Young people share cultural considerations in court project

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people continue to be overrepresented in South Australia’s youth justice system. In 2017-18, Aboriginal children and young people made up 66 per cent of the average daily 10 to 17 year olds in detention in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre. This is despite constituting less than five per cent of the state’s total population of children and young people.

In response to these concerning statistics, the Courts Administration Authority (CAA) called on Training Centre Advocate Travis Thomas and Advocate, Aboriginal Children Conrad Morris from the Office of the Guardian to assist with a project to interview Aboriginal young people about their experiences in the youth justice, child protection and courts systems.

Travis and Conrad were asked to identify young people that could be involved in the project. They then held an initial workshop to brief the young people on what the process would involve and what kind of questions they may be asked. This created a safe environment that allowed the young people to open up about their experiences.

Despite being initially surprised at being asked to participate, both young people were eager to get involved and share their stories.

Training Centre Advocate, Travis Thomas, behind the scenes of filming

Led by Justice Martin Hinton, this was part of a larger project that aims to bridge the gap in existing cultural awareness training for Judges and Magistrates. The project interviewed Aboriginal South Australians of different ages and from different mobs, including Stolen Generations. It aimed to draw on the experiences of Aboriginal people who have come into contact with the justice system and bring to life the findings of many reports published.

‘That would help us to overcome things like systemic racism and ethnocentrism, and to better understand what we needed to do to deliver justice to Aboriginal people appearing in our courts,’ Justice Hinton says.

The CAA wanted to speak with young people in care and custody because of the known correlation between care experience and imprisonment later in life.

One of the key things Justice Hinton took away from the project is the understanding that things started going wrong for the young people when they were removed from their family and community.

‘Being taken into care and into custody separates them from family, many family members are also in custody. The effect on culture, identity and self-esteem is devastating. They struggle to know who they are,’ Justice Hinton says.

Both young people shared pride in their Aboriginal heritage with one saying, ‘it’s good because it makes me feel like I belong somewhere. Not every person can say I belong to these people and everything like that.’

With maturity and conviction beyond their years, they shared their lived experience of the system and dealing with the intergenerational trauma they have experienced as young Aboriginal people.

Another take away from the project was that young people don’t feel like they’re being listened to when they’re in court.

‘Children and young people in particular can lose their voice in the systems—they are talked at, not too or with. This is a familiar experience within the court system where children and young people rely on their representative to talk for them,’ says Travis.

This was affirmed, with one of the young people saying, ‘sometimes when I’m in court I’ll tell my lawyer to say stuff, he says it but he doesn’t say it in the way that I want him to say it’ and ‘I never understand what they say in court. I always ask to speak to my lawyer after to tell me what happened… You’re just in and out and then you have to be like what just happened, I don’t know.’

The young people involved voiced their opinions on what cultural considerations the Judges and Magistrates need to think about when working with Aboriginal young people.

When asked what they think the Judges don’t understand about being Aboriginal, one of the young people replied, ‘they don’t understand us. They don’t take the time to talk to us properly or talk to people that know us. Like if the Judge sat there and talked to my Nana, I reckon they would think different about me.’

Justice Hinton acknowledges that this program is, of course, not a silver bullet. However, he hopes the understanding taken from project will have a knock-on effect on the profession and begin to filter back into society generally.

‘This project will be a step in the all too slow process of the change that must happen,’ he says.

When asked what they would change about the system, one young person said it would be to ‘employ people who’ve already been through law and that. They could come in and help. Like other Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, but still that’s been through the jail system. They would have a better understanding.’

Many others assisted the CAA and the Office of the Guardian in the project’s development and consultation. These included Steven Van Diermen from CAA, Shane Tongerie from Youth Justice and the Department of Child Protection for supporting the two young people to participate.

Connect to Culture Children’s Day

Last Friday staff from the Office of the Guardian joined in the celebrations of this year’s national Children’s Day at the Aboriginal Family Support Services’ Connect to Culture Children’s Day event.

Now in its third year, the event, which was held at the Parafield Gardens Recreation Centre, was a great way to celebrate the culture and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and learn about the importance of culture, family and community in their lives.

There were a number of activities for children and adults alike, including weaving, painting, boomerang making, face painting, balloon twisting, jumping castles and live music.

To the delight of the children (and adults), Oog also made a surprise appearance and even busted out a few moves on the dance floor.


Aboriginal Family Support Services Cultural Advisor, Barbara Falla organised the third Connect to Culture event.

Office of the Guardian celebrates NAIDOC Week

This NAIDOC week we were fortunate to be involved in a number of events celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year’s theme ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let’s work together for a shared future‘ acknowledges that Indigenous Australians have always wanted a greater role in the nation’s decision making processes.

Office of the Guardian and Training Centre Visitor staff at the NAIDOC Family Fun Day

Office of the Guardian and Training Centre Visitor Unit staff joined in the celebrations at the South Australian NAIDOC Family Fun Day at Tarntanyangga (Victoria Square). The event followed the NAIDOC March and included more than 40 stall holders from government and non-government organisations.

Unfortunately, the rainy weather kept Oog away, but the staff team had valuable discussions and shared some of our resources.

Voice. Treaty. Truth. poster painted by Arrin Hazelbane

Arrin Hazelbane from the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People kindly allowed us to display his poster at our stall after the march.

Office of the Guardian resources at the stall

NZ remand homes emphasise culture and connection

In 2017-18, half of the young people detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre were on remand, awaiting trial or sentencing.  Though not convicted of an offence, they are removed, often far, from family, community and culture adding to their stress and social dislocation and placing them into contact with young people already experienced in serious offending.

Faced with a similar situation, youth justice authorities in New Zealand have trialed a different approach.

Te Whare Awhi or ‘the home of support’ is a community-based remand home in Palmerston North in New Zealand’s north island. It opened in late 2017 and is one of five of its kind across the country. It provides an alternative to youth justice detention or police cells for young people on remand.

The intention is to create a safe home-like environment for young people going through the court process without taking them away from their community.

The length of stay depends on the circumstances, but the average is 30 days.

Kyle Kuiti is the Operations Manager of Youth Justice Residences and was previously Manager of Youth Justice Residence in Palmerston North, including Te Whare Awhi.

‘Taking them away from community strips them of everything…’

Mr Kuiti said this new approach sets residents up for a far more successful transition back to community.

‘Taking them away from community strips them of everything and then we’re left wondering why they fail,’ he said.

Initially, the remand homes were for young people on the lower end of the offending spectrum but they now house those charged with more serious offences for whom it is judged likely to be effective.

Before remand homes were established, there were few options for young people on remand. As in South Australia, young people were placed in youth justice detention because there was nowhere else for them to go.

The remand homes keep young people charged with minor offending away from more serious offenders and help prevent them returning to the justice system.

During their time in the remand homes, young Māoris remain part of the community. They’re encouraged to get involved with sporting clubs and other positive social activities and encouraged and supported to engage with education.

Kyle Kuiti said that initially communities were tentative when the remand homes were opened but now attitudes have changed.

‘When we do community projects now, the neighbours come in to give their support,’ he said.

New Zealand’s Māori young people are over-represented in the youth justice system, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in Australia.

‘Everything we do is wrapped around culture…’

Mr Kuiti said incorporating Māori culture in youth justice is vital and that it’s at the centre of their practice.

‘Everything we do is wrapped around culture. Prior to this, we would talk about culture but we didn’t invest in it,’ he said.

Te whare tapa whā is a Māori model of care. It identifies four areas of Māori health—taha whanau (family health), taha tinana (physical health), taha hinengaro (mental health) and taha wairu (spiritual health).

The model envisages each of these as the four walls needed for the house to be strong. If one wall is weak or out of balance, the house is not stable.

Kyle Kuiti said this approach and model of care works with all young people, not just young Māoris.

‘We might just need to adapt it a little to fit with their culture. It’s not about trying to squeeze a family to fit into the model, it’s about working with them to make it fit for them.’

The remand homes are part of the community, not removed from it. Across New Zealand, iwi—Māori communities or extended kinship groups deliver a range of social services. Kyle Kuiti said it involves working with communities, rebuilding trust and connecting families with available services.

‘It’s about empowering communities to take care of themselves and working with families to determine their needs.’

‘We want to help young people realise they would rather be in communities than in a youth justice residence,’ he said.

The importance of a strong connection to culture

From observations and conversations with young residents, the Training Centre Visitor Unit has stressed the importance of a strong connection to culture for residents of the Adelaide Youth Training Centre – and the New Zealand model has appeal.

‘Allowing young people awaiting trial or sentencing to stay close to their community in a homelike facility would mean they could maintain vital kinship and cultural connections,’ said Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright.

In May this year, New Zealand’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner conducted a review of Oranga Tamariki—Ministry for Children and looked at remand decision-making for young people and their whānau (extended family or local community of related families). Its recommendations include that Oranga Tamariki significantly increase the number of community-based remand and specialist care options and that these facilities be located close to whānau and staffed by people experienced in working with young people.

Aboriginal children and young people in care and juvenile detention 2017-18

Aboriginal[1] children and young people are vastly over-represented in out-of-home care and the youth justice system. The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services 2019 (ROGS 2019) demonstrates that South Australia is no exception.

Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care

Aboriginal children make up a third (33 per cent) of children and young people in out-of-home care in South Australia. This is despite constituting less than five per cent of the state’s total population of children and young people.

Aboriginal children and young people represent 34 per cent of those in residential care, with the majority placed in foster and relative-kinship care.

As the number of Aboriginal children and young people entering care has increased, the percentage placed in accordance with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP) has fallen. ATSICPP seeks to place Aboriginal children (in order of priority) with their family or relatives, within their communities, with other Aboriginal people, or near their community. In 2018, 65 per cent were placed in accordance with the ATSICPP, down from 74.4 per cent in 2009.

At 30 June 2018, 31 per cent of Aboriginal children and young people had been in continuous out-of-home care for between two and five years. At the same time, 41 per cent had been in continuous care for five years or more, which is actually lower than the percentage of non-Aboriginal children and young people (46.7 per cent).

Aboriginal children and young people in youth justice

In 2017-18, Aboriginal children and young people comprised two-thirds (66 per cent) of the daily average of 10 to 17 year olds in detention. This is considerably greater than the national average of 57 per cent.

The number of Aboriginal girls and young women in detention is lower than Aboriginal males, but make up a high proportion of all girls and young women detained.

Spending on youth detention

Our analysis of ROGS 2019 finds South Australia’s spending per child on detention-based youth justice services has moved increasingly closer to the national average in recent years. In 2017-18, South Australia’s spending per child was $213.83, compared to the national average of $215.50. South Australia had the third lowest rate of expenditure per child when compared to other states and territories across the country.

Charts, statistics and more analysis in our Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal Children and Young People in Care and/or Detention from the Report on Government Services 2019, available for download below.


[1] Aboriginal community preference in South Australia is that the term Aboriginal is inclusive of Torres Strait Islander people, a usage we generally adopt in our reports.

Aboriginal children and young people in care and detention

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A new focus on family

By Guardian Penny Wright and Malcolm Downes

The State Government’s newly announced strategy An Intensive Support System for South Australia’s children and families promises a more sustained and holistic response to child protection by shifting the focus to families.  Under the strategy the Child and Family Assessment and Referral Networks (CFARNs), the Child Wellbeing Practitioner and Strong Start programs will be brought together in a new Intensive Support Unit to be formed in the Department for Human Services.

The family, in its many styles and structures, remains at the core of human society.  It is how we care for each other, a basic economic unit, a basis for our sense of who we are, a psychological comfort and a vehicle for raising our children.  It is also the site of some of our greatest problems, of violence, abuse and neglect.  Over generations it can perpetuate our noblest aspirations but also nurture our darkest failings.  For some families, problems with poverty, debt, unemployment, drug misuse, mental illness, family violence, insecure housing and contact with the justice system combine to create major barriers to the enjoyment of the relative wellbeing and wealth that our community has to offer.

Informed by the research commissioned on the back of the Nyland Royal Commission into the Child Protection System in SA, the Department’s planned Intensive Support Unit promises to focus squarely on the families with the most entrenched and challenging issues.  It aims to work with families to identify issues they face and coordinate the services and supports they need in sustained way.  In the past we have striven to ‘rehabilitate’ the individual young offender or ‘cure’ the person with a mental illness without regard for the social circumstances they came from and to which, in all likelihood, they will return.  The Department’s new strategy will refocus the bulk of the family support, domestic violence and children’s support services that it provides and contracts on these families.

‘Troubled Families’

The rationale and structure resembles the Troubled Families program that has been in place in the United Kingdom since 2012. The program recently released its National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015-2020: Findings Evaluation overview policy reportIn the UK program, intervention is based on a keyworker who builds an understanding of problems and of the individual family dynamics. They look at the totality of what’s going on and use what the report calls ‘a persistent and assertive approach establishing a relationship with the family and working closely with them to make sure the family resolve their problems’. The keyworker agrees on a plan with the family and local services so that interventions are sequenced and coordinated and there is a shared ownership of outcomes among service providers.

The evaluation report shows some headline gains including an almost one-third reduction in children being taken into care after a 19-24 month intervention and a one-quarter reduction in young people receiving custodial sentences.  The economic benefits and net budget savings modeled in the report make a strong argument for the UK Government to persist with the program.

We should anticipate that the South Australian strategy, like Troubled Families, will encounter some challenges as it is rolled out.  Services will need to adapt their practice, data collection and information sharing to a family-based way of working – and being funded.  We can look to the NDIS as an example of the difficulties a change of service and funding model can produce for clients and providers if not well managed, no matter how well intended. The shift to a payment-by-results model can produce distortions in the provision of services and a gaming of the system if not well-conceived and managed from the outset.

Aboriginal families

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new strategy will be how well it addresses the outcomes for Aboriginal families. The last Closing the Gap report confirmed that, after more than ten years of investment, we still struggle to provide services to the Aboriginal community that are culturally safe, trusted and effective.  If we shift the focus to families we will have to understand and embrace an Aboriginal concept of family which is very different in how it operates to the white European model on which much of our current system is based.  On top of that we will have to translate what words like ‘disadvantaged’, ‘troubled’, ‘struggling’, ‘complex’, and the many other policy terms governments use, mean to Aboriginal families. It will need to develop an understanding of how Aboriginal families define their needs and what success means to them.

To its credit, the new DHS strategy explicitly acknowledges the necessity for serious Aboriginal involvement in the design and governance of the new system and in the decisions that affect the lives of Aboriginal families and children.  Getting this right for Aboriginal families will be a touchstone for the success of the strategy as a whole and its ability to serve the very diverse set of groupings and relationships that we call ‘family’ in the 21st Century.

Some gaps closed but many remain for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

More than a decade on from the original report, the 2019 Closing the Gap report shows only two of the seven original targets are on track to be met.

Important targets around education, health and employment have expired before they were met, while other targets to halve the gap in life expectancy remain off track.

These shortfalls perpetuate Aboriginal disadvantage and contribute directly and indirectly to the high proportion of Aboriginal children and young people coming into state care and coming into contact with the youth justice system.

What’s been achieved?

The target to see 95 per cent of all Indigenous four year olds enrolled in early education by 2025 is on track to be met. In 2017, South Australia had education enrolments about the 95 per cent benchmark with universal enrolments.

Halving the gap in Year 12 attainment, or equivalent, by 2020 is on track to be met. Nationally, the gap has decreased from 36 percentage points in 2006 to 24 percentage points in 2016.

What’s remains to be done?

A number of the original targets expired last year, on the tenth anniversary of Closing the Gap. These included a target to halve the gap in child mortality. While the rate has declined by 10 per cent since 2008, the gap has widened because the non-Indigenous rate has declined faster.

The national school attendance rate was around 82 per cent for Indigenous students in 2018. There has been no improvement in school attendance rates for indigenous students in South Australia in the last four years. While there has been improvement, targets to close the gap in literacy and numeracy have also not been met.

Large gaps remain between the life expectancy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The target to close the gap within a generation, by 2031, is also not on track to be met.

Targets to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade have not been met. The gap has not only not narrowed, but it has widened.

After 11 years of Closing the Gap significant gaps remain. Ambitious targets were set but many observers have noted that the failure to work closely with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and to make the necessary structural, systemic changes have led to a largely disappointing result.

What’s next?

The latest Closing the Gap report promises a new collaborative approach.

Last year, the council of Australian Governments (COAG) developed Closing the Gap Refresh. It commits the Commonwealth Government to creating a partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to ensure the next phase is driven by principles of empowerment and self-determination.

Indigenous advocates have pushed for new targets to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in out-of-home care.

Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are ten times more likely to enter out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It’s predicted the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will more than triple over the next 20 years without intervention.

In South Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are seven times more likely to be in care than the same age group in the general population and Draft Closing the Gap Refresh Targets mandate targets that will see significant and sustained program to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are still over-represented in the justice system, making up more than 50 per cent of young Australians in detention. Another state led target is to reduce the rate of young people in detention by 11 to 19 per cent by 2028.

Under the new framework, different levels of government are held accountable and responsible for different priorities. State and territory governments will also be required to make annual reports on its Closing the Gap strategies and progress.

The Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Commissioner will also independently review progress every three years.

There is still much of the new strategy that is uncertain as federal, state and territory governments finalise the draft targets and develop appropriate responses. For example, South Australian government released its Aboriginal education strategy late last year to increase outcomes for Aboriginal students but it remains to be seen how it will work to meet these targets to close the gap of young people in out-of-home care and youth justice.

Australia reports to the UN on child rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the most important documents in preserving the rights of children around the world.

Every five years the Australian Government must report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, a requirement of Australia as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Australian Government is currently preparing for its meeting with the Committee, following the release of its report in January 2018.

In this post, we look at two accompanying reports responding to Australia’s report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The Australian Child Rights Taskforce is a peak body made up of more than 100 organisations advocating for the rights of Australian children. Convened by UNICEF Australia, the taskforce released its ‘alternative’ report, which includes the voices of 572 children and young people consulted in 30 locations around the country. It makes 191 recommendations to promote and protect the rights of children in Australia.

Similarly, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an independent statutory organisation promoting and protecting human rights in Australia, released a report. It was written following consultations with approximately 450 children and a further 22,700 through an online national poll on child rights.

While the Government’s report is no longer available online, these two reports look exhaustively at matters relating to children in Australia. We are considering some of the areas relating specifically to children and young people in out-of-home care.

Since Australia last reported to the Committee, there have been 24 separate inquiries, which have each identified issues with the child protection sector. The AHRC report finds the number of children and young people in out-of-home care has increased by 18 per cent in the past five years. The alternative report identifies problems with inconsistency and a lack of emphasis on frameworks being child centred.

Concerns for care leavers

Both reports identify concerns with young people leaving out-of-home care, with the AHRC report finding nearly 35 per cent of young people who leave out-of-home care become homeless. Last year the South Australian Government committed to extending the age young people leave out-of-home care from 18 to 21 years of age.

However, this does not yet include the 11 per cent of children and young people in residential and emergency care. Both reports recommend the Australian Government increase, or consider increasing, the age children leave care and call on governments to implement policy to prepare young people transitioning to independence.

Over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

The reports are both concerned with the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in child protection and out-of-home care. Indigenous children are almost ten times more likely to enter out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.

The alternative report makes a number of recommendations in this area, including the implementation of nationally consistent standards to respect all five elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Placement Principle. It also calls on the Australian Government to commit to ‘Closing the Gap’ targets to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

Transgender and gender diverse young people

Transgender and gender diverse children in Australia can now access Stage 2 medical treatment without requiring court authorisation, but this does not extend to include children and young people in the out-of-home care and juvenile justice systems. These children still require a court authorisation to begin treatment.

What’s next?

The UN Committee will consider the findings of these reports ahead of the formal meeting with Australia. At the end of this process, the UN Committee will provide the Australian Government with its Concluding Observations, which will include progress made by Australia and recommendations for improvement.

While the Committee cannot legally enforce its recommendations, it can provide guidance for the Australian Government to improve its practice and better protect the rights of children and young people. The process is also the opportunity to highlight specific issues, like those discussed above, and create interest for the public and other advocates to hold the Australian Government to account and to take action.

Some favourite artwork from young people in care

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.