Four major concerns for children in care and custody

3 May 2016

One of the Guardian’s Office’s functions is to advocate for children and young people in state care and youth justice detention whose issues are not adequately represented elsewhere. Four issues have consistently dominated requests to the Office for advocacy. They are:

  • unsatisfactory placement
  • lack of participation in decision-making
  • being or feeling unsafe
  • lack of contact with significant others

From 1 July 2012 to 31 March 2016, in 578 enquiries concerning 659 young people in care and detention, these four issues have consistently presented as the prime reasons for seeking the Office’s assistance.(1)

Unsatisfactory placement

Children consistently express preference for a small, home-like environment, if not a family then something that is on the scale of a domestic dwelling with a small number of residents and a long-term stable group of carers. Getting along with fellow house members, being included and feeling comfortable and secure seem of most concern.

Lack of participation in decision making

‘Not listening to me’ is a frequent refrain when children and young people seek advocacy. It is often linked to a substantive issue.  But the failure of adults to appear to actively listen and try to understand and then to explain what they will do and keep the child or young person informed sometimes seems even more important to the child or young person than the original issue.

Being or feeling unsafe

Bullying and actual physical violence means that a child or young person is actually unsafe. Children and young persons also report feeling unsafe where there is consistent acrimony and aggressive behaviour, violence and physical restraint going on around them even if they are not directly involved.

Lack of contact with significant others

Failure by adults to support regular contact with siblings, by birth and sometimes those with whom they have lived, with birth family and extended family and even with ex-carers is a regular cause of concern for young people.  In some cases safety or exceptional practical difficulties are the main cause but often, with advocacy, contact can be increased and regularised by planning and consistent effort by families, workers and carers.

(1) The data on which this is based records requests from two populations, those in state care (approximately 3000) and those in youth justice detention (approximately 50). A small number of young people are in both populations. The Office’s monitoring activity in residential care houses and the Adelaide Youth Training Centre mean that those residents are more familiar with our Advocates and so more likely to request advocacy.  In a very small number of instances, the Advocates have themselves initiated advocacy in the child’s best interests and these are in the data from which we draw the conclusions. In some requests for advocacy multiple issues are present. Those have been categorised by the prime presenting issue only.

Families SA comment on sibling contact

sibling contact pictureIn the context of the Office’s Sibling Contact Inquiry Report, Executive Director of Families SA David Waterford accepted our offer to talk about his own views and some Families SA initiatives. David said:

Getting to know and share experiences with siblings is a big part of growing up and important in shaping our identity and we want children in care to have that experience too.

‘Historically, we have given priority to maintaining contact between parents and children.  In recent times we have had larger groups of siblings coming into care so contact between siblings has become more of an issue.  We also have siblings from dispersed families who have not known each other prior to coming into care who need to be given the chance to develop relationships with their siblings.

‘And all siblings do not necessarily want the same level of contact.  Recently an 11 year old boy was very keen to have a relationships with his 15 year old brother but the brother, understandably perhaps, did not feel it was cool to be hanging around with an 11 year old.  In the end texting was the answer and the two developed a bond via their mobile phones.  Every situation is different and we need to be flexible and creative.

‘Carers mostly take their cue from the children. They will advocate for contact when the child really wants it and will not when the child is ambivalent.  Sometimes carers can struggle with the differing rules and expectations in different households which can create tensions too.  Making sibling contact happen is not always easy.  Finding the time and the resources for carers and children to enable contact can be difficult and at times Families staff will have a lead role.

‘In Famlies we are aware that we do not have a complete grasp of what is happening in sibling contact.  Later this year we will be starting to gather data to find out about our current practice, what we’re doing, what is working and what we can do better.

‘There are some changes we know we want to make already.  We are thinking about arranging more contact which is based around activities.  Trips and holidays with one or several sibling groups could replace some of our less exciting contact activities and locations.

‘We have already made considerable progress in ensuring that the voice of young people is present at care planning meetings and annual reviews but there is still some distance to go.  We want to make sure that workers consistently ask and record what young people want in contact and in other areas.

‘I have great hopes for ACASI* which we are rolling out progressively by 2014-15 with support from the federal government.  This is a web-based survey tool which will allow children and young people to tell us about their care experiences and that will include contact with their siblings.

*Audio computer assisted self interview (ACASI) is an interview tool shown to give more accurate responses than face to face interviews in socially sensitive areas by providing a high level of confidentiality.

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Sibling Contact – what the literature tells us

Because I love them and they’re the most closest people to me; they’re important to me (young person in interview, 2011)

Siblings are very important to children. For children and young people in care the situations surrounding sibling relationships are often highly complex. The number of siblings they have, the time they enter care and the diversity of care situations all contribute to the complexity.  Even who children identify as their siblings can be different to what we would expect.
The Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People is well advanced in its inquiry about what children in care say about contact with their siblings and the impact sibling contact has on wellbeing.  The inquiry includes a literature review which is summarised here.   The forthcoming report will have evidence from a random audit of a hundred case files of children with siblings, and the views of children and young people about contact with their siblings and the effects on them of co-placement, contact and separation.

Most English language dictionaries define a sibling as ‘a brother or sister’ but children in care often form important sibling-like relationships with non-blood relatives.  Culture also plays a major role in defining who is a sibling. The family structure of Indigenous Australians differs significantly from that of Europeans.  Skin, moiety and clan all factor into the definition of family and therefore the definition of a sibling.[1] When making decisions that affect a child it is therefore best to go with the child’s views about who is their brother or sister.

They’re my little brothers. I’ve kind of missed out on seeing them grow up.  Even though I did see them once a fortnight, I didn’t really know them that well. (young person in interview, 2011)

Interaction with siblings can teach social play, cooperation, positive peer interaction, conflict resolution, how their behaviour impacts others, and empathy.  Research from the UK and US has found that sibling relationships provide an ameliorating effect against the trauma, guilt and grief that children often experience prior to and when entering the child protection system and assist in the development and maintenance of self-esteem, identity, permanence and love.[2]

At other times, a child’s stability and psychological wellbeing may be undermined by being placed with siblings, outweighing the benefits of co-placement.  Research has found there is little focus on attachment as a significant area of assessment when considering placement options for siblings.[3] American researcher David Whelan argues that sibling attachment should be a major factor in placement decisions.  He says that assessment of siblings’ relationships and the impact on future attachment is imperative and will lead to improved decision making when determining whether sibling groups should remain intact.[4]

The literature showed that, whilst child protection policy often supports the maintenance of sibling relationships, there is a lack of practical guidance for social workers in deciding about placement and contact with siblings.[5] In practice there are other factors, like lack of suitable placement options, siblings placed far away from each other and siblings moved into care at different times, which mean that co-placement or sufficient contact does not eventuate.

Australian researcher Cas O’Neill suggests that placement decisions made in a time of crisis should be reviewed shortly afterwards, especially when sibling groups are separated following emergency removal from their birth family. [6]

Children and young people will have views and can give advice on what would work for them if siblings must be separated. A brother by birth might ‘rank’ as more important than a brother in a foster family, and a foster sister might outrank a half-sister. Appearances may also be deceiving, with a child’s closest sibling sometimes being the one they fight with the most.

It is necessary to seek children’s opinions when devising sibling contact plans and placement, even if all their wishes cannot be met, and to regularly review such plans because their views may change over time.


[1] Families SA 2009, Clinical guidelines for undertaking psychological assessments with Aboriginal Families within Families SA, Department for Families and Communities, Adelaide, pp. 14-15.

[2] Herrick, MA & Piccus W 2005, ‘Sibling connections: The importance of nurturing sibling bonds in the foster care system’, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 27, pp. 850-851; and Jones, AM 1999, We are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond, ed. A Mullender, British Association for Adoption and Fostering, London, pp. 171-180.

[3] O’Neill, C 2002, ‘Together or separate? Siblings placements: a review of the literature’, Children Australia, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 11.

[4] Whelan, DJ 2003, ‘Using Attachment Theory When Placing Siblings in Foster Care’, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, September, pp. 21-30.

[5] Tarren-Sweeney, M & Hazell P 2005, ‘The mental health and socialization of siblings in care’, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 27, p. 822.

[6] O’Neill, C 2002, ‘Together or separate? Siblings placements: a review of the literature’, Children Australia, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 12-13.

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Children in care and contact with their siblings – literature review

Siblings are extremely important for children and young people in care and the situations surrounding these relationships are often highly complex.  Who children view as their siblings can differ remarkably from traditional definitions, adding to the complexity faced by people making placement decisions.

During 2011 we will inquire: What children in care say about contact with their siblings and the impact sibling contact has on wellbeing.

Children in care and contact with their siblings – literature review looks at what authors have said about keeping siblings together, the complexities of defining ‘siblings’,  the variety of relationships between siblings and uncovers the relative lack of research about the experiences and opinions of children and young people themselves.

Download the Sibling-Contact-Literature-Review-2011 now.

 

Contact with the people who help you feel good

Contact with their siblings is important for many children and young people in care and is widely recognised as beneficial to their happiness, wellbeing and personal growth. The Charter of Rights asserts that children and young people have the right to keep in contact with the people who help them feel good about themselves. The Families SA Practice Guideline for contact also recognises that sibling contact should be given a ‘high priority’.

Positive sibling relationships have the potential to improve resilience, provide support and contribute to the development of identity and belonging. Sibling contact can provide some familiarity and consistency when other things in a child’s life such as placements and contact with parents, may be unpredictable. While contact over the phone or via letter or email is positive, there is nothing like face- to-face contact with someone we care about. This is particularly true for young children, who interact mainly through play.

Children and young people who have experienced being in care have told us that sibling contact is important to them. One of the Office’s Youth Advisors said that face-to-face contact provides reassurance that siblings are there, they exist and they are real as opposed to being someone they only hear about. The Advisor also noted that it is important that young people’s lives are not just made up of ‘workers, mentors and friends’, but involves their biological family including their siblings. Another Advisor added‘ my mentor was like my family for four years [but] you need to know your family…for life after care’.

Some young people regard their carer or foster family as relatives and have the opportunity to experience sibling type relationships in their placement but many young people want a relationship with their biological siblings as well. One of our Youth Advisors reflected, ‘you never get rid of the thought of your family’.

Young people in residential care settings can feel particularly isolated when other residents in the unit or house are having regular contact with their siblings, while they are not.

There are difficulties in making sibling contact happen. Safety is a paramount consideration when facilitating sibling contact. Contact arrangements also should consider the ages, development and nature of sibling relationships. There are many practical challenges to facilitating sibling contact such as long distances between children, the lack of staff and resources to arrange and supervise the contact, managing children in different types of placements and accounting for the varying needs of the siblings.

The Youth Advisors provided us with this final advice about managing sibling contact:

  • case managers should check in regularly with children and young people to find out their views and wishes about sibling contact because they can change. Some siblings want to see each other, others do not
  • consistency is important to ensure arrangements do not change when workers change.
  • young people should receive assistance with scheduling and organising contact regularly so they do not have to navigate the system alone.
  • consider confidentiality – some siblings are not having contact and do not know where their sibling is living

Aboriginal kids in care

Gino websize

Gino Iuliano Advocate

In Australia Aboriginal children and young people are in alternative care at almost nine times the rate of other children. The size of the over-representation and the consequences mean we should take a look at some of the specific issues surrounding Aboriginal kids in care.

Perhaps it is hard for non-Aboriginal people to completely understand and feel the impact of the powerful network of relationships that hold together traditional Aboriginal communities where brothers and sisters are indistinguishable from cousins, and uncles and aunts take on many of the roles and responsibilities of biological parents in European families. Even for me as an urban Kaurna man, the network of relationships, support and obligations is more complex and extensive even than in my family-oriented Italian heritage.

The removal from family of an Aboriginal child comes at a great cost no matter how necessary and justified. The tearing away from kin and country causes great anguish and sadness and, as we have seen with many from the stolen generations, lives marked by despair and self destruction. Keeping children out of care by intervening early and supporting birth families to care better is ideal but these services are not always provided.

In our legislation and in our practice we make a special effort to maintain family and cultural connections for Aboriginal kids but sometimes the nature of Aboriginal communities and the fostering relationship can present particular issues.

Finding foster or kinship care within the child’s community would seem the best solution but resentment by biological parents can cause friction in close communities or when groups come together for events such as funerals. Finding foster care outside of their immediate communities, even with Aboriginal families, can mean a major separation from the child’s extended family, country and culture. For these children we need to make a deliberate effort to maintain and rebuild these connections.

Much of the day to day commitment to maintaining cultural connections inevitably must come from foster carers who provide the 24/7 care. We ask much from our foster carers in this regard. We look for and encourage carers who will welcome children into their families and develop enduring loving relationships with them. At the same time we ask that they consciously and deliberately support a cultural maintenance process that requires considerable effort, can be upsetting to the child and ultimately may lead to the child deciding to discard them entirely.

Having the right sort of conversations with foster carers at the start of fostering can help. Carers’ understanding of the importance to Aboriginal children of kin and culture and of building a realistic picture of their birth family is important, as is a mature acceptance by carers of the sometimes transitory nature of fostering.

Government and non-government agencies have services and resources to help. In the Aboriginal Family Support Service’s (AFSS) Mirror Families Project, a specially trained worker engages with Aboriginal family networks to build practical support which enables kids to be cared for within their own communities, mirroring what an extended family would provide.

Relevant and attractive tools like the AFSS’s Lets Talk Culture and Liz Tongerie’s soon to be published Aboriginal Life Story Books make the job of engaging Aboriginal kids about their kin and culture easier for workers and carers alike.

Families SA is set to provide additional support and structure to the way in which the maintenance of Aboriginal identity is built into case planning. A new practice framework, planning guide and planning template, supported by a rollout of training has been successfully trialled with social workers in regional areas.

Fiona Ward, Director Country, explained to me how Families SA will continue to direct all resources possible into building relationships with Aboriginal communities. She said that recognition of cultural issues is also fundamentally important for Families SA when addressing housing, health and education issues in partnership with Aboriginal communities and key to providing safe and healthy environments for Aboriginal children.

Prevention services like those provided under the Stronger Families, Safer Children  program are vital to bring about the required changes.

The Guardian’s field consultation in 2008

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian


I travel the state between September and December each year to ask agencies and workers how well the care system is working for children and young people. The information I collect is the basis of further discussions with key agencies and a report to the Minister. My thanks to the 295 people I met at 27 locations for their participation.

Below is a summary of what I heard.

Stability and security

The consultation indicates that the majority of children are in stable and secure placements but for the estimated one in ten requiring change, the options are few. Demand for emergency placements has substantially increased. There are reported improvements in the quality of care provided by commercial carers and residential care workers in transitional accommodation. The over-crowding in Families SA residential facilities and the consequent risk to residents is of deep concern. See Centres a risk to child safety.

The relationships between carers, social workers and alternative care support workers are generally good. The support to relative carers has improved as has their access to respite services, though the demand for respite still outstrips provision. Specialist training for carers in country areas is sparse.

Family contact and cultural identity

There is reported high compliance with parental contact requirements. There is some concern about whether this meets the needs of children. Reunification services should be readily available to young people who choose to return to families after long separation under state guardianship. Getting a mentor appears to be inconsistent. There is tension and hesitancy about how well knowledge of cultural identity is supported and some concern about delays in placing Aboriginal children with family. There are emerging child protection problems, including adolescents at risk, in refugee communities.

Health and disability services

The benefits of the Rapid Response commitment are still evident in cooperation between agencies, familiarity with the needs of children in state care and improved access to services. Waiting times for therapeutic assistance are growing again and are up to six months in some regions for high-priority referrals. Access to disability services has improved markedly overall although there are persistent issues for young people making the transition to adult disability services.

Education and development

Consistent with the 2007 consultation, participants reported mostly good communication between schools and Families SA, largely attributed to the introduction of Individual Education Plans. There is some indication, though, that momentum had slowed which has already been addressed by DECS and Families SA with refresher training offered. Predictably but regretfully the cooperation comes unstuck over payments to support children who need additional assistance in school. As a result children are disadvantaged by delays in school commencement or fulltime attendance. There was relief that the school retention program will continue in Families SA and that DECS continues to give priority to children and young people under guardianship.

Participation

Families SA workers reported satisfaction with the level of participation of children and young people in decision-making. However other evidence demonstrates there is much more that could be done to involve and empower children and young people in case decisions.

Relationship with case worker

There are reported improvements in case worker responsiveness, professionalism, consistency and communication from 2007. However there are a growing number of ‘unallocated’ cases where contact is minimal.

General

The overall impression is that, despite high demand, workers across agencies are focused on the children for whom they have a duty of care or guardianship. The growing sense of order and professionalism in Families SA continues, as does enhanced inter-agency work. While there is still much progress to be made in realising the benefits for children in respectful ‘care teams’ there are improvements in the day to day interaction between carers, social workers and carer support workers. Services and accommodation for children with high needs and stable placements for 12 to 15 year olds emerged as two significant issues. There was also a rising sense of indignation that collectively the state could not provide what children are entitled to.

Office of the Guardian’s Monitoring Framework

The Office of the Guardian’s Monitoring Framework is the basis of our monitoring and intervention.  It is derived from the Charter of Rights and contains 12 statements which encompass our aspirations for children and young people in care.

  1. This child lives in a kind and nurturing environment.
  2. This child is safe and feels safe.
  3. This child is loved.
  4. This child is receiving appropriate shelter, clothing and nourishment.
  5. This child is cared for in a placement that is stable and secure.
  6. This child has a secure personal space to which she/he can withdraw and where personal things are kept safe.
  7. This child has contact with family, friends, and cultural community that provide emotional support and identity.
  8. This child has access to health and disability services that meets his/her needs.
  9. This child is getting an education suited to her/his needs and the opportunity for artistic, cultural and sporting development.
  10. This child understands to the full extent of his/her capacity why he/she is in his/her current circumstances.
  11. This child has knowledge of and participates in decisions that affect him/her.
  12. This child has regular contact with the same case worker who is skilled, knowledgeable, respectful and advocates energetically in the child’s best interests.