Staying connected in the face of COVID-19

We are facing unprecedented times as the reality of COVID-19 begins to change the way we live our lives.

In our office, we are thinking carefully about the implications for the children and young people we work for, and the way we can carry out our work.

The need to limit contact with others and, in some cases, self-isolate is now becoming clear.

But while the concept of ‘social distancing’ may sound simple, we know that it will pose real risks for many vulnerable people in our community, not least children and young people in care and those who are in youth detention. Connection and belonging, human touch and social relationships are crucial for all people to thrive.

For hundreds of children and young people living in residential and commercial care and the youth detention centre, there is the risk that ‘social distancing’ will have mental health impacts. Many already experience a lack of connection to family and community, and there is a possibility that the intense period we are currently experiencing will only magnify this. It is important that we all stay connected and look out for these vulnerable young people as much as possible. That may mean an extra phone call to see how they are doing or looking to provide more positive experiences within the facility.

Our office is in the process of consulting with DCP and Youth Justice about the arrangements they are making, guided by the advice of the Health Department, to manage the health needs and wellbeing of residents. We don’t underestimate the difficulties involved in responding to requirements for quarantine, isolation and social distancing – and understand that these will all be difficult to achieve and maintain, given the close proximity in which the residents live and the nature of rostered staffing. More than ever, DCP staff and those in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre will be called on to carry out work that is essential for protecting and supporting the children and young people in their care. We are grateful for their service at a time of such challenge.

What is our office doing?

At a time like this, when big systems have to swing into action, it is even more important that the needs and interests of the smallest players are not swept aside. Our main priority is to ensure we maintain contact with children and young people who need our support and advocacy.

We know that face-to-face contact is important, if it can be done safely, and visiting children and young people can be a vital way to safeguard their interests and hear from them directly. We will be guided by health advice but will work hard to maintain this contact while it is possible.

We are also actively developing alternatives such as video conferencing and video calls so we can ensure a presence and connection for the children we work for.

Many of our staff will be working from home until further notice but we will still be contactable by phone on 8226 8570, 1800 275 664 (freecall for children and young people only) or email. If you or a young person want to meet with us in our office please call ahead to see if we can accommodate this.

Talking to children and young people about COVID-19

These are stressful times for everyone, particularly for children and young people who may not understand the magnitude of the virus and the need to distance themselves from others. They may experience disruption or changes they don’t understand, feel scared that they will get sick or worry about others they care about.

There are many resources available that we can use to start the conversation with children and young people about how they are feeling.

What we can all do to reduce the spread of infection

We can help to reduce the spread of infection by practising good hygiene and avoiding non-essential contact with others. This is particularly important if we are visiting a residential care facility or the detention centre where self-isolation is harder to maintain.

We must remember to:

  • wash our hands regularly
  • keep a 1.5 metre distance from others
  • avoid large gatherings
  • stay home if we are sick or if we have been in contact with someone who is
  • notify a child’s case worker if a child or young person in our care requires testing of COVID-19. If a child or young person who lives in residential care or youth detention tests positive they will be admitted to hospital for isolation.

Get the latest updates on COVID-19

For the latest updates on COVID-19 go to www.health.gov.au.

Cultural training project gives young people their voice


Martin Hinton and Travis Thomas

Last week our office celebrated the work of two young people who shared their experiences across the courts, child protection and youth justice systems to better educate Judges and Magistrates when dealing with Aboriginal people who appear before the courts.

The video, featuring the young people who were previously detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre, is part of a bigger project from the Courts Administration Authority (led by Martin Hinton, Director Public Prosecution, formerly Justice Hinton) to improve existing cultural awareness training for Judges and Magistrates. This video aims to provide an insight into what life is like for these young Aboriginal people and the role the courts can play in ensuring their voices are heard.

While only one young person was able to attend our celebration, we wanted to acknowledge both of the amazing young people who were willing to share their stories for this project and tell the courts what they wanted to see changed.

Training Centre Advocate, Travis Thomas, and Advocate, Aboriginal Children, Conrad Morris, supported the young people in the lead-up to and throughout the project.

Conrad noted the planning and workshop that was held prior to the filming was essential in providing the young people with a safe space where they were confident to share their voice. The footage of the two young people was shot in just one take which is a mighty impressive effort!

At our afternoon tea celebration, Martin said he was impressed by all the work Conrad and Travis had done to help pull this video together. He also said how proud he was of the two young people, and how brave they were in sharing their stories.

“If the young people don’t stand up for themselves, then we [Judges and Magistrates] can’t get better,” Martin said.

“That’s the reason I did it [to change the mindset of the courts],” the young person said. The young person called for Judges to ‘listen to what we have to say’ and ‘give us more opportunity to do the right thing’.

The young person also told us that since the making of the video ‘the judge actually talked to me’ when they were last in court.

For privacy reasons, we are unable to share the video but we expect and hope the flow-on effects of the project will be evident when the voices of young people are more vigorously sought and heard during court processes.

Call to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility

boy leaping in the air

Across Australia a child as young as 10 can be locked up in detention for breaking the law. Time in detention is meant to ‘teach them a lesson’ and to change their criminal behaviours, but all the evidence tells us detention does nothing to deter the child from committing future crimes. In fact, the younger the child is to have contact with youth justice, the higher the chances they have of further offending and starting on the path to a life-long involvement in the criminal justice system.

Last financial year, 51 individual children and young people aged between 10 and 13 were admitted to the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC). They were admitted a total of 131 times, meaning that on average, each was detained at the centre more than twice. It is important to note most children held in the AYTC have not even been convicted of committing a crime.

This raises a significant concern that these young children are not getting the right support they need to address their offending behaviours, both in detention and out in the community. Studies show that to help rehabilitate these young children they need access to family, culture, education, support for individual disabilities, and opportunities to promote healing from past trauma that many of this cohort have experienced.

There is a growing momentum in Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. This is supported by the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians and backed up by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child who late last year called for Australia to raise the minimum age. The just released documentary, In My Blood It Runs, is also calling for change.

The Council of Attorneys General has set up a working group looking into the age of criminal responsibility. Last month our office provided feedback into the review, urging the working group to raise the minimum age to 14 as we believe the current practices do not provide the best outcomes for these vulnerable and disadvantaged young children.

Outlined in our submission we stated that the number of children detained disproportionately affects Aboriginal children (for example, in SA during 2017-18, there were 37 Aboriginal 10-13 year olds detained compared to 17 non-Aboriginal 10-13 year olds).

Children with a disability and those in care also made up a disproportionate number of children detained. We know that in 2017-18, almost a quarter of those detained in the AYTC were in care at the time of their admission. What we don’t know is how many of those young people come from a residential or commercial care environment – this is something we will address in our next dual status paper (to be out in the coming months).

In the meantime, we are urging change to protect the rights of these vulnerable young children and to prevent them from entering the youth justice system in the first place.

You can read our full submission to the working group.

The future of the Child and Young Person’s visitor scheme

In 2016 Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland made it clear there were serious concerns and risks for the many children and young people living in residential and emergency care in South Australia.

Nyland recommended a community visitor scheme for children in all residential and emergency care facilities to be developed to address these concerns, and so the Child and Young Person’s trial visitor program was born.

Over the two-year trial period we worked towards developing, implementing and reviewing the scheme and how it would work. We visited 99 children and young people (aged from 2-17 years) across 24 individual facilities managed by the Department for Child Protection – some of these facilities we visited several times.

In addition, we conducted serveral group discussions with young people who live or have lived in residential care to find out what life is like for them and how the visiting program would work, as well as what being safe in residential care means.

A big challenge we faced with mapping out the program was the lack of evidence based learnings from similar children and young people visiting schemes, so we spent some time considering the purpose of the scheme, the nature and frequency of visits, the criteria for determining which children, or facilities, should be visited and the expertise required of the visiting advocates.

Ultimately, based on our research and hearing the voices of children and young people, we determined the primary purpose of the scheme was to enhance the safety of the children and young people living in the facilities visited.

Reflections of the trial program

Here are just a few of our reflections from the trial program:

  • The visiting program needs to be flexible and responsive to the needs of individual children and their varying backgrounds and situations.
  • Qualified advocates, including those with training and experience for children and young people living with a disability, would be needed to prepare, carry out the visits and provide post-visit reports and follow ups.
  • Visits were most successful when children and young people were prepared and informed about the role of the program and the advocates.
  • Regular and relatively frequent visits were needed to build connections and trust between the young people and the advocates.

Recommendations

Throughout the trial we presented the Department for Child Protection (DCP) with many recommendations regarding the facilities and residents we visited to address safety issues, individual resident needs, improvements to facilities, support for staff and for staff competencies and training.

The recommendations also addressed systemic issues that affected the residents (particularly those living in the larger units) concerning placement planning and decision making, staff responsiveness for children and young people with disabilities, and the quality, training and management of staff within these facilities.

At the end of the trial program we provided the department with 14 overall recommendations about what the scheme should look like, including, but not limited to:

  • ensuring the scheme’s purpose and principles are clear
  • focusing both on the ‘rights’ and the ‘best interests’ of children and young people, rather than one or the other
  • ensuring facility staff promote and facilitate visits to the facilities
  • allocating sufficient funding for the recruitment of qualified and trained advocates – especially those with experience working with children and young people with a disability – to undertake both pre- and post-visit tasks as well as visits themselves
  • recruiting an appropriate number of Aboriginal staff that reflects the proportion of Aboriginal children in residential and commercial care
  • amending the legislation to provide the Child and Young Person Visitor’s role with the same powers as the roles of the Guardian and the Training Centre Visitor.

In conclusion

Four years on from Commissioner Nyland’s report, the concerns and risks for these young people remain. Our office continues to receive a significant and increasing number of advocacy matters from young people living in residential care who are concerned about their safety, placement matching and their lack of connection to family and culture.

There are now more than 180 residential care facilities in South Australia, and it is evident this form of care is not going away any time soon.

The trial scheme has ended and we are currently awaiting a final decision as to whether funding and support will enable the establishment of a formal visiting scheme in the future.

You can download the final report.

Celebrating Care Day

Today is international Care Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of children and young people with a care experience and helping to break the stigma around being in care.

We sat down with Guardian Penny Wright to talk about the importance of the day and what she hopes to see for the future of children and young people in care.

Happy Care Day!

 

Investigation calls for review of isolation practices in Adelaide Youth Training Centre

A troubling new report into the treatment of two young people in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC) has highlighted the need for Youth Justice to review their use of isolation and how they offer rehabilitation for the young people detained in the centre.

The latest Ombudsman SA report which was released early this week has criticised the Department of Human Services (formerly Department for Communities and Social Inclusion) for its treatment of two young people in the AYTC by subjecting them to inhumane treatment, including extended periods of isolation and solitary confinement as a form of punishment for their behaviour.

In 2017, based on concerns shared by our office, the Ombudsman investigated the treatment of the young males (both 17 at the time) who were confined to their cells for more than 22 hours per day. The young people were not provided sufficient access to exercise, education, contact with family and experienced a lack of cultural recognition and support.

Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright has expressed her great concern these practices occurred and says that these are not isolated examples of the inappropriate use of seclusion and isolation.

“Isolation and segregation can be very, very damaging – especially to young people who have already experienced trauma in their lives – that’s why there are serious restrictions on these practices.”

“As the Ombudsman noted, rather than this particular segregation always being a response to the young people’s behaviours, their poor behaviour was often actually due to long periods of isolation.”

The Ombudsman referred to the views of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry that-

“Punitive approaches to the management of youth justice services… are unlikely to resolve the behavioural issues of detainees; instead, they serve to reinforce the sense of mistrust experienced by many children and young people in custody. Without a trauma informed approach to the management of youth justice centre, at-risk children and young people will continue to face significant obstacles in their paths to recovery and rehabilitation, and staff in youth detention centre will continue to face significant difficulties in managing children and young people in their care.”

According to the Ombudsman, “A functioning youth justice system should not cause the young person further harm or contribute to their reoffending. The system should not do any harm to a young person and young people should leave the youth justice system in a better life position than when they entered it. In my view, the youth justice system failed [these two young people].”

The investigation concluded the treatment of the two young people was ‘unreasonable, wrong, oppressive, unjust and contrary to law’. The Ombudsman made 20 recommendations, all of which the Department of Human Services has accepted.

Penny acknowledges the department has made some improvements since these events in 2017 and has agreed to make further changes.

“I do think Youth Justice has a new willingness to look carefully at their practices and make real changes,” Penny said.

“We know of a number of young people with complex needs in AYTC today who will benefit if the department acts on these recommendations swiftly. As part of my role as Training Centre Visitor, my staff and I will be monitoring the extent to which the reforms are taken up.”

What does being safe mean in residential care?

As part of the Child and Young Person Visitor trial program we asked a group of young people who used to live in residential care what being safe in residential care means to them. Their answers were both expected and surprising.

Together with Relationships Australia South Australia we sat down with these young care leavers to get a better understanding about what young people think constitutes being safe in residential care and how the role of the Child and Young Person Visitor scheme could help in recognising and responding to safety issues.

We discovered that being safe doesn’t just mean living in an environment free from physical harm, but it also means being supported by a network of people who accept you for who you are and help you overcome the challenges that life brings. Trust and feeling in control of your life was also a strong driver in feeling safe.

The findings from what the young people told us were summarised in the Safety in Residential Care report and fell into three distinct themes.

Stability and security

Young people said being safe is not being re-traumatised by sudden changes, unexpected situations or stressful environments. It is knowing what is going to happen in your life, having routines and habits, and having strong and consistent relationships.

“Knowing who will be in the house, kids and workers. And knowing how long you’ll be somewhere.” – Young care leaver, when asked about what safety is. 

Belonging and support

Young care leavers discussed being safe as a sense of belonging to a group, community and/or culture. It meant being welcome, loved and supported, being included, cared for, consoled and celebrated. They said having a comforting and comfortable, personal and homely environment plays an important role in this.

“Carers who actually care.”  – Young care leaver, asked what would have made them feel safer in residential care.

Trust and ownership

According to young care leavers, being safe is being respected and trusted by those who care for them; and having a reasonable degree of freedom and a say in decisions that affect them. This leads to a sense of ownership over their lives and a greater feeling of empowerment, as well as a greater degree of independence and resilience.

“Having a say. Having input. Having control over your life and environment.”  – Young care leaver.

How can the visitor scheme recognise and respond to issues in a residential care facility? 

The young people we spoke to shared a number of ways the visitor scheme could work in recognising and responding to safety issues in residential care facilities.

The visiting advocate should:

  • educate the young people about their rights and where to get help if they need it
  • visit a facility regularly and by the same advocate each time
  • look at the facility itself, how it looks, whether it is maintained, how comfortable and ‘homely’ it is
  • assess the safety of the neighbourhood in which the facility is located
  • not ask directly about whether a young person is safe but ask simple questions that align with the concepts of safety
  • be clear with children and young people about confidentiality in what they have shared
  • talk to the workers to get a feel for the relationship between workers and young people
  • assess the behaviour of the young people, being mindful of trauma responses (eg self-harm)
  • always ask what young people think and what they want to happen.

Download the Safety in Residential Care report.

If you missed last week’s article about young people sharing their view about living in residential care catch up on our blog.

Next week we will look into the trial program’s final report and the formal recommendations we have provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister for consideration.

 

Young people share their views about living in residential care

Making residential care facilities more ‘home-like’ with fewer residents, was just one of the many suggestions young people living in residential care made as part of an exploration into what life is like for this cohort of young people.

This article is the first of three which looks into the reports and findings from the Office of the Guardian’s Child and Young Person Visitor trial program which wrapped up late last year.

About the trial program

One of the recommendations that came out of the 2016 Nyland report was to have an independent visitor scheme to promote the best interests of children and young people living in residential care, and so the role of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor was established.

Penny Wright was appointed the inaugural Child and Young Person’s Visitor in 2018 and together with the program’s team went about setting up a two-year trial to investigate how the scheme would work.

As part of the trial, two projects were conducted to seek and incorporate the views and perspective of children and young people living in residential care.

The first project was to conduct a focused literature review and interview young people who currently live or once lived in residential care and to better understand how an independent visitor could make a difference. The second project was to interview young people in residential care to discuss what being safe in residential care looks like.

Findings from both projects were collated in the What Matters to Us report which we will look into further here. Detailed findings from the second project is available in the Safety in Residential Care report which we will explore further in next week’s blog post.

What Matters to Us report

Our office contracted Ulrike Marwitz to carry out the literature review, help conduct interviews with children and young people and prepare the findings in the What Matters to Us report.

Ulrike found that the themes from the four Australian reports she reviewed, were consistent with the feedback gained from the young people she interviewed.

So what did the literature and young people tell us about living in residential care?

  • Contact with adults who show care is important to children and young people living in residential care.
  • Children and young people want residential care facilities to be more home-like.
  • Children and young people with a care experience felt a stronger sense of safety in facilities with smaller numbers of residents.
  • Placement matching (who young people are placed with, and where) impacts young people’s sense of safety and belonging.
  • It is important to acknowledge children and young people living in residential care may have different perspectives or priorities than the adults in their lives.
  • Children and young people showed an awareness of challenges faced by staff, including high caseloads, staff retention and recruitment and budget restraints.
  • Children and young people expressed a desire to be recognised as individuals.

What did young people say they would like from a visiting program?

Here are some of the things young people would like to see from an independent visitor and visiting program:

‘It [visits] should be regular, probably once a week. If it’s a smaller place – not as many incidents, probably once or twice a month.’

‘Consistency is important – unless the child says they want someone else, have the same person who visited do the follow up and do future visits.’

‘Let kids know you are not DCP and what you do.’

‘Some people would want to meet one on one [with the advocate/visitor]; others are more confident in a group with others they know around, especially the first time – it depends on the person.’

‘It’s important to tell kids what will happen with what they have said, if there is going to be follow up tell kids that. Kids need to be reassured that what they’ve said won’t just be told to everyone…. They should be in control of where their information goes.’

‘Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble for anything they have said.’

The future of the Visitor role

While the functions and structure of the Child and Young Person Visitor Scheme have been legislated, the scheme has not yet formally commenced.

The final report of the trial program has now been provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister, for consideration.

We hope that the learnings of the trial program and the various reports it generated will contribute to a funded and supported scheme that will make life better for children and young people living in residential care.

Download the full What Matters to Us report. Stay tuned for next week’s blog when we delve into the Safety in Residential Care report.

Getting to know: our Guardian/Training Centre Visitor

Tell us about your role as the Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor.

These two roles are separate but related.

As the Guardian, I advocate for and promote the rights and best interests of the children and young people who are under the guardianship of the Chief Executive of the Department for Child Protection. In other words, ‘kids in care’. Although it is confusing, it’s important to note that my role does not mean that I am the legal guardian for children in care but I’m essentially here to ‘champion’ their rights.

As the Training Centre Visitor, I have a similar role for children and young people who have been sentenced or remanded to detention in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre. It is my job, with the help of my team, to promote and protect their interests and rights while they are detained.

I have various functions, in both roles, that relate to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in care and detention. My jobs include monitoring their circumstances and providing advice to the relevant Minister.

As the Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, what are the benefits and challenges of carrying out both roles?

There is a real benefit to holding both roles at once. It means that I can get a broader perspective and unique insight into what life is like for children and young people in care and in detention. And, in fact, some of these kids fall into both categories. On average, about a fifth to a quarter of those who are detained in the training centre come from a care background.

Understanding this cohort of young people who are caught up in both systems, and the circumstances that lead to that ‘dual involvement’, helps me to identify the issues that my office and I really need to focus on if we are going to help them.

The main challenge of holding these two roles at once is that there are not enough hours in the day to do the work involved. My core business is to ensure children and young people, in care and detention, know about their rights and that their rights are upheld by the people and systems who work with them. That is a big ask and a big responsibility.

How do you assess when you should get involved with an advocacy matter, personally?

My office’s advocates do an outstanding job of working with children and young people on a daily basis. They are highly skilled in working with kids, and they do the lion’s share of advocacy, often achieving good results for the young people they assist, and also affirming their voice and their value in the process.

But when there are situations of serious concern that can’t be resolved, I will take on the matter and work with the Chief Executive of DCP or the Minister in question to raise their awareness and offer recommendations to help to resolve the matter.

Can a child and young person call to talk to you?

I love meeting and speaking to kids. But, because of the other work I have to do, the first point of call for a child and young person seeking advocacy from our office is to speak with our Assessment and Referral Officers (ARO). If the ARO identifies that my office has a role to play, they will put the child or young person in touch with the advocates. I work alongside our advocates and have input into complex or systemic issues, including consulting with children or young people and listening to what they have to say.

What is an average day like for you?

Like most office jobs, my day features many meetings and (too) much ‘screen’ time!  Luckily I have a standing desk so it’s not too unhealthy.

I usually catch the train to work and always start my day with a skinny flat white coffee to charge my batteries. First up, I attend to my emails then meet with my staff, read documents that inform me about the issues affecting the children and young people we work with, manage timesheets and leave approvals, consider the law and policy and check and write documents, letters and articles.

Most days I meet with other people who work in DCP, Youth Justice, the Ministers responsible for the roles I hold or people in other organisations. A highlight for me is when I can get out my office and visit the young people in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre or a residential care unit or meet with children and young people to hear their ideas. This helps keep my work ‘real’; I always learn a lot when I do and remember what we are working for in my office.

Sometimes I spend some time speaking to journalists as I think the community has a right to know about the work I do. Often my office is asked for views on a range of inquiries, investigations, forums and projects that affect children and young people.

On a good day my team and I will be able to celebrate a really positive outcome for a child or young person we’ve been helping, or a policy change or an improvement that will help more than one. On a bad day, we will feel frustrated or disappointed that we have not achieved as much as we want. But that just makes us more determined to keep going. An average day for me is pretty long – but never boring!

CREATE – representing the voices of young people in care for 20 years

CREATE Foundation has come a long way from its humble beginnings with its small member base meeting in garages and community halls 20 years ago. Today, the national consumer body which represents the voices of children and young people in care has offices in each state and territory, employs almost 50 staff and has over 19,000 young members.

CREATE was formed with the vision that all children and young people in care can reach their full potential. Its mission is to give children and young people in care the confidence to use their voice, to connect with other young people and to stand up and make change in the care system.

Fabian McPhee, the Community Facilitator at CREATE in South Australia who’s worked with the organisation for four years, said while a lot has changed about the way CREATE thinks about and acts on issues, the founding vision remains.

“The vision, from the beginning, has been the same and that’s been to give every young person the same opportunity that every other young person should have being in care,” said Fabian.

Reflecting on 20 years of CREATE, he says there’s now a lot more engagement with young people in care and a lot more members in South Australia. SA currently engages with its members through its ClubCREATE magazines, connection events, Youth Advisory Groups and the Speak Up empowerment program.

Recently appointed CREATE State Coordinator Amy Duke says they are excited about what the future holds for CREATE in South Australia.

“In SA, I think we have the opportunity to capitalise on some fresh and exciting ideas from other states,” she said.

The Hour of Power is one of these initiatives out of Victoria that allows young people who are no longer in care to stay connected with CREATE. The bi-annual forums provide an avenue for young people with lived care experience to present key issues and share ideas for policy and practice change. The young people set the agenda, facilitate the conversation and share their lived experience with the aim of improving the lives of young people in care and the system itself.

“Having opportunities for those young people to practice the skills and learnings from being part of CREATE will keep them engaged. CREATE provides children and young people with the opportunity to direct our advocacy and have a voice in systemic change,” Amy said.

As for the future of CREATE at a national level, the teams are working towards ensuring the voices of children and young people in care are being heard loud and clear when it comes to being involved in decisions that affect them.

CREATE’s Chief Executive Officer Jacqui Reed noted in the latest annual report that “young people are telling us overwhelmingly that they want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives, and want to have plans for their future that they are involved in developing.”

“Our team are prioritising the need for the sector to plan appropriately, and more importantly to ensure that children and young people’s views are heard during the planning process and reflected in whatever planning documentation is developed,” Jacqui said.

For more information about CREATE visit their website at www.create.org.au.