The future of the Child and Young Person’s visitor scheme

In 2016 Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland made it clear there were serious concerns and risks for the many children and young people living in residential and emergency care in South Australia.

Nyland recommended a community visitor scheme for children in all residential and emergency care facilities to be developed to address these concerns, and so the Child and Young Person’s trial visitor program was born.

Over the two-year trial period we worked towards developing, implementing and reviewing the scheme and how it would work. We visited 99 children and young people (aged from 2-17 years) across 24 individual facilities managed by the Department for Child Protection – some of these facilities we visited several times.

In addition, we conducted serveral group discussions with young people who live or have lived in residential care to find out what life is like for them and how the visiting program would work, as well as what being safe in residential care means.

A big challenge we faced with mapping out the program was the lack of evidence based learnings from similar children and young people visiting schemes, so we spent some time considering the purpose of the scheme, the nature and frequency of visits, the criteria for determining which children, or facilities, should be visited and the expertise required of the visiting advocates.

Ultimately, based on our research and hearing the voices of children and young people, we determined the primary purpose of the scheme was to enhance the safety of the children and young people living in the facilities visited.

Reflections of the trial program

Here are just a few of our reflections from the trial program:

  • The visiting program needs to be flexible and responsive to the needs of individual children and their varying backgrounds and situations.
  • Qualified advocates, including those with training and experience for children and young people living with a disability, would be needed to prepare, carry out the visits and provide post-visit reports and follow ups.
  • Visits were most successful when children and young people were prepared and informed about the role of the program and the advocates.
  • Regular and relatively frequent visits were needed to build connections and trust between the young people and the advocates.

Recommendations

Throughout the trial we presented the Department for Child Protection (DCP) with many recommendations regarding the facilities and residents we visited to address safety issues, individual resident needs, improvements to facilities, support for staff and for staff competencies and training.

The recommendations also addressed systemic issues that affected the residents (particularly those living in the larger units) concerning placement planning and decision making, staff responsiveness for children and young people with disabilities, and the quality, training and management of staff within these facilities.

At the end of the trial program we provided the department with 14 overall recommendations about what the scheme should look like, including, but not limited to:

  • ensuring the scheme’s purpose and principles are clear
  • focusing both on the ‘rights’ and the ‘best interests’ of children and young people, rather than one or the other
  • ensuring facility staff promote and facilitate visits to the facilities
  • allocating sufficient funding for the recruitment of qualified and trained advocates – especially those with experience working with children and young people with a disability – to undertake both pre- and post-visit tasks as well as visits themselves
  • recruiting an appropriate number of Aboriginal staff that reflects the proportion of Aboriginal children in residential and commercial care
  • amending the legislation to provide the Child and Young Person Visitor’s role with the same powers as the roles of the Guardian and the Training Centre Visitor.

In conclusion

Four years on from Commissioner Nyland’s report, the concerns and risks for these young people remain. Our office continues to receive a significant and increasing number of advocacy matters from young people living in residential care who are concerned about their safety, placement matching and their lack of connection to family and culture.

There are now more than 180 residential care facilities in South Australia, and it is evident this form of care is not going away any time soon.

The trial scheme has ended and we are currently awaiting a final decision as to whether funding and support will enable the establishment of a formal visiting scheme in the future.

You can download the final report.

Celebrating Care Day

Today is international Care Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of children and young people with a care experience and helping to break the stigma around being in care.

We sat down with Guardian Penny Wright to talk about the importance of the day and what she hopes to see for the future of children and young people in care.

Happy Care Day!

 

What does being safe mean in residential care?

As part of the Child and Young Person Visitor trial program we asked a group of young people who used to live in residential care what being safe in residential care means to them. Their answers were both expected and surprising.

Together with Relationships Australia South Australia we sat down with these young care leavers to get a better understanding about what young people think constitutes being safe in residential care and how the role of the Child and Young Person Visitor scheme could help in recognising and responding to safety issues.

We discovered that being safe doesn’t just mean living in an environment free from physical harm, but it also means being supported by a network of people who accept you for who you are and help you overcome the challenges that life brings. Trust and feeling in control of your life was also a strong driver in feeling safe.

The findings from what the young people told us were summarised in the Safety in Residential Care report and fell into three distinct themes.

Stability and security

Young people said being safe is not being re-traumatised by sudden changes, unexpected situations or stressful environments. It is knowing what is going to happen in your life, having routines and habits, and having strong and consistent relationships.

“Knowing who will be in the house, kids and workers. And knowing how long you’ll be somewhere.” – Young care leaver, when asked about what safety is. 

Belonging and support

Young care leavers discussed being safe as a sense of belonging to a group, community and/or culture. It meant being welcome, loved and supported, being included, cared for, consoled and celebrated. They said having a comforting and comfortable, personal and homely environment plays an important role in this.

“Carers who actually care.”  – Young care leaver, asked what would have made them feel safer in residential care.

Trust and ownership

According to young care leavers, being safe is being respected and trusted by those who care for them; and having a reasonable degree of freedom and a say in decisions that affect them. This leads to a sense of ownership over their lives and a greater feeling of empowerment, as well as a greater degree of independence and resilience.

“Having a say. Having input. Having control over your life and environment.”  – Young care leaver.

How can the visitor scheme recognise and respond to issues in a residential care facility? 

The young people we spoke to shared a number of ways the visitor scheme could work in recognising and responding to safety issues in residential care facilities.

The visiting advocate should:

  • educate the young people about their rights and where to get help if they need it
  • visit a facility regularly and by the same advocate each time
  • look at the facility itself, how it looks, whether it is maintained, how comfortable and ‘homely’ it is
  • assess the safety of the neighbourhood in which the facility is located
  • not ask directly about whether a young person is safe but ask simple questions that align with the concepts of safety
  • be clear with children and young people about confidentiality in what they have shared
  • talk to the workers to get a feel for the relationship between workers and young people
  • assess the behaviour of the young people, being mindful of trauma responses (eg self-harm)
  • always ask what young people think and what they want to happen.

Download the Safety in Residential Care report.

If you missed last week’s article about young people sharing their view about living in residential care catch up on our blog.

Next week we will look into the trial program’s final report and the formal recommendations we have provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister for consideration.

 

Young people share their views about living in residential care

Making residential care facilities more ‘home-like’ with fewer residents, was just one of the many suggestions young people living in residential care made as part of an exploration into what life is like for this cohort of young people.

This article is the first of three which looks into the reports and findings from the Office of the Guardian’s Child and Young Person Visitor trial program which wrapped up late last year.

About the trial program

One of the recommendations that came out of the 2016 Nyland report was to have an independent visitor scheme to promote the best interests of children and young people living in residential care, and so the role of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor was established.

Penny Wright was appointed the inaugural Child and Young Person’s Visitor in 2018 and together with the program’s team went about setting up a two-year trial to investigate how the scheme would work.

As part of the trial, two projects were conducted to seek and incorporate the views and perspective of children and young people living in residential care.

The first project was to conduct a focused literature review and interview young people who currently live or once lived in residential care and to better understand how an independent visitor could make a difference. The second project was to interview young people in residential care to discuss what being safe in residential care looks like.

Findings from both projects were collated in the What Matters to Us report which we will look into further here. Detailed findings from the second project is available in the Safety in Residential Care report which we will explore further in next week’s blog post.

What Matters to Us report

Our office contracted Ulrike Marwitz to carry out the literature review, help conduct interviews with children and young people and prepare the findings in the What Matters to Us report.

Ulrike found that the themes from the four Australian reports she reviewed, were consistent with the feedback gained from the young people she interviewed.

So what did the literature and young people tell us about living in residential care?

  • Contact with adults who show care is important to children and young people living in residential care.
  • Children and young people want residential care facilities to be more home-like.
  • Children and young people with a care experience felt a stronger sense of safety in facilities with smaller numbers of residents.
  • Placement matching (who young people are placed with, and where) impacts young people’s sense of safety and belonging.
  • It is important to acknowledge children and young people living in residential care may have different perspectives or priorities than the adults in their lives.
  • Children and young people showed an awareness of challenges faced by staff, including high caseloads, staff retention and recruitment and budget restraints.
  • Children and young people expressed a desire to be recognised as individuals.

What did young people say they would like from a visiting program?

Here are some of the things young people would like to see from an independent visitor and visiting program:

‘It [visits] should be regular, probably once a week. If it’s a smaller place – not as many incidents, probably once or twice a month.’

‘Consistency is important – unless the child says they want someone else, have the same person who visited do the follow up and do future visits.’

‘Let kids know you are not DCP and what you do.’

‘Some people would want to meet one on one [with the advocate/visitor]; others are more confident in a group with others they know around, especially the first time – it depends on the person.’

‘It’s important to tell kids what will happen with what they have said, if there is going to be follow up tell kids that. Kids need to be reassured that what they’ve said won’t just be told to everyone…. They should be in control of where their information goes.’

‘Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble for anything they have said.’

The future of the Visitor role

While the functions and structure of the Child and Young Person Visitor Scheme have been legislated, the scheme has not yet formally commenced.

The final report of the trial program has now been provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister, for consideration.

We hope that the learnings of the trial program and the various reports it generated will contribute to a funded and supported scheme that will make life better for children and young people living in residential care.

Download the full What Matters to Us report. Stay tuned for next week’s blog when we delve into the Safety in Residential Care report.

CREATE celebrates 20 years

This year CREATE Foundation turns 20 and is celebrating with a number of birthday parties across Australia.

Earlier this month, Guardian Penny Wright attended the festivities in Adelaide, which included a lunch provided by the Rapid Relief Team, along with face painting and balloon twisting.

‘It was great to attend CREATE’s 20th birthday at beautiful old Brocas House in Woodville and celebrate their crucial role in the lives of many children and young people in care,’ Penny said.

‘Young people often tell me CREATE is there for them and how connected, supported and genuinely respected they feel,’ she said.

CREATE is the national body representing the voices of children and young people with a care experience. They offer programs, services and support across Australia for children and young people in foster care, kinship care and residential care.

CREATE can also be a strong and stable influence and connection for young people in care when everything else is changing at 18.

Sonja Brown is one of the young people whose life has been influenced as a result of CREATE.

‘I first had contact with CREATE when I was about 13. But I really got involved with them at 16. I went to every camp and helped plan some of them,’ she said.

‘They were the first people I contacted when I was kicked out at 18. They referred me to some youth housing services. When I told them the other services wouldn’t help me because I had a pet they still tried to help me find emergency housing,’ she said.

Sonja Brown has gone on to become a Young Consultant through CREATE’s Speak Up training, working to help other children and young people in care.

Our Office would like to say a big happy birthday to CREATE, and congratulations on the support you have given to the children and young people in care over the last 20 years. We echo what young people tell us: You really are awesome!!

CREATE SA State Coordinator Amy Duke, our Community Advocate Karina-Michelle Yeend and Guardian Penny Wright, and CREATE Youth Consultant Lisa Hoggard

Sonja Brown and Guardian Penny Wright

Guardian Penny Wright all smiles with other party guests

Clowning around

Education of young people in care

For children and young people in care, the benefits of education go far beyond grades—it’s an opportunity to meet friends, learn new things and find a sense of stability. The Guardian’s report, Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2018 looks at how well the system serves their needs and identifies a number of ongoing trends.

In 2018, 60.9 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in South Australian Department for Education (DE) schools, up from 57 per cent in 2017. The remainder may be enrolled in non-government schools, below school age or not enrolled for other reasons.

In the same period, 34.7 per cent of children and young people in care in DE schools identified as Aboriginal, which compared to 6.4 per cent of all students in the DE population.

Absence and attendance

Children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools show a higher rate of absence at 13 per cent, compared to 9.5 per cent for the general school population. Absence rates are higher for students in secondary school than for those in primary school.

The report also finds Aboriginal children in care are more likely to be attending school than Aboriginal children not in care.

Suspension and exclusion

According to the report, suspension and exclusion rates are consistently higher for children and young people in care than the broader cohort. The DE defines suspension as times when the student does not attend school for one to five days and exclusion as when the student does not attend for four to ten weeks, or the rest of the term or semester for students over 16.

Students in care in DE schools are suspended at a rate four times higher than DE students not in care and the report identifies violence and the main reason for suspension.

Learning and intellectual disability

The proportion of children and young people with an identified disability continues to be significantly higher for those in care than the broader school population.

In 2018, 30.3 per cent of students in care in DE schools were classified as having a disability, compared to the state average of 9.8 per cent.

NAPLAN results

Data consistently indicates children and young people in care in DE schools achieve poorer outcomes in NAPLAN in relation to meeting the National Minimum Standard.

Participation rates in NAPLAN testing are low for students in care in DE schools. While many have valid reasons for not participating, this makes tracking the experience of young people in care difficult. For example, only around half of eligible Year 9 students participated in NAPLAN testing in 2018.

Check out the Guardian’s report Children and young people in state care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-18 for further analysis, available below.

Stability and certainty in care

3 November, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #9

The team from the Guardian’s office have analysed the 850 pages and 260 recommendations from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report[1].  We have extracted some themes and priorities to allow us to critique the government’s response, judge the improvements over time and to shape our own work.  Following is a description of the issues and a short list of things to watch for in the reform process.  The first eight in the series are available.[2] We will post the rest over the next few weeks. [3]

We would hope for all children that they are safe and settled in a care situation that fulfils all of their needs.  Commissioner Nyland describes how this is not always the case for South Australia’s children even from the point at which they enter care.

Once removed, the child’s need for stability and certainty is given insufficient weight. Attempts to reunify children with their parents drag on for far too long, causing instability as well as denying young children the certainty of the attachment relationships crucial for their development…many children taken into care are subsequently reunified with their parents when the issues that undermined their safety in the first place have not been sustainably addressed.

She recommends that formal permanency planning should start with the imposition of the court order that places the child into care and that time limits be set for reunification efforts after which long-term orders should be sought.

The current system fails to assign to every child in care a social worker who regularly visits and this failure raises stability and safety issues for children.  Annual reviews of the circumstances of each child in care, also required by legislation, are sometimes not done or done poorly,  which removes another level of safety and continuity that should be in place.

South Australia has an extraordinarily high rate of placement instability compared to other Australian jurisdictions…Placements that appear to be in danger of breaking down should be promptly identified. Early therapeutic support would help carers who may be having difficulty in coping with the challenges of caring for children with high or complex needs.

Each time a child changes placement it can inhibit the formation of attachments to people, place and community, undermine formation of healthy identity and disrupt schooling.  Children can be further distressed by having little or no say in the decision making, timing and destination of new placements.

A young person’s need for stability and support does not cease when they turn 18. In a later post we will consider how they can be assisted to make a smooth transition to independence and the support they need to continue through further education, entry into the workforce and beyond.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

  • Permanency planning for children that commences at the time of an order bringing a child into care.
  • Concurrent  planning being given greater emphasis in case planning, especially for children while they are forming attachments.
  • Annual reviews being universal, independently chaired and subject to revised and more rigorously enforced standards.
  • A review of the reasons for the low level of Other Person Guardianship in South Australia.
  • All children currently receiving a differential response be assessed for eligibility for Other Person Guardianship.
  • Every child in care being allocated a social worker who visits them at regular intervals determined by an assessment of the circumstances and the child’s preference.
  • Involvement of the child in discussion about the need for placement change and how and when it will occur.
  • The inclusion of the voice of the child in all discussions at which decisions are made about significant matters that affect them.

Please join the discussion via the reply box leaving a name and an email address in the spaces provided.  We will remove them from the published post if you request in your reply.


[1] Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report,
[2] See also posts on Coordination and Collaboration, The voice of the child , Emergency care , Residential care, Home-based care, Therapeutic care – everywhere. Aboriginal children and Education.
[3] This is not intended to be a précis of Commissioner Nyland’s report which provides a very clear and readable summary.  Because of the Guardian’s mandate, this analysis will tend to focus on issues for children in out-of-home-care.

Changes to the Charter of Rights – results of the Charter Champions’ Survey

words chater of rights in a speech bubbleAs well as speaking with over 30 children and many adult stakeholders about necessary changes to the Charter of Rights, the Guardian invited Charter Champions to have a say via an online survey.  There were many specific observations made by respondents to the survey which you can read in the survey report at the link below. The general thrust of comments was very similar to those from other sources, such as:

  • the content of the Charter and the way it was expressed were pretty much OK with some minor wording changes
  • there was need for more age/literacy level relevant material explaining rights to children
  • there was a great need for tools and materials for workers, carers and others to discuss rights with children
  • there was a need for more education material to assist individuals to learn and organisations to inform staff how to make use of the rights in their work with children.

Many thanks to the Charter Champions who were able to contribute and especially to those who offered to be beta testers for future Charter materials.  We will be in touch!

Download the Charter champions Survey results.

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Annual Reviews – the most important thing we do?

 

picture of Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

I write this letter fresh from the celebration of a new year which, for many of us, is a short holiday and time to take stock.  The brave among us make resolutions. Some people are good far-sighted life planners, others are good at setting bite-sized goals with or without a life plan.
Planning for children is usually in the hope of giving them the best start for a secure and fulfilled life.  It is usually wrapped up in planning for the family and is done as and when big (and small) decisions crop up.

Planning for children under guardianship of the Minister is complicated by the number of adults involved and the procedures required of public administration.  In many ways though, it is the same.  The decisions range from the day-to-day care to the critical ones about moving house or changing school.  Less frequent is the time to dream, aspire, and hope for what we want for the child.

The Children’s Protection Act requires an annual review of a child’s circumstances when the child is under the long-term guardianship of the Minister. Administration of an annual review checks off on the ‘life domains’ for a child, such as physical and mental health, education, family contact, and placement. More significantly though, it is a ‘pause’ in the day to day business of parenting a child who is in care. It is a time for reflecting on the goals and ambitions, achievements and challenges for each child or young person. It is sometimes the one time in a year when the many adults in a child’s life can confer on whether they can ‘parent’ better.

A high standard of annual review is one where the focus is on the quality of the child or young person’s care arrangements with consideration given to their stability, sense of belonging, connectedness to carer and birth families, cultural identity, physical safety, emotional security, development opportunities, academic achievement and the child’s wishes now and for the future. It is not an administrative process. The child, their carers, relevant agencies, and where appropriate, the birth family, should be included.

In the very busy and demanding work of child protection agencies, the reasonable response to a non-urgent task that requires a heap of coordination, is to defer or ration it by doing the minimum.

But if we shift our way of thinking about this, it is possible that an annual review could become the most important thing to do, and the most enjoyable.

Just for a moment, if I stop being ‘the worker’ and become ‘the parent’ I want to know how she (the child) is, what she thinks, what brings meaning to her life and what she finds funny or misses or hopes for.  I look forward to asking about her and to sharing what I hear with others who want the best by her too. I listen closely to what others say about her because they see parts of her life I don’t. I want to prevent the hurts and disappointments, and if I can’t do that I want to be sure that she has someone to help her through.

Workers aren’t parents of the children in care. However, to a greater or lesser extent, they have parenting responsibilities, together with a bunch of others and especially the carers. There lies the joy. In our new way of thinking, this is the one chance in a hectic year to acknowledge the parenting achievements and challenges, and those of the child.

Senior Advocate Amanda Shaw joins annual review panels for the purpose of auditing.  She tells me of reviews that are joyous or wretched, and sometimes both. The reviews done well are heavily influenced by the Manager’s attention, the panel chair’s skill, the social worker’s knowledge of the child, the information from others such as the school teacher, the carers’ input and the child’s presence, in person or ‘voice’. A good review takes an hour and balances heavy topics with light, and has both detail and open discussion. Everyone leaves the review knowing what is to be done by whom and by when, and with a good sense of this child and how they are faring.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the annual review is mandatory because it must feel imposed. If instead it was triggered by an anniversary or a celebration, like the start of a new year, then everyone would approach it with enthusiasm and anticipation. In the real world of too much to be done and too little time, if not approached with enthusiasm, at least with knowledge of the significance of the discussion to this child’s future.

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