We would like to share with you some of our favorite artworks from young Aboriginal people in residential care that have come to our notice in the past year. Please click on the thumbnails to see a bigger version.
The Guardian’s Office received a record 96 in-mandate requests for advocacy in the first quarter of the new year, representing 127 children and young people.
This was an increase of 35 per cent in inquiries and a 24 percent increase in the number of children represented compared to the preceding quarter.
Last year the Office averaged 64 in-mandate requests per quarter. This follows the trend of an increase in the number of requests for advocacy and in the complexity of the issues raised.
The top five people who initiated in-mandate requests in July-September 2018 were:
Adults in the child’s life 42
Children and young people themselves 33
Department for Child Protection staff 10
Health, education and youth justice 5
Non-government organisations 3
The top five presenting issues (by inquiry) were:
Stability and security of placement 29
Participation in decision making 18
Contact with significant others 15
Appropriate care 24
These are also the top five issues identified in the Guardian’s 2017-18 Annual Report and substantially the same as those reported in previous years.
The 33 children and young people who requested advocacy directly were in the following care arrangements:
Residential care 16
Adelaide Youth Training Centre 5
Relative care 4
Foster care 2
Commercial (emergency) care 2
 The Guardian is mandated by legislation to promote the interests of children and young people below the age of 18 years who are living in out-of-home care. Another 17 inquiries were determined to be not within the Guardian’s mandate and those callers were assisted to make contact with a more appropriate organisation.
 Young people often present with multiple, interrelated issues. Presenting issues are counted as primary and secondary and these are added to achieve the numbers reported.
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.
Following up from Commissioner Nyland’s recommendation #136 in her August 2016 report on child protection systems in South Australia, the Guardian asked CREATE to ask some young people in residential care what they knew about their rights and how they thought that they could be best protected.
Here are some of the things they said.
For CEO of West Coast Youth and Community Support (WCYCS), Jo Clark, the key to working with young people is listening to what they have to say and then acting on it.
‘By ignoring what young people say we risk undermining their confidence and their willingness to make decisions, making them more passive and more dependent.
‘Our Youth Advisory Committee sits at the centre of all of the programs and services we provide for young people. From a pool of about 25, we get 8 or 10 young people to weekly meetings where we discuss progress on the projects they are interested in and new ideas and issues they want to raise.
‘When we were setting up our new Youth Hub, over 200 young people responded to a survey asking what they wanted. Some things, like free Wi-Fi, were expected but others, like a homework study space and tutoring, were also popular and they will be a part of the planning in 2018.’
‘I believe that the rights in the Charter of Rights are important for all of the young people we work for, not just those in state care, and I particularly like the importance the Charter places on hearing the voices of young people – that is its real strength.’
Next to the Youth Hub is Youthoria, the town’s only cinema, providing valuable work experience otherwise unavailable to vulnerable young people. WCYCS’s Youth Programs Manager Angela Perin explains how, driven by the vision of a passionate group of young people, WCYCS acquired the cinema when it closed.
‘We have run it with young people for the last ten years, and for the last seven at break even or better. But the real profit is in the training and employment opportunities for Port Lincoln’s young people and its benefits for the community and local community groups.’
Jo Clark explains that, with over 25 per cent youth unemployment and a very few Aboriginal people being employed in local businesses and government offices, she fears that Port Lincoln is storing up some serious social problems for the future.+
‘The local community and services have been able to put together some great collaborative work and Rotary have been fantastic but we have serious issues in homelessness, crime and unemployment and we really need major investment from the other levels of government.’
Watching the golden children laughing and leaping off the Town Jetty into the Bay in the warm evening sun, you hope that investment is forthcoming.
For abuse of a child to occur, the first necessary condition is that the child remain silent, that their voice not be heard. This silence may be engineered by the abuser, using their status, fear or shame. It may be engineered by institutions that are passive in protecting children or complicit in covering it up or by adults and peers who are not alert to the signs or do not know how to respond.
A just-released Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) Practice Paper Protection through participation – Involving children in child-safe organisations is a practical guide to how to talk with children about their safety and feelings of safety. The paper is itself based on the Australian Catholic University’s research into how children understand and experience safety in institutions conducted last year for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
The paper is an excellent resource suitable both for organisations developing their systems and for individual concerned adults. It combines general discussion with some specific and practical advice and tools. It tells us:
- Children want to be in the know. They want to understand if there are risks or troubling events. Adults sometimes minimise this information thinking they are protecting the child but, in the words of one young person, ‘They think they should hide that stuff from kids to keep them safe but you feel more scared if you don’t know what’s happening.’
- Children want to be asked for their views and involved in solutions. Sometimes group discussions are appropriate but in some situations, where the level of trust is not high or there is likely be shame or embarrassment, anonymous reporting via suggestion boxes or surveys may be a way to start the conversation. Involving children in decisions about a wide range of issues that affect them is good practice and should be normal in institutions. It builds confidence in children for when more challenging matters arise for them.
- Adults need to be skilled and calm. They need to be informed about the real risks faced by children, the possible signs of abuse and to know how to approach a child or how to respond if approached. Responses that adults may have heard and learned in their own childhood like ‘just grow up’, ‘walk away’ or ‘it’s not a big deal’ can close down approaches by children and end conversations about abuse. Adults must be aware of their own emotional triggers and set them aside to explore a child’s disclosures calmly and reasonably.
- Adults need to be available. Children will raise issues more readily with people with whom they have a meaningful relationship and this takes time to build. Opportunities for discussion can occur at unpredictable times, like doing the dishes or driving somewhere in the car, and the adults who are physically and emotionally present are key to hearing a child’s concerns.
- Recognise and use the power of peers. The paper says it most succinctly:
‘Young people are more likely to listen to peers and those people who have successfully protected themselves or dealt with situations if they arose. Working in partnership with young people to run workshops, teach classes or initiate conversations were all seen as helpful.’
20 June 2017
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Legislative Council Select Committee on Statutory Child Protection and Care specifically about the Children and Young People (Safety) Bill 2017, following my two written submissions in January and February.
All three submissions were about the children and young people whose interests I represent – the almost 3,400 in state care and those detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre.
I would like to share some of the things I said to the Select Committee:
‘Underpinning what we do is the drive to make transparent what is happening for children and young people in state care and to strengthen their voice and capacity to influence what happens in their lives. It is a commitment to the fundamental rights of children and young people.
‘The concepts of safety, best interests and wellbeing of children and young people are not mutually exclusive. It is in a child’s best interests to protect them from harm, protect their rights and promote their development in age, stage and culturally appropriate ways.
‘When children are at risk of harm, or indeed harmed, there must be action to protect and heal. What this looks like should depend on an individual child’s needs in those specific circumstances. Some will need services and supports to maintain them safely within their home and with their parent/s. And it will be in their best interests, and promote their wellbeing, to do so. Sadly, some will need intervention to place them in an alternative environment in order to secure their safety and wellbeing. And it will be in their best interests to do so. We’ve heard that directly from children in care.
‘Legislative reform, including the current Safety Bill, is only a part of the significant change needed to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in South Australia. It does contribute incremental improvements in this overall context and substantial innovations in specific areas (for example the proposed community visitor scheme for children and young people in residential and emergency care). But, legislation alone will not revolutionise the system that children and young people currently live within.’
‘We all have to look at other crucial factors, especially policy reform and organisational culture.
‘In our advocacy and monitoring work we often see a significant disconnection between policy and implementation.
‘The transformation of our child protection and out of home care requires cooperation and collaboration within government, between government and non-government organisations, with academia and the community … and we all must listen respectfully to those most directly affected – the children and young people who live this.’
This article first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter in May 2017.
13 September, 2016
Themes from Nyland #2
The team from the Guardian’s office have analysed the 850 pages and 260 recommendations from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report1. We have extracted some themes and priorities to allow us to critique the government’s response, judge the improvements over time and to shape our own work. What follows is a description of the issues and a short list of things to watch for in the reform process. You can also read theme #1 Coordination and Collaboration. We will post the rest of the series over the next few weeks. 
Children are the experts in their own lives and throughout her report Commissioner Nyland has noted the benefits of listening to children and involving them with decisions that affect them.
A useful strategy is to engage children in the case planning process.
The low rate of young people’s participation in case planning and annual review planning is concerning, and suggests practice that does not value their contribution in determining the course of their own lives, and understanding their own experiences.
She noted that at annual reviews for the period she considered, less than one in three children was involved and about one in seven attended any part of the process.
For some children, especially those who have not yet developed the skills or confidence to advocate for themselves, a trusted advocate can help.
Caseworkers, where appropriate, should advocate on behalf of children, as is expected of an involved and committed parent. For some young people their caseworker will be the only adult in their life with whom they have a reliable and trusting relationship.
This cannot work when children are not allocated a worker or where the worker’s workload makes regular contact difficult.
The report noted that standards and principles were already in place.
National out-of-home care standards require that children and young people in care participate in decisions that have an impact on their lives, in accordance with their age and developmental stage.
One of the overriding principles identified in the South Australian standards is that children and young people are given ‘a voice in decision making and [are] involved in the design and delivery of services’.
Involvement is important, not just listening. Adults working with children will need to adapt their communication styles and learn new skills to engage meaningfully.
Taking into account a child’s views is not the same as involving them in decision making. For some decisions, including decisions made by the Youth Court, ‘involvement’ would not be appropriate. However, for some decisions, there is greater scope for involvement of a child, in addition to simply providing their views.
Listening to the voice of children can be a protective factor.
Keeping children safe relies on adults listening to them, understanding what they have to say and prioritising their experiences.
Prioritising the experiences of children, and creating an environment in which children can speak and be heard, can prevent sexual abuse.
As an essential precondition to children having a voice they need to be informed, provided with timely information and given options.
In residential care…
…the voices and perspectives of children living in residential care have not been heard and there are no clear pathways for those children to complain.
As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:
- Increased rates of attendance by children, or accurate presentation of their views, at case planning meetings and annual reviews.
- Evidence that children’s views are solicited, discussed with them and accurately recorded in case files.
- Legislation passed by Parliament to require children to be included in decision making about their care and to give them the right to information about a prospective carer before they enter a placement.
- Restructuring and resourcing of case management to ensure that each child has an allocated worker and that the worker is able to meet with them at least monthly.
- Introduction of a community visitor scheme to focus on children and young people in residential care and emergency care.
- Roll-out of an education program to residential and emergency care to inform residents of their rights.
- Amendments to the Family and Community Services Act 1972 to require the Chief Executive to hear all issues raised by children who live in residential care or emergency care.
Please join the discussion via the reply box leaving a name and an email address in the spaces provided. We will remove them from the published post if you request in your reply.
1 Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report,
2 This is not intended to be a précis of Commissioner Nyland’s report which has a very clear and readable summary. Because of the Guardian’s mandate, our analysis will tend to focus on issues for children in out-of-home-care.