Below are some quotes collected by Advocates from the Child and Young Person’s Visitor scheme while visiting with children and young people in residential care recently.
The Guardian’s Office received 292 requests for intervention in the 12 months to 30 June, 2017. Of those, the Office found that 57 were out of the Guardian’s mandate. The remaining 235 in-mandate enquiries represented 321 individual children. Of the 235 inquiries:
- 137 were requests for advocacy
- 43 were consultations about action that could be taken regarding children’s circumstances
- 35 were complaints that were re-directed
- 20 were categorised as ‘other’ and included for information only
Some children presenting for advocacy had more than one issue. The main issues were broadly consistent with those of previous years. They were:
|Stable and secure placement|
|Contact with significant others|
|Participation in decision making|
|Access to health and disability services|
|Understanding their circumstances|
|Relationship with their case worker|
The major trends are:
- In-mandate enquiries increased from 145 in 2015-16 to 235 in 2016-17. This increase (62%) is significantly higher than the increase in numbers of children and young people in state care and detention over the same period.
- Young people self-referred in the same proportion as the two previous years but the number increased from 41 in 2015-16 to 71 in 2016-17.
- Enquiries about children and young people in the non home-based care arrangements, (residential care, emergency care and the Adelaide Youth Training Centre) accounted for 53% of the total enquiries. this was greatly out of proportion to their number in the population in state care and detention.
 The Guardian’s mandate is limited to young people in state care and in youth justice detention in South Australia. Out-of-mandate enquirers were referred, where possible, to appropriate sources of assistance.
2 Some enquiries involve numbers of children.
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)
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.
Guardian Pam Simmons presented a Charter of Rights endorsement certificate to a gathering of Re-Engage staff and Board members at a meeting on the 19th of August.
Re-Engage provides a range of programs and services across Adelaide and in Mt Gambier to assist young people to reconnect to education, employment and the community.
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In the Office of the Guardian we get many opportunities to advocate on behalf of children and young people and it is a very rewarding part of our work. ‘Doing it right’ though doesn’t always mean achieving the change the child wants but it means completing the advocacy with stronger relationships and the child or young person feeling satisfied with taking action.
Based on what young people have had to say about participation, advocacy and making complaints, we have a pretty good idea of what works from a young person’s point of view.1
Good advocacy for children starts from listening very well and closely. Clarifying what the child wants in their own terms but being careful not to redefine it to fit our own view of the situation or what would make our life easier.
Jake, 12, wants more contact with his father Colin. Jake’s social worker is of the opinion that Colin is unreliable and self-centred. Colin has made promises to Jake before and has almost always let him down and left Jake unsettled and unhappy. Jake’s foster family are resentful of Colin’s presence. They have looked after Jake for the last four years and have seen him settle into a happy child who attends school and has good friends. Jake has occasional, enjoyable time with his siblings who live with another family. Jake has asked us to advocate for more contact with his father.
Jake’s views are clear. But before we launch into representing his views we have to talk through the context, such as the limitations to his power (his father may let him down), his responsibility to others (what impact will this have on his foster family), unanticipated consequences (the trade-off in reduced time with his siblings).
Advocating for one thing as if it is isolated from all other things is dangerous. This is particularly so when it affects relationships between people and it is an advocate’s responsibility to think this through with the young person.
Invariably, every problem is layered, so exercising power can lie within (or below) the presenting problem. An advocate will negotiate among the parties for some change. In my example, it may not be good or possible for Jake to have more face to face contact with Colin but could he make a connection through Facebook, through Colin’s mother, or by getting more information about his father? And it might be that these alternatives are more palatable to his foster family.
Perhaps the toughest test of good advocacy is timeliness. For us, Jake’s request is just one of the matters in our work life, progressed through meetings, emails, and due process. It is easy to forget what it feels like to be Jake, waiting and hanging on a decision. Persistence and respectful pursuit of a resolution are fundamental to good advocacy.
It is also tempting to take the issue on as if it is our own, to anticipate success for ourselves by arguing well or using our authority, and to assume that the goal is to get what we asked for. The goal is always more complicated than that. Beyond the immediate issue is what we leave behind us when we step out from the advocate’s role. First, did the young person feel in control of what happened during the advocacy or complaint? Did they act for themselves whenever that was possible? (Sometimes they just need to know who to ask.) Did we check back on their views? Did we explain well enough what decisions they could make and what they couldn’t and why?
So even if Jake does not get all that he wants he should be left feeling that he was listened to and his views respected, with a sense of control and empowerment and with the important relationships with his foster family and his worker intact.
1 See for example, Barnes, V (2007) ‘Young People’s Views of Children’s Rights and Advocacy Services: A Case for ‘Caring’ Advocacy?’ Child Abuse Review v.16 pp 140-152; Ofsted (2012) Young People’s Views on Complaints and Advocacy, www.rights4me.org; and drawn from advice provided by the Guardian’s Youth Advisors.
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