Respect is… expressed in so many ways

Picture of Respect front coverIn five workshops last year the Guardian and her team spoke to 42 children and young people in state care about what the term ‘respect’ means to them.

‘We wanted to give the young people the opportunity to speak about the important relationships in their lives without being too prescriptive, so we chose the theme of respect’, said Guardian Pam Simmons.

‘The young people responded brilliantly with a flood of ideas, text and images that were honest and perceptive and, occasionally, very funny.’

The question then was how to report back to the consultation participants in a way that was itself respectful and would be read by other children and young people, and by adults who wanted to know.

‘The RESPECT booklet, I believe, genuinely embodies the spirit of our conversations with young people, joyous and exuberant but capturing significant truths and insights.

‘Its bright imagery and bold text can be enjoyed by anyone and its robust spiral-bound construction will make it especially useful for adults in engaging, one-on-one, with children and young people of any age and ability.’

‘The boxes from the printer will be arriving any day now and we will rush some copies of the booklet to the participants and the agencies that facilitated the consultations before arranging for wider distribution,’ she said.

The Guardian’s Office greatly appreciated the work of Time for Kids, CREATE SA, Muggy’s, Key Assets and Metropolitan Aboriginal Youth and Family Services in partnering with us on the workshops and the support of Families SA staff.

Children’s rights are at the forefront in 2015

StC Charter certificate 300pxOver 65 agencies have endorsed the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care and over 200 Charter Champions have committed to promote children’s rights within those agencies. With the world celebrating the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the SA Charter of Rights due for review this year, it is a good time to look again at the significance of articulating rights for children.

In 2005 Guardian Pam Simmons initiated and oversaw the development of the Charter, together with a reference group of young people who endorsed the final version.

‘It was obvious from day one in this job that children and young people in care, and their advocates, needed to know what was fair to expect. The international convention was a great place to start but it needed to be spelt out for the experiences that children in care commonly have.

‘All children have the right to have their views taken into account in decisions that affect them (Article 12) and to get and share information (Article 13). Most children though don’t have a case file. So it was important to say that children in care have the right to add information to their personal file and to be involved in what is decided about their care.

‘The Charter comes alive when people use it to persuade others to do the right thing by a child. Best of all, are the conversations that happen about the rights because it reminds or teaches us about our responsibilities to others. The world becomes a kinder place.

‘It was great fun creating the Charter, which had us working with the good folk in the Create Foundation and two other facilitators in consulting with children. It was the only event that year at which I got to take my shoes off and sit on the floor.

The Guardian is required by law to review the Charter this year.

‘I don’t expect there will be big changes to the words of the Charter but there may be a difference in emphasis and promotion. First off, we will be returning to groups of children to seek their views and then discussing these with the adults who are responsible for meeting those rights.’

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and was ratified by Australia in December 1990. It has not yet been incorporated into Australian law but Australia’s government has committed to make sure every child in Australia has every right under each of 54 Articles in the Convention.

Compliance with the Convention is monitored by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is based in Geneva. Governments which are party to the Convention must report every five years to the Committee highlighting what they are doing to ensure children’s rights are being met. The Australian Human Rights Commission and non-government organisations provide their own reports containing their views about progress and violations. The AHRC report was released in May 2012 and the Child Rights Taskforce report in June. Australia is due to report again in 2018.

Information about the Charter of Rights can be found on the Guardian’s website and products promoting those rights can be viewed on the materials ordering page.

Former Minister, now Premier, Jay Weatherill with some of the people who made the Charter of Rights a reality at its launch at the Adelaide Zoo in April,2006.

Former Minister, now Premier, Jay Weatherill with some of the people who made the Charter of Rights a reality at its launch at the Adelaide Zoo in April,2006.

Towards ‘home-like’ residential care

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

In 2014 I traveled around the state talking with workers and carers about their views on children changing placement while in care. We listened first to some young people relate their views and experience in a short video recorded by our Office. One of the biggest challenges that came to light in the discussion was how to create a sense of security in children where there is instability and uncertainty.

Welcome to the world of residential care workers and emergency and short term foster carers. The children and young people they provide care for on a day by day basis are in uncertain circumstances, often not knowing how long they will stay put, where they are going next, and who they will share their home with. Their temporary carers though are expected to help the child to settle and feel safe.

Our conversations brought to light excellent practical ideas. Important among these was listening closely to the child’s expression of feeling, in whatever way they are ‘saying’ it. Another was letting the child create and control their own space, as much as is practicable. For longer discussion of childhood trauma, how it manifests and how it can be addressed you can read the article on page 4 of this edition.

In 2014 Professor James Anglin visited SA from Canada to coach residential care workers and others in the skills of therapeutic residential care. In his unpublished paper for the workshops he writes, ‘While no child “belongs” in a residential home, it may be that they experience a sense of belonging through the attention and nurture of skilled and caring adults…’

He talked of giving children a sense of self-worth, being valued and respected, and competence; planting the seeds of positive attitudes and behaviour through positive interactions. He said that we will not know which experiences will make the difference so all our interactions are important.

Adults caring for children on a short-term basis are temporary in a child’s life so one eye of the carer has to be on the more permanent relationships. This includes the child’s family, their cultural community and possibly adults in their school and out of school activities. Anywhere the child has connections and derives positive identity. If those connections are not there then every opportunity should be taken to help the child learn to function within the community.

Anglin, writing about residential care, says, ‘Programs that offer a therapeutic orientation begin to re-design their buildings, how they create spaces to be more welcoming and home-like, how they prepare and serve food, and how they involve the residents in decorating and shaping their own rooms and living spaces.’ Rules are limited to safety issues – everything else can be an expectation. The beauty of this is that adults have to ‘punish’ less and can modify more.

It is for this reason, among others, that I am relieved that three of the six older large residential facilities have now closed. The physical environment was impossible to make home-like and the high number of residents made it difficult for carers to give children the attention they needed.What became obvious in my conversations was the need to pay attention to the feelings of the adults. They are also experiencing uncertainty in the situation.
They may have strong feelings of frustration, anger, powerlessness and the expectation of loss. If we want them to pay close attention to the children, we have to pay close attention to their emotions, and ‘free them up’ to give again and again to the children in their care.

CREATE – helping young South Australians create their futures

In over ten years of providing programs, activities and information, CREATE has supported hundreds of young South Australians in care to create their futures. CREATE’s South Australian State coordinator Claudine Scalzi explains how clubCREATE membership is used to make initial contact with young people in care and to provide them with information and connection to other young people.

CREATE 2‘Membership of clubCREATE entitles kids to all sorts of goodies, publications and information about what’s going on as well as competitions, puzzles and stories.
‘We get together with the clubCREATE members at times throughout the year. We can get around 250 kids, carers and families for fun activities at places like the Beach House and Greenhills Adventure Park.
‘For older young people looking at moving toward independence we have the CREATE Your Future life skills program where they can learn practical things like shopping and cooking but also to look at where they might want to go with their lives and the sort of education and prepare them for employment options that are open to them.
‘We want to challenge them to try new things and learn new skills but always in a safe and supportive environment.
‘With the Speak Up program we train young people with the skills to become Young Consultants.’
Sonja Brown is a Young Consultant who first attended a camp when she was 13.
‘I loved the camp and got all of the information from clubCREATE for the next few years, but I didn’t get involved again until I was 16.
‘I did some of the courses in CREATE Your Future which were pretty useful and also did the Speak Up training to be a Young Consultant.
‘I got a lot of confidence in public speaking and interviews from the Young Consultant training. I’ve done an interview on the radio and we do a lot of work in the CREATE camps where the younger people find it easier to talk to us.’

Claudine told us that CREATE is moving to ‘bigger and more suitable’ premises in 2015. Each state office of CREATE is independent but they come together as a national peak to make sure that the voice and interests of young people in care are represented on the national stage and to jointly develop products and information. For more information on South Australian and national CREATE, go to the CREATE website.

What’s been done – September 2014 to February 2015

The Year in Review 2013-14 replaced the November newsletter.  It provides the key points of the year’s activity and trends which are reported in more detail in the Guardian’s 2013-14 Annual Report.

Also released was a summary of what was said in the Guardian’s field consultation with service providers across the state between July and September.  More than 400 people participated and provided their ideas and expertise about improving the experience for children of changing placements, among many other topics.

The report What we know about the circumstances of children in care from their 2013-14 Annual Reviews was released in October.  This report provides some factual balance to the public stories of crises in child protection and out of home care.  It is written from the ‘auditor’s’ point of view and includes five year trends of placement stability, allocation to caseworker, use of Individual Education Plans and the participation of children.

The Charter of Rights Implementation Committee met in November and February.  They are celebrating eight continuous years of discussion and joint action on children’s rights, including the production of flashcards about rights for children with disability or low literacy.

Two additional agencies have joined the Charter of Rights ‘endorsing agency’ group, making a total of 67 agencies.  Congratulations and welcome to Sammy D Foundation and Carers’ Link Barossa and District.

Consultation workshops with children and young people in July and September last year gave the Guardian the benefit of hearing directly from more children about their views.  These were staged with the assistance of Key Assets and the Metropolitan Aboriginal Youth and Family Services.  The report on what we learnt about young peoples’ views on giving and receiving respect will be published in March.

In the second half of 2014, the Office of the Guardian received 67 requests for intervention about children under guardianship, involving 86 children.  The Senior Advocate audited 90 annual reviews and the Advocates made 20 official visits to residential or youth justice units.

Pictured at the Charter Implementation Committee Meeting on November 18 were: back-left Rebecca Tricker (CAMHS), Donna Scott (Connecting Foster Carers), Warren Guppy (AFSS), Meagan Klapperich (GCYP), Peter Reuter (Second Story, SA Heath), Claudine Scalzi (CREATE), front-left Elaine Kelly (DECD), Pam Simmons (Guardian), Anne Bainbridge (YACSA), Sam Ledger (Youth Justice).  Members absent for that meeting were Julie O’Leary (Disability Services), Linda Hurley (FSA), Sue Phillips (Junction Australia), Jennifer Duncan (Time for Kids), Lee Duhring (DECD).

Pictured at the Charter Implementation Committee Meeting on November 18 were: back-left Rebecca Tricker (CAMHS), Donna Scott (Connecting Foster Carers), Warren Guppy (AFSS), Meagan Klapperich (GCYP), Peter Reuter (Second Story, SA Heath), Claudine Scalzi (CREATE), front-left Elaine Kelly (DECD), Pam Simmons (Guardian), Anne Bainbridge (YACSA), Sam Ledger (Youth Justice). Members absent for that meeting were Julie O’Leary (Disability Services), Linda Hurley (FSA), Sue Phillips (Junction Australia), Jennifer Duncan (Time for Kids), Lee Duhring (DECD).

The Year in Review 2013-14

Year in Review 2014 graphic

11 November 2014

2013-14 in Review – What Children Want From Us is a concise summary of the year for South Australia’s children and young people in care as seen through the work of the Guardian’s Office. It is based on material which originally appeared in the Guardian’s Annual Report for 2013-14.

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Making a decision in the best interests of a child

The imperative to make decisions and actions concerning children in their best interests is clear. What is not so clear is how this is best done.

SA’s Children’s Protection Act 1993 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, among many other such Acts and Agreements, say that the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration in decision-making about children and these decisions are guided by explicit principles. However, decisions are necessarily individualised.

Determining a child’s best interests is a judgement. What is good for one child may not be right for another. The process of making decisions in their best interests has to take into account many things, such as family ties, cultural background, safety, special circumstances, education, health, wellbeing, the child’s sense of time, the child’s views, the family’s views, anticipation of immediate and long term consequences and what is known from research about child development and wellbeing.

For those who are charged with deciding a child’s best interests the decision can be influenced or clouded by other adults’ views, prevailing theories, organisational policies and budget, and anticipated public exposure and reaction.

In family separation and child protection the best interests of a child are invariably contested. As Senior Advocate Amanda Shaw said,

All the adults believe they are representing what is in the child’s best interests, but when there is disagreement, the decision-maker has to be able to distinguish between the adults’ interests and the child’s. Of course, in many ways, this is a false distinction because of the relationships between child and adult. However, it has to be attempted and it has to be informed.

Prevailing theories of child development and interventions to remedy the impact of abuse or neglect will also influence arguments and decisions about the best interests of children. So too will the theory and evidence about the adverse impact of separating Aboriginal children from their communities. It is incumbent on decision-makers to inform themselves and keep in touch with debates and developments so that their decision incorporates this knowledge. Where there are sometimes conflicting theories, such as that between good development through early attachment to a few adult carers and good development through strong connection to the child’s cultural community, it is necessary to be open to it all and critically examine one’s own views for blindness to this child’s long term interests.

Governments and organisations will provide and change policy direction, trying to achieve better outcomes for children as a group. Recent examples are the shift in emphasis to family reunification and support, and the emerging debate about the place of adoption in child welfare. This guidance or instruction must be taken into account but does not itself decide best interests for every child.

Perhaps the most common pit-fall for decision makers is conflating the child’s interests with what we know is available. It is dishonest to constrain the options by starting with what is available or pragmatic. The decision maker must first consider a full range of options from ideal to least ideal, and only then decide what is possible, what is not and why. This maintains the integrity of the decision-making and makes visible the extent of unmet need.

As tedious as it is, good written recording of all the ‘evidence’ and views serves as both a tool for rational decision-making and for accountability. If someone questions why a decision was made to move a child or change schools or not seek a care and protection order, the record of discussion and decision will explain the circumstances at the time. Without a written record which demonstrates consideration of all of the important factors, especially the child’s views, decision-making can look arbitrary and self-interested.

The principle of ‘best interests of the child’ is imprecise, but so are many other principles such as ‘child’s wellbeing’, ‘preserving relationships’ or ‘enhancing identity’. It is the process of reaching these decisions which needs to be precise.


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Cuts to family services can be false economies

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

Earlier in the year I had the privilege of responding to a SACOSS conference address by Christopher Stone, Research Director of the Public Service Program at the Centre for Policy Development. His address was about the false economies of across-the-board cuts to public spending, among other things.#
One of the themes of the session was along the lines of: when public institutions cannot do what they promise, public trust in the institution falters and, as a consequence, the public’s willingness to comply with laws and regulations falls. This is typically considered a breach of the social contract.
The ‘state’ supports families in numerous ways: paying for or subsidising education, health care, public transport, childcare, libraries, parks, courts and police. When it comes to helping when the going gets really tough, ambivalence creeps in. Understandably there is a strong element of judgement about who gets help, for how long and at what cost. There are consequences though when the state fails to meet its end of the bargain.
We (the state) have a mandate to provide family services and we encourage expectations of support. Indeed, people get blamed if they do not take up offers of support. Take for example a hypothetical Family Q. Family Q has a reunification or safety plan which has half a dozen things they must do for the safety of their children.
Expenditure on family services though is rationed and, in real terms, sometimes cut. Family Q are overwhelmed because of ordinary and extraordinary demands and crises. They have a schedule of appointments to keep, only some of which they think will help them. The family support worker has more families and engages less with Family Q for lack of time.
When Family Q misses repayments, appointments and phone calls we think that Family Q is not really serious about doing the right thing. There is disappointment, disillusion and possibly even disrespect on both sides. The relationship with Family Q is now tense, highly emotional, with a heap of shared anxiety and possibly resentment.
The communication from the agency becomes more impersonal and directive. Family Q starts to receive letters of warning, missed calls on their phones, and sometimes more referrals to services they don’t want. Their resistance and resentment grows.
The family services department documents it all and prepares to report on non-compliance.
Family Q makes a complaint that they were not given a chance to prove they could safely care for their children. The court makes a decision that the child is better off in out of home care than living with ongoing uncertainty and chaos.
Trust has gone and all contact with the family services department is avoided, or if it can’t be avoided, is contested.
This story is over-simplified but it illustrates how a public institution that is potentially supportive, cooperative and helpful can shift to one that is controlling and scrutinising. Rule compliance becomes the currency between bureaucrat and client. Managing disagreements in the form of complaints becomes a major part of the business.
The reform underway in our child protection agency is the start of a transformation which needs to be matched with legislative change, family services planning and financial backing.

# See The reference for this letter is primarily in MacDermott, K and Stone, C (August 2013) Occasional Paper: Death by a Thousand Cuts: How governments undermine their own productivity, CPD Australia.


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