Young people share cultural considerations in court project

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people continue to be overrepresented in South Australia’s youth justice system. In 2017-18, Aboriginal children and young people made up 66 per cent of the average daily 10 to 17 year olds in detention in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre. This is despite constituting less than five per cent of the state’s total population of children and young people.

In response to these concerning statistics, the Courts Administration Authority (CAA) called on Training Centre Advocate Travis Thomas and Advocate, Aboriginal Children Conrad Morris from the Office of the Guardian to assist with a project to interview Aboriginal young people about their experiences in the youth justice, child protection and courts systems.

Travis and Conrad were asked to identify young people that could be involved in the project. They then held an initial workshop to brief the young people on what the process would involve and what kind of questions they may be asked. This created a safe environment that allowed the young people to open up about their experiences.

Despite being initially surprised at being asked to participate, both young people were eager to get involved and share their stories.

Training Centre Advocate, Travis Thomas, behind the scenes of filming

Led by Justice Martin Hinton, this was part of a larger project that aims to bridge the gap in existing cultural awareness training for Judges and Magistrates. The project interviewed Aboriginal South Australians of different ages and from different mobs, including Stolen Generations. It aimed to draw on the experiences of Aboriginal people who have come into contact with the justice system and bring to life the findings of many reports published.

‘That would help us to overcome things like systemic racism and ethnocentrism, and to better understand what we needed to do to deliver justice to Aboriginal people appearing in our courts,’ Justice Hinton says.

The CAA wanted to speak with young people in care and custody because of the known correlation between care experience and imprisonment later in life.

One of the key things Justice Hinton took away from the project is the understanding that things started going wrong for the young people when they were removed from their family and community.

‘Being taken into care and into custody separates them from family, many family members are also in custody. The effect on culture, identity and self-esteem is devastating. They struggle to know who they are,’ Justice Hinton says.

Both young people shared pride in their Aboriginal heritage with one saying, ‘it’s good because it makes me feel like I belong somewhere. Not every person can say I belong to these people and everything like that.’

With maturity and conviction beyond their years, they shared their lived experience of the system and dealing with the intergenerational trauma they have experienced as young Aboriginal people.

Another take away from the project was that young people don’t feel like they’re being listened to when they’re in court.

‘Children and young people in particular can lose their voice in the systems—they are talked at, not too or with. This is a familiar experience within the court system where children and young people rely on their representative to talk for them,’ says Travis.

This was affirmed, with one of the young people saying, ‘sometimes when I’m in court I’ll tell my lawyer to say stuff, he says it but he doesn’t say it in the way that I want him to say it’ and ‘I never understand what they say in court. I always ask to speak to my lawyer after to tell me what happened… You’re just in and out and then you have to be like what just happened, I don’t know.’

The young people involved voiced their opinions on what cultural considerations the Judges and Magistrates need to think about when working with Aboriginal young people.

When asked what they think the Judges don’t understand about being Aboriginal, one of the young people replied, ‘they don’t understand us. They don’t take the time to talk to us properly or talk to people that know us. Like if the Judge sat there and talked to my Nana, I reckon they would think different about me.’

Justice Hinton acknowledges that this program is, of course, not a silver bullet. However, he hopes the understanding taken from project will have a knock-on effect on the profession and begin to filter back into society generally.

‘This project will be a step in the all too slow process of the change that must happen,’ he says.

When asked what they would change about the system, one young person said it would be to ‘employ people who’ve already been through law and that. They could come in and help. Like other Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, but still that’s been through the jail system. They would have a better understanding.’

Many others assisted the CAA and the Office of the Guardian in the project’s development and consultation. These included Steven Van Diermen from CAA, Shane Tongerie from Youth Justice and the Department of Child Protection for supporting the two young people to participate.

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.

 

Aboriginal children and young people in care and juvenile detention 2017-18

Aboriginal[1] children and young people are vastly over-represented in out-of-home care and the youth justice system. The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2019 (ROGS 2019) demonstrates that South Australia is no exception.

Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care

Aboriginal children make up a third (33 per cent) of children and young people in out-of-home care in South Australia. This is despite constituting less than five per cent of the state’s total population of children and young people.

Aboriginal children and young people represent 34 per cent of those in residential care, with the majority placed in foster and relative-kinship care.

As the number of Aboriginal children and young people entering care has increased, the percentage placed in accordance with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP) has fallen. ATSICPP seeks to place Aboriginal children (in order of priority) with their family or relatives, within their communities, with other Aboriginal people, or near their community. In 2018, 65 per cent were placed in accordance with the ATSICPP, down from 74.4 per cent in 2009.

At 30 June 2018, 31 per cent of Aboriginal children and young people had been in continuous out-of-home care for between two and five years. At the same time, 41 per cent had been in continuous care for five years or more, which is actually lower than the percentage of non-Aboriginal children and young people (46.7 per cent).

Aboriginal children and young people in youth justice

In 2017-18, Aboriginal children and young people comprised two-thirds (66 per cent) of the daily average of 10 to 17 year olds in detention. This is considerably greater than the national average of 57 per cent.

The number of Aboriginal girls and young women in detention is lower than Aboriginal males, but make up a high proportion of all girls and young women detained.

Spending on youth detention

Our analysis of ROGS 2019 finds South Australia’s spending per child on detention-based youth justice services has moved increasingly closer to the national average in recent years. In 2017-18, South Australia’s spending per child was $213.83, compared to the national average of $215.50. South Australia had the third lowest rate of expenditure per child when compared to other states and territories across the country.

Charts, statistics and more analysis in our Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal Children and Young People in Care and/or Detention from the Report on Government Services 2019, available for download below.


[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.

Aboriginal children and young people in care and detention

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The Guardian’s Newsletter – May 2019

Check out the May 2019 edition of the Guardian’s Newsletter:

  • young artists making a final contribution to the mural celebrating young people in state care
  • a new focus on family in child protection brings opportunities and challenges
  • a Charter of Rights for Children and Young People Detained in Training Centres
  • and more…


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.

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.

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.