children and young people in care.  It highlights a number of ongoing trends including:

  •  the proportion of children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools who identify as Aboriginal continues to be significantly higher than Aboriginal children and young people as a proportion of all children in DE schools (35.4 compared to 6.4 per cent in 2017).
  • there are lower rates of school absence for Aboriginal students in care compared to the overall population of Aboriginal students attending DE schools.
  • a greater proportion of all children and young people in care have learning disabilities compared to the overall DE student population, notably in speech and language skills.
  • the proportion of children and young people in care with an intellectual disability is nearly seven times, and those with a global developmental delay are almost five times that of the rate of disability in the overall DE student population.
  • children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools are more likely to be suspended or excluded than the broader DE school cohort.
  • students in care from non-English speaking backgrounds have an absence rate almost twice that of students from non-English speaking backgrounds who are not in care.
  • there are very high NAPLAN non-participation rates for students in care in DE schools. We know very little about the proficiency of almost half of Year 9 students, almost one-third of Year 3 students, one-quarter of Year 7 students, and just over one-fifth of Year 5 students in care enrolled in DE schools in 2017.
  • withdrawal rates from NAPLAN testing vary by year level and discipline but are significantly higher for children and young people in care compared to the broader DE student population.

Areas for attention

Data summarised in this report suggests further attention in some areas, including:

  • speech and language delays experienced by children before and on commencement of school
  • access to appropriate disability support services, for example in relation to intellectual disability (including a focus on whether and how the NDIS will contribute to the necessary support)
  • the evidence around the use of disciplinary measures such as school suspension and exclusion and options for alternatives, particularly for younger children
  • monitoring hours of attendance at school so that part-day absences and reduced-hours arrangements are reported and minimised
  • the experience of children and young people in care from non-English speaking backgrounds;
  • developing a better appreciation of the reasons for the high non-participation rate in NAPLAN testing and the implications this has for properly understanding the educational experience of children and young people in care.

You can read the full report on the Guardian’s website now.

Care leavers need our support beyond 18

photo of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

A few weeks ago my office conducted a poll about extending support for children in care.  Our readership[1] of 1700 overwhelmingly supported the extension of assistance to young people in state care beyond the current deadline of their 18th birthday[2].  Many cited the very poor outcomes for care leavers under the current regime and others pointed out that most young adults in South Australia continue to need, and receive, support from their birth families well into their twenties.

In the light of this, I was very pleased when the Government announced its intention to fulfil an election promise to extend financial support for foster and relative-care families to allow young people exiting care to stay on in those placements.  There is no doubt that providing stability for those young people will make it more likely that they will be able to complete their education and make a more gradual and individualised transition into employment and housing.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that around ten percent of young people in care will not benefit from these changes. These are the approximately 500 young people who do not live in a family-based care but live in emergency or residential care accommodation. Sometimes they have not been able to be placed in a family because a suitable match is not available but, more commonly, there are simply not enough home-based placements to meet the need.

The experience of young people in residential care varies greatly.  Some live in smaller residential care properties which provide a more family-like environment, with a stable group of residents and a supportive and familiar team of carers creating a nurturing home.  For others, especially those in the larger buildings housing eight to twelve residents, their experience is one of instability, tension and danger where residents with a variety of needs are placed quite randomly, and frequently express their unhappiness by running away. These risks and conditions were clearly identified in Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s 2016 report, The Life They Deserve.

Children who have lived in residential care often have particularly pressing needs beyond the age of 18, reflecting the challenges they experienced before coming into care, and the acknowledged risks inherent in residential care environments. Trauma can delay development and affect a person’s ability to function fully and successfully. A number may be ‘technically’ 18 but significantly ‘younger’ in their understanding and maturity and ability to negotiate a complex world beyond the care system.

So, what kind of support can be built for these young people beyond their 18th birthdays?

Often children in residential care approach their 18th birthday with a mixture of excitement about their new independence and high anxiety about how they will manage outside a system they have relied on.

Just like young people in foster care, some young people in residential care would definitely benefit from being able to continue in the only home they know until they are 21, supported by workers with whom they have trusting and supportive relationships until they are mature enough to live independently. Many others would choose to leave, either because their experience has not been a safe or pleasant one or to escape the stigma of being in care or just to spread their wings.

Allowing young people to stay on beyond their 18th birthday, in a similar way to those in family-based care, would not be straightforward.   In residential care houses staff might find that accommodating the needs of adult late-teens at the same time as providing a safe and appropriate environment for younger children is challenging.

Fortunately, other jurisdictions and other services have models and lessons that can be learned.  In the UK, care leavers have the option of services from their local authority and a ‘personal adviser’ til age 25. For residential care leavers this Foyer model of transitional youth accommodation combined with support services would make an excellent starting point.  There is one operating today in Port Adelaide[3].  I expect colleagues in child protection could point me to a dozen other models that could be part of a solution, too.

The funding to support foster and kinship care beyond 18 is a welcome initiative and will provide significant benefits for young people who are comfortable in stable placements.  For those who choose to leave family-based care or for those in residential care who do not have this option the needs identified by our poll respondents remain un-addressed.

I will seek opportunities to engage with the government and other individuals and services in our community to ensure that the post-18 needs of young people in residential care are not underestimated or overlooked.

[1] Current subscribers to the Guardian’s Information Service.

[2] Should we extend the age of leaving state care beyond 18?

[3]Ladder Port Adelaide Foyer

Programs for young people should be evaluated – by them

a group of young people at the Royal Commission consultation
An interview with Isabella Daziani from the Department for Child Protection Evaluation Unit

‘In evaluating programs for young people, we think it is fundamental to start with the young people themselves’, says Isabella.
‘If we really want to improve services for young people we must recognise they are the foremost experts in their lives – they know what is working for them and what isn’t.
‘And it must be done genuinely, more than a quick tick and flick to check off the “young people consulted” box.
‘But achieving a genuine, respectful and useful dialogue with young people is not always easy and can be made difficult by the circumstances of the young people. They have a lot of adults coming in and out of their lives and some are understandably reluctant and distrustful of yet another nosey adult. Others may have psychological, intellectual or physical disabilities that we need to acknowledge, and provide them with opportunity to contribute.
‘Some young people may be suspicious of the motives of adults or jaded by consultations that take up their time but produce no follow-up and no change.
‘To talk to young people, you may also need to navigate the attitudes of the adults who care for them. Some adults genuinely believe that young people should be protected from discussing challenging issues. Some believe that only adults can understand and legitimately speak on issues for young people.
‘We have found that many young people are very aware of their circumstances and capable of expressing their insights to a degree that would surprise many adults. They are the experts in their own lives. The young people we have spoken to always surprise and delight us with their insights and their directness.

This is part of a longer interview which includes the views of young people, Isabella’s top tips for consulting and some further reading.

Download the full version of Programs for young people should be evaluated – by them

The quality and comprehensiveness of child protection practice frameworks in Australia

ACCG Frameowkrs report front page image

One of the key reforms in child protection in Australia recently has been the adoption of overarching child protection frameworks to ensure that practitioners have suitable training and competencies and that models of practice and tools are clearly defined and based on evidence.

So far, these reforms have not produced the expected results, with an increase in the rate of children on substantiated notifications, care and protection orders and in out-of-home care.  It is for this reason, the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) commissioned academics at the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia to examine current frameworks in Australia.

The intention was:

…to develop a benchmarking tool identifying the key components of child protection practice frameworks and a procedure for assessing the extent to which the approach within each component reflects good practice based on best available evidence. (1)

The report provides a concerning picture of the state of child protection frameworks as a whole. The researchers analysed 12 frameworks, including some from South Australia, and identified four significant gaps and limitations:

  1. Inconsistency and lack of child focus so that outcomes tended to emphasise parental and practitioner satisfaction, or decreasing expenditure.
  2. Lack of guidance as to what practitioner skills, knowledge or experience might produce better child protection practice.
  3. Little guidance on the models, techniques and tools needed for each aspect of child protection practice.
  4. Lack of an evidence base for the frameworks being used or, in some cases, evidence that indicated that the frameworks used were actually producing negative or contrary outcomes.

The review indicates that further work is clearly needed, including a bench marking tool and quality assurance procedure to assist with framework selection and development.

(1) Assessing the Quality and Comprehensiveness of Child Protection Practice Frameworks is now available on the Guardian’s website.


Community visitor programs – what we can learn from Oakden

[Oakden residents] lacked any voice themselves. They were entirely dependent upon others for their care and their safety”. – Commissioner Lander, p190 1

There are many lessons to be learned from the report by Commissioner Bruce Lander QC on the events at the Oakden nursing home, many of which can be applied to other facilities in our state.

Residents of the Oakden facility should have been protected from abuse and mistreatment by layers of overlapping protections which were the the domains of many different people at different levels of government, administration and service provision.

They, their families and the community, would have expected government and senior departmental officers to provide adequate resourcing and oversight and to have policies and procedures in place to ensure suitable levels of care, management and supervision. The training and professional standards of the staff working there should have provided another level of protection. Effective complaints procedures for residents and concerned others should have provided additional safeguards as should have accreditation inspections by external bodies.

Finally, the residents of Oakden relied on community visitors to bring an independent and critical eye to the conditions they experienced.

Commissioner Lander set out in forensic detail how each of these layers of protection failed and his report sounds a warning for any organisation that provides care for vulnerable people in a closed or secure environment.  Regarding the operation of the relevant community visitor scheme (CVS) –

…consideration needs to be given as to whether the CVS in its current form is an appropriate safeguard for those suffering mental illness who are housed or treated in treatment centres, limited treatment centres, or authorised community mental health facilities. [p307]

Commissioner Lander’s critique of aspects of community visiting at Oakden raised questions for all such schemes, not just those visiting mental health services. The Guardian’s Office is currently in the process of establishing two separate community visitor schemes, so the issues he described are instructive as we attempt to craft models for the protection and wellbeing of young people in residential care and in youth detention. These are some of the issues.

Should schemes use volunteers or paid visitors?

Volunteers are assumed to bring into the institution expectations and standards reflecting those of the broader community. Because volunteers are not paid, that could potentially mean larger numbers of visitors within a given budget allowing more frequent visits.  But is it reasonable to expect volunteers to accept the rigorous selection process, training and complex tasks required of a visitor? Commissioner Lander noted that some visitors to Oakden may not have had the necessary skills and support to identify problems, report them and intervene on behalf of residents. He favours a model in which visitors are paid, comprehensively trained, and operate within a rigorous model that has sound documentation and effective accountability mechanisms…


This is the first part of a longer paper which goes on to consider the use of volunteers as visitors, the concept of visiting versus inspection, unannounced visits, visitor independence and the place and value of visitor programs. For the full version, download Community visitor programs – what we can learn from Oakden.

1 Oakden: A shameful chapter in South Australia’s history.

Working together for children in care

photo of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

When the state takes over the parenting of a child, that parent has many faces, many hands and, hopefully, many hearts.

Pointing the way to a new and better child protection system, Commissioner Margaret Nyland wrote in her preface to The Life They Deserve

The new agency cannot operate in isolation. It should coordinate and collaborate with all other relevant departments and organisations, both government and non-government, to give children better outcomes.  It must also be proactive and engage the community to play its part in developing programs and systems…

Many of the good things we see happening for children in state care, and we do see many good things happening in our work, happen when the hearts and the hands of adults come together to recognise and understand a child’s needs and stay together to work through to a good outcome.  The joy for the child, but also for the adults, is palpable.  It is one of the reasons we do the work we do.

Sadly, some of the worst results we see for children are when people and organisations fail to work together closely and respectfully in the child’s interests.

Our recent survey of the state of cooperation and collaboration in child protection asked respondents to rate levels of cooperation and collaboration.   We chose 19 different relationships drawn from those identified in the work of Commissioner Nyland as being crucial to an effective child protection system.  In analysing the results, we applied the standard that cooperation and collaboration should occur either ‘frequently’ or ‘always’.  By that standard only one of those critical relationships was scored as achieving a pass mark by 30 percent of the respondents.  Most of the others were scored much lower and many were in single figures.   There were two areas that had improved since an identical survey conducted in June 2017 but it’s fair to say the improvements were small and were from a very low base.  Allowing for the limitations of the survey, it is clear that respondents thought that we are still far short of Commissioner Nyland’s ideal.

Just as useful for me, were many of the comments.  There were a few heartening stories of good and effective cooperation but there were many more of key stakeholders being omitted from case planning and decision making and important information remaining unshared.  Many attributed the failures to workload issues but others referred to organisational culture, policy and training.

My office observed a sample of the Annual Reviews of young people in state care over a period of ten years to 2017.  Annual reviews have been long mandated in the Department for Child Protection, and its earlier incarnations, in order to review the situation of each child and young person in state care.  It is a time to reflect and review and plan for the child’s future outside of the day to day pressures. It is a time to place a child at the very centre of thinking and caring. Annual Reviews occurred for up to 80 per cent of children in care in most years but attendance at the planning sessions by other than social workers and supervisors was rare.  In our report Office of the Guardian Audits of Annual Reviews 2007- 2017 we summarised:

Most offices have, over the 10 years of these audits, conducted annual reviews with only Department staff present with carers represented occasionally and birth parents and other professionals very much the exception.

If, as Margaret Nyland concluded, cooperation and collaboration are essential to an effective child protection system then major cultural and practice change is essential.  I look forward to supporting and contributing to such relationships, as my office grows into its new roles.

Aboriginal children and young people in care and juvenile detention 2016-17

The proportion of Aboriginal children not placed according to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle has continued to rise.

South Australia’s Aboriginal1 children and young people are vastly over-represented in in state care and in detention centres, according to the Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2018 (ROGS 2018) and the trends are not positive.

The ROGS 2018 data on child protection showed that at 30 June 2017, Aboriginal children and young people comprised 33 per cent of all of those on care and protection orders and were 7.3 times as likely to be in out-of-home care as non-Aboriginal young people. In 2010-11 Aboriginal children and young people were 6.1 times as likely to be in care.

The proportion of Aboriginal young people placed according to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (i.e. with kin, within their community or with Aboriginal families), has been declining in recent years from 76.4 per cent in 2009 to 62.5 per cent in 2017, below the national average of 67.6 per cent. (See the chart at the head of this story.)

Though comprising 33 per cent of children and young people in care, Aboriginal children and young people comprised 38 percent of the population in residential care.

The ROGS 2018 data on youth justice services showed that in 2015-16, 58 per cent of the population of 10-17 year olds in youth detention were Aboriginal and that proportion has been growing in recent years. South Australia had significantly higher rates of detention of Aboriginal children and young people than the Australian average.

We present more data and charts about this subject from ROGS 2017 in the Guardian’s Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People in Care and/or Youth Detention from the Report on Government Services 2016-17.

Download the Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People in Care and/or Youth Detention from the Report on Government Services 2016-17 now.

1 Aboriginal community preference in South Australia is that the term Aboriginal is inclusive of Torres Strait Islander people, a usage we generally adopt in our reports