Natural advocacy – how you can empower a young person

Children and young people in care have not always had the time and support they need to develop the knowledge, skills or confidence to express their views and advocate for themselves. Navigating the child protection system can be a difficult task even for the most seasoned professionals – and much more so for the children and young people who are caught up in it.

The right to an advocate

One of the rights outlined in the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care is that children and young people have the right to speak to someone who can act on their behalf when they cannot do this.

The number of children and young people in care who may need advocacy support far outweighs the resources of the Guardian for Children and Young People. For this reason, children and young people in care need the adults in their existing network (both personal and professional) to advocate for them. Such adults can, and should, act to ensure that the voice and interests of each child and young person in care are represented.

We call this ‘natural advocacy’.

Natural advocacy supports the voice and rights of the child. As well as having their voice heard and their rights addressed, being involved with the advocacy process can allow young people to learn valuable lessons; that they have rights, including the right to be heard, that rights can be negotiated to achieve better outcomes, and the value of persistence.

As a ‘natural advocate’, you can work with a child or young person to help ensure:

  • they have a place to live where they are safe, cared for and respected
  • their views and wishes are asked for, and considered, in planning such as at care team meetings, case conferences or annual reviews
  • they are given the opportunity to participate in decisions that are made about matters such as school changes, placement moves, or family contact
  • they have access to services such as health, housing, mentors, cultural support, recreation and education
  • their interests, aspirations, achievements and strengths are recognised and supported by the adults around them
  • they know about the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care
  • they know how to access a complaints or review process if things aren’t going well for them, or if they disagree with a decision that has been made about their care.

Your advocacy might involve contacting services and decision-makers directly, or supporting the child or young person to do this themselves.

Challenges in advocacy

One of the most significant challenges a natural advocate may face is that advocacy can sometimes be misread by other care team members, colleagues and/or management as disruptive or obstructive to the work of the care team. Natural advocates may also fear that they will not be as powerful as an external, professional, or more senior voice, and so they may not feel empowered to pursue an issue on the child or young person’s behalf.

This is where the Charter can be helpful. The Charter, which has been widely adopted and endorsed by 88 organisations to date, frames the work of an advocate positively, as a legitimate action that focuses attention on the child or young person’s voice and rights. Grounding your advocacy in the Charter can prompt discussion and reflection, which can in turn promote child-focussed decision-making.

There are a few things to remember if you are going to act as a natural advocate for a child or young person:

  • Wherever possible, it is important to seek the child or young person’s consent to act on their behalf (if they have not asked you to do so).
  • Wherever possible, it is important to seek the child or young person’s voice on matters related to their care, so that this can form the basis of your advocacy.
  • Consider, at the outset, whether it is safe for you to advocate for what the child or young person wants (their safety is paramount).
  • Involve the child or young person in the process as much as possible (depending on their age and developmental capacity), or in accordance with their wishes.
  • Role-model positive communication and team work throughout the process.
  • Be careful not to make promises about the outcome or what you can achieve, but reassure the child or young person that you will do your best to help them have a voice in the process.
  • Be mindful of keeping your own views, complaints or frustrations separate from the child or young person’s voice and needs.

If your advocacy is not successful, be honest with the child or young person about the process and outcome. Support the child or young person to reflect on what they might have learned or achieved through the process, and congratulate them for their bravery, confidence and persistence. In some situations, it might be appropriate to explore whether a compromise can be negotiated, and in other situations, it might be appropriate to pursue a formal complaints or review process.

What next?

If you, or the child or young person, continue to hold significant concerns after you have attempted natural advocacy, you can contact us for advice about other options and/or an assessment of whether advocacy is required from our office.

You can phone us on 8226 8570 (adults) or 1800 275 664 (free call for children and young people only).

Getting to know: our Assessment and Referral Officers


Assessment and Referral Officers Courtney Mostert and Sonia Regan

Have you ever wanted to know what happens when a child or young person in care (or an adult from their lives) calls the Guardian for Children and Young People’s office with concerns about the child or young person’s rights and best interests? We sat down with our Assessment and Referral Officers Courtney Mostert and Sonia Regan to find out.

What is an Assessment and Referral Officer?

An Assessment and Referral Officer (ARO) is responsible for assessing all initial enquiries, including gathering information and determining if there is a role for the Guardian for Children and Young People’s (GCYP) Advocates.

What happens when a child or young person calls the GCYP?

When a child or young person first calls the GCYP they will be directed to us. We will gather information including their name and place of residence, their contact information, and the key issues they are concerned about.

We will attempt to determine if the young person is safe and if the Department for Child Protection (DCP) knows where they are. If the child or young person has a current Missing Person Report (MPR), the ARO has a duty of care to let DCP know of their contact with the child or young person. The ARO is also required to report any reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected to the Child Abuse Report Line (CARL).

Once the information has been gathered from the young person, the ARO, in consultation with the Principal Advocate and the Advocacy Team, will determine whether there is a role for GCYP.

Can an adult call on behalf of a child or young person?

An adult (e.g. carers, teachers, birth parents) who may be concerned about the rights and best interests of children and young people in care can call us. We will explain the role of the GCYP and highlight the office’s focus on the voice and rights of children and young people in care.  We may encourage the adult to support the child or young person to contact GCYP directly, if they are able to.

We will seek information about the child or young person and the adult’s relationship to the young person to determine if the query is ‘in mandate’ and how best to help the individual young person.

What happens if the query/request falls outside the mandate?

GCYP’s role is restricted to advocating for and promoting the rights and best interests of the children and young people who are under the custody or guardianship of the Chief Executive of DCP.

An enquiry is ‘out of mandate’ if it relates to a child or young person who is not under custody or guardianship of the Chief Executive or who is not detained at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (as mandated under the role of our office’s Training Centre Visitor).

The ARO will redirect these enquiries to an alternative service or process that can better respond to the issue.

How do you assess what role the GCYP will take on behalf of the child or young person?

GCYP’s role will look different depending on the presenting issues and the child or young person’s circumstances.

GCYP has a ‘threshold’ for intervention, which helps determine our response to requests for advocacy. The ARO will assess the request against the following threshold:

  • The issue has – or would have – a significant impact on the young person if it is not addressed. This includes where the matter poses an immediate safety risk or the nature of the issue will result in cumulative harm over time.
  • The young person is – or would be – seriously disadvantaged by a decision or a lack of service.
  • The issue has not been – or is unlikely to be – resolvable through other means in a timely way.

Additional consideration is also given to young people from priority groups, including children and young people who:

  • are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • are culturally and linguistically diverse
  • have a disability, or
  • have suffered, or are alleged to have suffered, sexual abuse.

What are some examples of how you can help?

  • Talking with the young person about how they can use their own voice to raise the issue with their allocated DCP worker, their worker’s supervisor, or an existing complaints process
  • Helping the young person to identify someone in their own network who can support them to advocate for themselves
  • Talking with the adult enquirer about how they can advocate for the child or young person as a natural advocate and/or member of the care team, or other steps they need to take before GCYP will intervene
  • Making enquiries with DCP, on the young person’s behalf (and with their consent) to try to resolve the issue, before formal advocacy is necessary
  • Obtaining information from DCP to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the presenting issue/s and submitting a formal, written advocacy position to DCP on the young person’s behalf.

Upon initial contact, the ARO may refer the matter to an Advocate immediately, if it looks like the presenting issues will require ongoing advocacy support.

If the young person identifies as Aboriginal, the ARO will offer for them to speak directly with one of GCYP’s Advocates for Aboriginal children.

Do you address systemic issues that affect a larger cohort of children and young people in care?

We welcome contact from children and young people, and adults in the child protection space, in relation to the broader, recurring issues that affect the rights and best interests of children and young people in care.

One of the GCYP’s functions is to inquire and provide advice to the Minister in relation to systemic reform necessary to improve the quality of care provided for children and young people under guardianship.

Systems issues often take time, and persistence, to improve and resolve. GCYP may not be able to directly or immediately pursue a systems issue you raise with us; however, hearing about your concerns will provide us with unique insight into the circumstances and processes that affect children in care, generally, and will help us to prioritise issues for systemic advocacy in the future.

Quarterly advocacy report sees rise of in-mandate enquiries

There has been a 58 per cent increase in the number of enquiries within our mandate (i.e. in relation to children and young people in care) received by the Office of the Guardian in the last financial year, compared with the previous financial year.

The Office of the Guardian’s quarterly summary of individual advocacy data from April to June 2019 showed that in the last quarter 115 in-mandate enquiries were received, bringing the total of in-mandate enquiries for the 2018/19 financial year to 406, an increase from 256 from the previous year.

It is difficult to be sure about the reason for the dramatic increase but Assessment and Referral Officer Courtney Mostert said the increased presence of the Office of the Guardian’s staff out in the field and identifying individual needs for advocacy certainly contributed to the rise. The increase of children living in state care could also have been a contributing factor.

Of the 406 enquiries received, the majority of children were aged 10 to 17, lived in residential care and were requesting advocacy support.

The top four issues remained unchanged from the 2017/18 year, with having a secure and stable place to live being the greatest concern. This was followed by issues around having contact with their birth and extended family, not feeling safe, and feeling like they’re not playing an active role in the decision-making process for the issues that affect them.

Training centre report reveals residents’ concerns

The Training Centre Visitor (TCV) is an independent statutory officer set up to promote and protect the rights of children and young people on remand or sentenced to detention in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC). The Training Centre Visitor Unit (TCVU) reviews the suitability and quality of the environment and facilities via visits, inspections and review of records. The TCVU is legislated in the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016 and reports to the Minister for Human Services.

Its report on the 10-week pilot visiting program and subsequent review of records was tabled in Parliament on 4 April. The TCVU visited both of the AYTC campuses—Jonal and Goldsborough—five times each over the course of the pilot. The report identifies issues affecting residents of the Centre including unclothed searches, facilities, privacy and access to cultural programs.

Unclothed searches

For any young person, but particularly one with a history of trauma and abuse, an unclothed search can be distressing.

Residents raised concerns with the visitors about the frequency of unclothed searches. At Goldsborough campus, 65 per cent of searches happened after personal visits from family and others. A number of young people reported that they were less welcoming of personal visits due to anxiety about being unclothed searched.

The TCVU is advocating to ensure the correct method of search is used. According to the Youth Justice Administration Act (2016), the Centre is obliged to conduct partial unclothed searches in a way that ensures that young people are not completely naked at any time during the search. The TCVU is advocating for the consistent use of an ion scanner to avoid excessive unclothed searches after personal visits. It is also continuing to review all search logs to ensure they are meeting legislative requirements.

Cultural programs

The Youth Justice Regulations (2016) reinforce that the individual cultural identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people be recognised and their beliefs and practices be supported, respected and valued.

Current and past residents of AYTC have expressed concern about the lack of Aboriginal staff and Aboriginal cultural programming. This is a particular concern at the Jonal Campus where, although numbers are low, the population can be 60 to 100 per cent Aboriginal young people.

 

Information gathered during the pilot period has influenced the development of the program moving forward. From 2019, the TCVU will run based on quarterly visiting rounds, linked to school terms. There will be five fortnightly visits to each campus per term, with less formal visits between terms. The information gained through these visits, along with quarterly reviews of records, will inform the first formal inspection of the Centre later in 2019.

Download the Training Centre Visitor’s Report.


Who asked for advocacy in 2016-17 and what were the issues?

picture of hands putting together jigsaw pieces1 August 2017

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.[1] The remaining 235 in-mandate enquiries represented 321 individual children.[2]  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

19

Safety

15

Contact with significant others

13

Participation in decision making

11

Appropriate care

8

Access to health and disability services

6

Education

5

Understanding their circumstances

5

Nurturing environment

4

Relationship with their case worker

3

Other

11

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.

[1] 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.

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.

The Guardian welcomes Re-Engage into the Charter family

pcture of three people signing the Chater

Executive Officer Linda Symons signs the Charter for Re-Engage flanked by Guardian Pam Simmons and Youth Services Manager Kerrie Sellen.

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.

If you’d like to comment on this, please join the discussion in the panel below.

New resources for those who advocate for young people in care

 

In a new video advocates Amanda, Melissa and Jodie share some of their insights and experience with the many people, of all ages and roles, who strive to make sure that the voice of a young person in care is heard.

If you would like to consider issues about advocacy for young people in care further, you can also download a transcription of the video and discussion questions.

 

Please feel free to use this video and the accompanying materials in your training and we would be pleased to hear feedback and suggestions.  Just click the ‘comment’ link near the headline of this story.

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Advocacy and the child’s context

picture of Pam Simmons

Guardian Pam Simmons

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.
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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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