Working together for children in care

photo of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian for Children and Young People in Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Training Centre Visitor for young people in detention

Penny Wright is Training Centre Visitor in addition to being Guardian for Children and Young People. Work is well underway to set up the new Training Centre Visitor (TCV) Program established by the Youth Justice Administration Act, 2016.

At the heart of the new program is the obligation to listen to and promote the best interests of children and young people in the youth justice system. A major milestone is the commencement of Travis Thomas, the first Advocate to start developing relationships with residents at the two Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC) sites.

The role of the TCV

The TCV will provide the South Australian community with independent scrutiny of the conditions and rights of children and young people in detention.  This is just the sort of independent oversight body’ proposed in recommendation 15.10 of the recent report of the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The TCV will promote the best interests of AYTC residents by mechanisms such as an advocacy service and ongoing visiting and formal inspection programs.  As is usual with independent positions of this sort, the TCV also can conduct inquiries about any matters referred by the Minister and can initiate an own motion inquiry about systemic reform.

Progress

With the recruitment of Advocate Travis Thomas to the team, work will prioritise dialogue with AYTC residents to advise them about the new TCV role and to build the relationship necessary to elicit and express their views, aspirations and needs.  Dialogue with other stakeholders will continue or be established, particularly AYTC staff and management, and the community and government agencies with an interest in youth justice.

The detailed work necessary to create an operational framework for the TCV Program is underway including the development of appropriate standards, guidelines and policies.  This will be done, as much as possible, to ensure that the TCV Program will work in line with international standards such as those that will come into force following Australia’s recent ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT)

Special groups

Importantly, the Youth Justice Administration Act directs the TCV to respond to the needs of three particular groups of children and young people . They are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are significantly over-represented, those who are under guardianship in the child protection system and those who have a physical, psychological or intellectual disability.

The TCV program will provide accessible, credible and culturally appropriate services that reflects and promote the views of AYTC residents about  their care, conditions, treatment and opportunities for development.  The program also will identify opportunities for improvements and promote systemic change in the youth justice sector.

The program will comply with Parliament’s requirement that all state authorities protect, respect and seek to give effect to rights set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other relevant international human rights instruments affecting children and young people.  A focus for this will be reference to entitlements enshrined in the Charter of Rights for Youth Detained in Training Centres, also endorsed by Parliament.

Information sessions

The TCV Program team will host a series of information sessions in the coming months to provide further information to interested stakeholders.  If you would like further information or to attend, please email or phone Belinda Lorek or Alan Fairley on 8226 8570.

This story first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter for February 2018, downloadable here.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 70 years on

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of international human rights law and just as relevant now as it was when it was created 70 years ago.

It represents the recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, whatever their nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. It is the great grandparent of our own Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care.

Since its origins in the aftermath of World War Two, the Declaration has inspired more than 80 international human rights treaties and declarations, a great number of regional human rights conventions, domestic human rights bills and constitutional provisions. Together , they constitute a comprehensive, legally binding, system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

To mark its anniversary, this is the first of a short series of articles on the importance of understanding, promoting and safeguarding rights, particularly those of children and young people growing up in care.

Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is widely recognised as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption

Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is widely recognised as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption

Spurred by the global tragedy of the Second World War, the United Nations was formally created in October 1945 after representatives of the original 51 member countries signed or ratified the United Nations Charter. Early in its existence, the UN decided a roadmap was required to complement the Charter and to guarantee the fundamental rights of every individual. This ultimately led to the development and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration was drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds, drawn from all regions of the world. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the drafting committee. Australia was represented on that committee by William Hodgson.

When the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in December 1948, the UN consisted of 58 member states. Since then, membership has grown to 193 and the Declaration has become a global document. In 1999, the Guinness Book of Records declared it the most translated document in the world and it has been translated into more than 500 languages. One of the most remote languages is Pipil – an almost extinct language spoken in El Salvador by less than 50, mainly elderly, people. In this way, translating the Declaration has also served to preserve culture.

Over time, international human rights treaties have become more focused and specialised, addressing a variety of defined social groups and issues, many relevant to our own community.  They include, for example, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Particularly relevant to the work of the Guardian’s Office is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Signed by 196 countries, and ratified by every member state of the UN, except the United States, the Convention came into force in 1990 and is the most widely ratified human rights treaty.

Under South Australia’s legislation, the Guardian’s Office is responsible for developing and implementing the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care – which is just one of the ways the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child influence our work.

In our next newsletter, we’ll look at the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

More information about the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be found on this web page.

This story first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter for February 2018, downloadable here.

Young people speak about protecting their rights in residential care

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.


You can download the above in text form from this link.

The Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter – February 2018

In this edition of the Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter:

  • The latest on the Youth Training Centre Visitor Program and the trial of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme for residential care
  • What young people in residential care know about their rights and how they believe they could be safeguarded
  • The importance of monitoring bodies to a healthy democracy
  • 70 years old this year and the UN Declaration of Human Rights has direct relevance to our work today
  • How listening to young people is at the heart of this country NGO’s practice.

Plus what the Office has been up to over the last few months.

Download the February 2018 Newsletter.

The place of monitoring bodies in a healthy democracy

picture of Penny Wright

Penny Wright Guardian

With the upcoming South Australian election in mind, this is a great opportunity to reflect on the benefits of having a strong and robust democracy, and highlight what it means for the work of my office.

Since I started my role as Guardian last year I have been conscious of what a privilege it is to be leading a team entrusted to advocate for some of the most vulnerable South Australians. All children are relatively powerless because they can’t vote for the governments that make the laws that affect them. But children living in state care are often doubly so because they don’t always have ‘natural’ advocates, like birth parents or families, that other kids have.

Robyn Layton QC recognised this in the course of her review into child protection in 2003, Our Best Investment: A State plan to protect and advance the interests of children. Ms Layton recommended establishing a statutory office of Guardian because  ‘There is a need to ensure that those children who are most vulnerable and who are under the statutory guardianship of the Minister or otherwise in care away from their parents have their rights articulated and safeguarded….’ She further recommended that ‘The Guardian should report to Parliament and …. proactively check on such children and young persons to ensure their welfare.’

And so the office of Guardian for Children and Young People was established in 2005. The role has grown but it has always been about advocating, monitoring, reviewing, inquiring and advising government – in short, championing the best interests and rights of children and young people in care.

Just as with other monitoring bodies throughout Australia, our reports and advice and advocacy are not always comfortable for the government of the day. It is, after all, our very job to hold government and departments to account on behalf of those who do not have a voice.

No democracy is perfect but I believe we are fortunate that we live in a nation where we have governments willing to respect, and pay for, mechanisms that will hold them to account. This is the ideal of monitory democracy, which developed in the 1940s in the aftermath of atrocities committed by leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, who were initially elected, and popular.  Monitory democracy has evolved to keep a check on arbitrary power through continuous public scrutiny of government institutions, underpinned by an awareness and respect for human rights. (Professor John Keane has written extensively about this. See his article The Origins of Monitory Democracy in The Conversation (24 September 2012).

There are twelve Children’s Commissioners and Guardians around Australia and numerous other commissioners (for human rights and ICACs), Ombudsmen and other officers who work to hold power to account without fear or favour. In recent times we have seen Commonwealth government-initiated Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (Don Dale). Here in South Australia we have had the State Child Protection Systems Royal Commission (the Nyland Inquiry) and there have been various recent inquiries into juvenile justice by Australian states. Importantly, the Federal Government has recently ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), which will shine a light into places of detention throughout Australia and hold the States and Commonwealth accountable.

Around the world, in this second decade of the 21st century, we see ostensibly popular but authoritarian rulers on the rise and democratic processes increasingly under threat. As I go about my work as Guardian, I often reflect that neither Putin, in Russia, nor Erdogan, in Turkey, nor a growing number of governments in other places would tolerate the work of my office, let alone fund it.

Let us give thanks for strong democracies – and let us not take them for granted.

 

 

It’s all about listening to young people

West Coast Youth and Community Support’s Jo Clark (right) and Angela Perin are convinced that the key to good services is listening and acting on what young people say.

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.

The Charter of Rights in action

picture of students hearing about the Charter of Rights

Nicole Plikington and Sarah Meakin talking with third and fourth year social work students on placement with the Department for Child Protection about the Charter of Rights. With thanks to Jessica Pellegrino from DCP Learning and Development.

28 November 2017

Mission Australia, as a rights-based organisation, found a natural fit with the Charter of Rights says Flexible Learning Option (FLO) Case Manager for Mission Australia, Danielle Stewart.

‘We see a number of young people in care in FLO, but the Charter also appeals to us because the rights are so widely applicable to all of the young people we work with.

‘We find the materials useful, particularly the posters.  It isn’t always easy to start a conversation about rights with some of our young people but having material in the background all of the time helps.

‘In my role of Charter Co-ordinator for Mission Australia it is a challenge to keep up enthusiasm and momentum.

‘Regular training and Charter updates for staff would be a real benefit. I am sure that government child protection staff discuss the Charter during staff induction but it can be hard to take everything in at one time. Later on, there are staff changes and, when there is so much going on day-to-day, thinking about the Charter and rights can drift into the background.

‘We have been very successful in FLO making use of games to aid learning in an entertaining and non-threatening way.  It would be good to have Charter tools like that to use.

‘Advocating for a young person with someone from another organisation when you notice something wrong can be difficult. We have had situations where our staff have been unsure of their power to intervene.

‘Transitioning from care is one of the major challenges for the young people we work with.  We like to form partnerships with people in other organisations around the young person but people are busy and sometimes do not get back.

To this time, 85 organisations have endorsed the Charter of Rights.

This item first appeared in the November 2017 Guardian’s Newsletter which is available for download now.

What is therapeutic residential care?

21 November 2017

In June 2017, 550 of the 3,484 children and young people in out of home care in South Australia lived in either residential or emergency care rather than home-based care such as foster, relative or kinship care.

We know that residential care should do more than just warehouse vulnerable children and young people, that what they experience there will have a profound effect on their future health, emotional and social adjustment, identity and life prospects. The children and young people who find themselves in residential care have experienced the same or more of the trauma and dislocation in their lives as others coming into care and need the same or more care and nurture to be able to heal.  Commissioner Nyland made the call that all residential care in our state should be ‘therapeutic’.

But what is therapeutic residential care?

This is a question for all child protection jurisdictions across Australia. The Guardian’s Office is leading a national policy development process to articulate what constitutes therapeutic residential care for the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) group.  The statement will identify the essential elements that a service will need to provide to warrant the designation as ‘therapeutic residential care’.

These are some of the themes that emerged during its development.

Children and young people in therapeutic residential care are at the centre of the care model and live in an environment that emphasises their wellbeing and safety.  They are informed about and can influence decisions that affect their lives, are empowered to know and enjoy their rights. They have access to formal and informal mechanisms for resolving concerns, including through access to independent monitoring and grievance mechanisms.

Those from diverse cultural backgrounds have access to culturally appropriate care, in particular those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Children and young people who have disabilities or are experiencing psychosocial issues have an environment that responds to their needs, as do those in regional areas. Wrapped around the children and young people in therapeutic residential care are comprehensive and coordinated services to meet the full range of their needs, including access to appropriate external or mainstream services.

Restabilising a sense of stability is important to traumatised children and young people so when changes of care placement are made, they are done with particular care and sensitivity to the needs and wishes of the one being moved and also the peers who share their space and their lives.  Where it is safe to do so, priority will be given to maintaining links with the child or young person’s family and significant others.

These are all necessary conditions for therapeutic residential care but could equally be what we aspire to in all residential care.

What is unique and critical to therapeutic care is that the residential care house is staffed with appropriately trained people who develop therapeutic relationships that respond to attachment-related and developmental needs.  Staff will be trauma-informed and, in turn, build the capacity of children and young people to form positive relationships with others.  Each child or young person will have an individual therapeutic care plan which is regularly reviewed.  Staff will have the training, supervision and support to understand and respond to the challenging behaviours that sometimes accompany trauma.  Personal relationships are key and staff need to be retained for a long time to provide a secure, stable and consistent base for recovery.

Guardian Penny Wright will present a draft proposal defining therapeutic residential care to the national ACCG meeting in mid-November.  The Australian Human Rights Commission and Commissioners/Guardians from the Northern Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia have provided feedback on earlier drafts.

We will provide you with updates as the national conversation continues.

For an introduction to the practice of therapeutic care, see our article Healing Developmental Trauma from February 2015.
This item first appeared in the November 2017 Guardian’s Newsletter which you can download now.

The Guardian’s Newsletter – November 2017

picture of the november 2017 guardians newsletter

14 November 2017

In this edition of the Guardian’s Quarterly Newsletter:

  • Two bills that would profoundly affect young people encountering the youth justice system
  • A scheme to visit young people in residential and emergency care
  • What is therapeutic residential care
  • The Charter of Rights and one major NGO
  • Some lyrics from a young song writer

Plus what the Office has been up over the last few months.

Download the November 2017 Newsletter.