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.

New resources and a learning game for young people leaving care

A group of young people with care experience boldly reclaimed the term ‘GOM’ (for Guardianship of Minister) with the recent launch of the GOM Central website and the GOM City phone app.

The launch was the culmination of seven months of hard work by project manager Eleanor Goodbourn and the focus group of people who were, or who had recently been, in state care.

‘The need for a project like this had been discussed long before I arrived in April,’ she said.

‘Relationships Australia SA has been providing post care support services for a long time now but were aware that there were some young people who were not accessing service in the current form.

‘Was there a way to support and assist young people who did not access services? In particular, we thought about those who had left care and suddenly found themselves isolated and lacking some of the basic skills you need to get along living on your own.

‘We ran an online survey, testing some ideas about a website and brought the results back to our focus group.  The idea of a game app. caught the imagination of the focus group right away and that became the germ of GOM City.

GOM City

Mighty Kingdom, who are a locally-based but internationally known game developer came on board for the game app.  It was their first venture into social learning games and they were very enthusiastic.

‘Playing the GOM City game teaches some basic skills like budgeting, remembering important events and managing a household.  But the current form of the game could be only the beginning.  There is huge potential in the framework of the game to add in other levels to incorporate other skills.

‘We have made sure that the skills taught in the game align with the Australian Core Skills Framework so those skills can be formally recognised in other domains.  We will be looking for funds to develop this aspect further in the future.

‘You can download the app. free at the iOS App Store or from Google play.

GOM Central

‘The GOM Central website is for all young people in care or who have been in care.  We’ve got a lot of information and links that they can dip into any time when they need it.  We also have a number of videos featuring young people with stories about their time in care, letting them know that they are not alone and they have experiences in common with others. They also share advice and information. One of things we learned in focus groups is how important peer to peer learning is with this group of people.

‘The site also hosts a blog which offers visitors the opportunity to share experiences and knowledge.

‘The young people who have been on this journey with us are the real heroes. They generously shared their ideas and experiences and trialled the games – and you may see some of them on the videos!’

 

Australia’s NGO Coalition reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

front cover of child rights taskforce report

UNICEF Australia, as convenor of the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, consulted with 572 children and young people in 30 locations around Australia.  This report contains their words and far-reaching recommendations to governments about how the rights of children and young people can be protected and promoted in Australia.

You can download the report from the Office of the Guardian website.

Empowering young people – by listening to them

The ability to participate and have their voice heard is an important issue for Australia’s children and young people. This is a key principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and an important aspect of empowering children and young people.

It is also the key principle that underlies the recently released Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians Joint Participation Paper 2018.

Children and young people talk about this in their own words:

“All children have a voice and a right to do certain things. We all want out voice to be heard and our opinions to be taken seriously.”

“Talking is important.”

“I do need to talk with you. I need to let you know what is important to me, to get what I want and need and to be kept safe.”

[What makes you feel safe?] “Someone to talk to.”

“It’s important that young people have an opportunity to talk about this stuff but it has to be done safely so, you know, it doesn’t make life worse for them … But I think that even though adults are scared to talk about this stuff because it is uncomfortable, it has to be done if things are going to change.”

“[I] don’t want someone else making the decisions about what I want.”

“How do you know what I want if you don’t ask me? Or don’t listen when I tell you?”

“We have ‘equal thoughts’: don’t just think that adults have the big thoughts. Kids have big thoughts too.”

“A good society values the opinions of young people, even if they are inexperienced.”

“Not just popular kids get a say or participate – everybody is equal.”

“We should all listen respectfully. It does not matter if you are young or old. Your ideas may be very good and are worth listening to… They don’t always have to agree but at least let them be heard.”317

A number of children and young people also expressed concern that their opinions are not respected and their voices go unheard:

“Even if I can get my views out there, I’m not always listened to.”

“Parents don’t care about kids’ opinions because they think kids know nothing.”

“I think that adults think they know what kids need to be safe but I don’t think that they do. They base it on what they remember from when they were kids and the world is different now. So they need to talk to kids and find out what it means to them.”

‘[I] need to be able to communicate – no-one to talk to – need person to talk to.”

There is a treasure trove of comments from young people across Australia about the matters that concern them, from bullying to transport in the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians Joint Participation Paper 2018 which you can download here.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Australia

CRC in Australia graphic

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is more than an abstract aspiration.  In this article we look at the reporting process and how it reflects and responds to the situation of children in Australia.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) around the world and in Australia.

As a signatory to the CRC, Australia is required to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child by way of a government report and an appearance before the Committee.

Australia is currently preparing for its forthcoming appearance after its most recent written report was submitted in January this year.

The written report

The CRC requires that every five years the Australian Government prepare a report which talks about:
• what it is doing to protect and promote the rights in the CRC
• the progress that has been made protecting and promoting those rights
• obstacles and problems in implementing the CRC.

The preparation of the report to the UN Committee is co-ordinated by the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) in consultation with state and territory governments and other relevant departments and agencies. The Government then takes feedback from the community on a draft version of its report. When the report is finalised it is published on the AGD’s website.

The children’s perspective

Viewing children’s rights more from the perspective of the children’s lived experience, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is preparing a ‘shadow’ report’ on behalf of the Australian Child Rights Taskforce of NGOs which will also go to the UN Committee. For more information about The Children’s report and its progress, visit the report webpage.

The UN Committee considers the report along with other information provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission and non-government organisations. The Committee can also request information on selected issues, updates on new laws and policies and specific data.

The Formal Session

Australia will respond to these issues in writing, a few months before appearing before a formal session with the Committee in Geneva. In this session, representatives of the Australian Government will have a conversation with the Committee which is public and viewable online.

On the last day of the face-to-face session the Committee reports on the progress achieved by Australia and presents its recommendations for improvement. These are available on the UN website.

Enforcement?

The Committee cannot legally force the Australian Government to implement its recommendations but its recommendations do provide guidance to the government about how to better protect children’s rights.  Perhaps even more important, the recommendations give the Australian public and children’s rights advocates the chance to assess how our government has performed against the standards set in the rest of the world and to lobby for change.

This article first appeared in the Guardian’s August 2018 Newsletter.

The Youth Justice Administration Act 2018 – 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.

The Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter – August 2018

In this edition of the Guardian’s Newsletter:

  • NAIDOC Week
  • extending the age of support to young people post care
  • the Convention on the Rights of the child in Australia
  • empowering young people by listening
  • what do residents of the youth detention centre want from their visitors?

…plus some significant developments in new programs in the last few months.

Download the August 2018 Newsletter.

Mandatory drug treatment for young people

The State Government introduced the Controlled Substances (Youth Treatment Orders) Amendment Bill 2018 to allow for applications to the Youth Court for orders compelling a child or young person to be assessed for, and to undergo, mandatory treatment for a drug dependency for a period of up to 12 months.

Last week the Guardian wrote to the Attorney General and the Minister for Health and Wellbeing to comment:

‘I believe that the Government’s election commitment to introduce Youth Treatment Orders could achieve better results if the current Bill were withdrawn and, in its place, a process initiated to develop a comprehensive proposal that addresses the personal, family and community impacts of child and youth drug misuse. This would clarify and situate the concept within relevant service provision, legal and systemic arrangements and distinguish what really should be available as a ‘last resort’ option.’

and to offer some further comments.

Read the letter to the Attorney General

Read the letter to the Minister for Health and Wellbeing

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