Putting children first this week, and always

By Guardian Penny Wright

‘Putting children first’ is the theme of this year’s Child Protection Week. It is an important principle – but one that can be challenging to achieve. In many ways this is the very reason the Office of the Guardian was established in 2005, after the Layton Review of the Child Protection System.  The review found that children in care were the most vulnerable in South Australia and recommended the Guardian role, to articulate and safeguard their rights. It was a means of putting them first within a large and complex system.

There are now more than 4,000 children and young people living away from their birth families in the child protection system in South Australia. Every day my staff and I witness how difficult it is for those managing these demands to put individual children first, ahead of acute system pressures, however good their intentions. The role for my office has never been more crucial – to stand beside each child or young person who needs our support, one among many, and insist that their individual needs and best interests are respected and met.

Some of the most vulnerable of these children are living in residential care. Prior experiences and their lives within the care system will often mean they have experienced significant trauma, with long lasting effects on their emotional wellbeing and sometimes their behaviour. Responding compassionately and effectively to their needs and behaviours has long been a challenge for the systems in which they find themselves. Too often, in the absence of more effective interventions and therapeutic options, the child protection system responds by invoking another system – the justice system – leading to the police, courts and detention. There are very few effective interventions or therapeutic services in that system either.

In 2016, the Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland recommended that children who were considered to be at risk of harm – to themselves and others – should be sent to a secure therapeutic care facility where they would be detained while undergoing treatment for their behaviours.

Forcibly detaining children and young people for treatment or therapeutic care, although they have not committed an offence, might seem an attractive way to deal with their complex behaviours, especially if they habitually leave the place they are living and end up in trouble or are at risk.

But recently, consistent with previous advice from the (then) Guardian, in 2008, my team and I have advised the government against taking up this recommendation. Providing therapies and support for trauma is essential but detention is a drastic step, especially as research indicates that those affected usually have a history of high levels of mental health and social needs that have not been met.

Evidence of the effectiveness of secure therapeutic care is modest and depends on the quality of therapeutic input, the skill levels of carers and effective follow-up support services. In fact, these are the same factors that lead to the best outcomes for children and young people in care, generally – both residential and family-based.

There is already a widely acknowledged lack of sufficient support and therapeutic services for children and young people who need them, especially in residential care. There is a strong risk that secure therapeutic care would just mask this shortage and see children with troubled behaviours, often arising from their care environment, placed in a locked facility to manage a problem for the system. Instead, my office advised that all residential care should have a properly resourced therapeutic approach and that improved intensive therapeutic services should be available for all those children who need them.

Thankfully, the state government recently rejected the Nyland recommendation, a decision I support. In place of the secure care model, the government has committed to roll out a new program called the “Sanctuary Model” to provide therapeutic care across all residential care facilities. This includes providing Department for Child Protection staff at least two days of training, with a select group receiving more extensive training and development to support their colleagues. Training will also incorporate how to respond to the specific needs of Aboriginal children.

What comes next, including how successful this model will be and how the model will be evaluated, will depend on many factors, including its ongoing implementation and proper resourcing.

Twelve years since the Guardian’s first advice about this issue, a more therapeutic approach is long overdue. My team and I will wait with anticipation and hope that this new model will put children first and provide long lasting benefits for the safety and wellbeing of those who live in residential care.

Acknowledging great practice

Working in out-of-home care is challenging. We know so many of you are working hard every day to care for and support children and young people in care.

Whether you are working for the Department for Child Protection, non-government organisations or are caring for a child in your own home, we all play an important role in making a positive difference to the lives of children and young people in care.

From time to time, we hear some wonderful stories about people who go ‘above and beyond’ in their work to ensure children in care are safe, nurtured and helped to reach their full potential. These workers are strongly committed to meeting children’s care and wellbeing needs, converting into practice the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care.

Here are just a few of the excellent practices we have come across in the last few months.

  • A worker in residential care adapted how they presented at work, to help provide consistency to a young person in their placement. The worker adjusted their own lifestyle while working with the young person by wearing the same five outfits while at work, doing their hair and makeup the same way and even eating the same things at the same time! This had a stabilising effect on the young person, resulting in positive behavioural change and reduced times the young person went missing from their placement.
  • A case worker maintained frequent contact (weekly, and sometimes even several times a week) with a young person’s school, therapists, carers and mentor to ensure they were all on the same page regarding the care and case direction of the young person. The worker also contacted the young person at least every two weeks to ensure they knew what was going on and were given the opportunity to make decisions about their life.
  • A school support worker acted as a great Charter Champion, talking to a young person about their rights as a child in care and how the role of our office could help. The worker supported the young person to make a list of thoughts and worries relating to a number of their rights (including contact with siblings, understanding their circumstances, regular contact with their worker, and space and privacy at placement). With the worker’s help, the young person was able to reach out to our office for assistance.

If you know someone who is going ‘above and beyond’ in their work to support the rights of children and young people in care, please let us know so we can acknowledge their good practice and share their story.

Training Centre Visitor team wraps up pilot inspection

The Training Centre Visitor Unit has wrapped up its pilot inspection of the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC).

As November marked the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is timely this inspection – which assesses the conditions and management of the children and young people who are detained there, and ensuring their rights are being upheld – was carried out.

Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright said the inspection is the cultivation of two years of hard work from the TCV Unit staff in establishing the TCV program and building relationships with the residents and staff.

“My dedicated team has worked hard, visiting the training centre every fortnight to advocate for the rights and best interests of the residents. Through this consistent visiting program we have been able to get an accurate picture of what life is like for the children and young people detained in the centre,” Penny said.

“By combining our learnings from the past two years with the voices of residents and staff we have heard during the inspection, we can create a better understanding of how to work together with Youth Justice to ensure the children and young people have a brighter future and have the capacity to reach their full potential.”

As part of the inspection, the TCV Unit staff met with AYTC residents, staff and management to talk about what life is like in the centre, covering topics such as resident safety, health care, cultural rights, respect and dignity, education and training, case planning and access to grievance processes. They also facilitated focus groups and reviewed documents.

Input from residents was enthusiastic and thoughtful and guarantees that our reporting can reflect their voices loudly and clearly.

Here are some of the things the residents told us:

  • ‘The health centre is my favourite place to go – it makes me happy and comfortable.’
  • ‘I like all the staff really’.
  • Respect is ‘talking to me normally and makes me feel good!’
  • ‘I am scared I will lose my grandpa while I am in here – and I am not able to hold his hand.’
  • Respect is ‘being believed and not made to be a liar.’
  • ‘I wanna pass that [year 11] and go do my SACE.’
  • ‘We should get more elders in.’
  • ‘The staff are heaps good. They talk to you in good ways, help you out. They care about you.’
  • ‘I identify myself as a young offender. The kids aren’t proud, they’re scared…’

We would like to thank the children and young people and AYTC staff and management for being part of this inaugural inspection and sharing their thoughts about what life in the centre is like for them.

Findings from the inspection will help shape the way the TCV program and future inspections are run and developed. The inspection also provides valuable experience as we gear up for the imminent introduction in South Australia of the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

A formal Inspection Report will be provided to the Minister for Human Services for presentation to Parliament in early 2020.

Here are some of the artworks the residents created during the inspection.

National principles for child safe organisations

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found many organisations had failed to protect children and to respond appropriately when information about abuse was disclosed.

In response to findings and recommendations from the Royal Commission, the Australian Government commissioned the development of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell led the development of the National Principles, in consultation with relevant peak organisations, children and young people, and Commonwealth and state governments.

Reflecting the ten child safe standards recommended by the Royal Commission, the National Principles go beyond sexual abuse to include other forms of harm to children and young people.

The National Principles apply to government, non-government and commercial organisations, including early childhood services, schools, out-of-home care, sports clubs, churches, youth groups, health services and youth detention services.

The ten National Principles put the best interests of children and young people front and centre. They cover all aspects of what organisations need to do to keep young people safe—from the culture of the organisation and the role of families and communities, to the recruitment and ongoing training of staff and respecting equity and diversity.

Many organisations across the country already work hard to ensure children and young people are protected from harm. The National Principles are not intended to override existing measures, but create a national minimum benchmark.

How will they be implemented?

In February 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Principles.

Alongside the National Principles, the National Office for Child Safety (NOCS) was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the Australian Government’s response to the Royal Commission. The NOCS will work with state and territory governments and organisations to lead the implementation of the National Principles.

In South Australia, the Department for Education will lead the implementation of the National Principles with state-specific resources and supporting tools to be developed. Organisations providing care to children and young people will need to continue to meet the Child safe Environments: Principles of Good Practice while the implementation of the National Principles is progressing.

How can an organisation adopt the National Principles?

Each National Principle is accompanied by key action areas and indicators that act as a guide for organisations to ensure they are implemented in practice.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has developed a range of tools and resources to assist in the implementation of the National Principles. An introductory video provides further explanation on the development and future implementation of the National Principles and a Learning Hub and Practical Tools provide organisations further guidance.

For children and young people

The National Principles are about putting children and young people at the centre of practice. The AHRC has developed resources for children and young people and a version of the National Principles in child-friendly language. It also covers information for parents and carers how to identify an organisation is child safe.

 

New indicators focus on Aboriginal culture and connection

New indicators to be rolled out by the Guardian’s Office in the last quarter of 2016 will  strengthen and sharpen the focus on Aboriginal[1] culture and community connection in its monitoring of residential care.

In her report last week The Life They Deserve, Commissioner Margaret Nyland recognised the over-representation of Aboriginal young people in the child protection system and the significance of maintaining community and culture for them.

Aboriginal children flourish best when they can safely enjoy their land, language, community and culture…

… some Aboriginal children need to reside with non-Aboriginal carers.  Supporting the cultural needs of these children is not tokenistic, but profoundly important…

There is a need to re-focus cultural support in Families SA (…) to ensure that all practitioners have access to advice and support in specific cases, as well as more strategic guidance and training. [2] 

The new indicators have been in development since 2015 when a consultation with young people and the Murraylands community and a review of the literature made clear the importance of maintaining cultural connections in the development of a healthy identity in young Aboriginal people in care.

Senior Policy Officer Alan Fairley said, ‘The indicators align with the Standards of Alternative Care in South Australia which emphasise the right of Aboriginal children in care to know about their cultural identity and their community and to live in a place where people understand and respect their culture.

‘The new Indicators will help us decide whether the care arrangement:

  • makes the child or young person central by helping them understand their current situation and how they can contribute to decision making
  • promotes contact with appropriate people and activities
  • uses appropriate service methodologies and tools
  • enables the effective involvement of a range of carers and other service providers, and
  • has a culturally supportive physical and social environment.

‘And most of all, Advocates will be listening and talking with young people and reporting on how they see their cultural connection being supported.’

For further information about the development of the new Culture and Community Indicators, contact Alan Fairley, GCYP Senior Policy Officer, at alan.fairley@gcyp.sa.gov.au 

We love to hear and publish your comments. Please use the reply space below.

[1] We will use the term Aboriginal to include people of Torres Strait Islander descent in this article.

[2] From Chapter 16 of the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission, The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report, Volume 1: Summary and Report (Government of South Australia, 2016) available at http://www.agd.sa.gov.au/child-protection-systems-royal-commission

This item was also published in the August 2016 Guardian’s Newsletter.

download button

We’d love to receive your comments – please use the reply space below.

Honouring connection to culture and community of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in residential care

1 March 2016

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Article 30

Almost 30 per cent of young people in State care in South Australia are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent, more than ten times the rate of their representation in the general community.  The multiple disadvantages faced by the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community translates into particular challenges for providers of residential care and supporting strong cultural and community connections offers a way forward for young people and the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community as a whole.

Focussing on these challenges, the Guardian’s Office recently released the Literature Review – Residential Care for Aboriginal Children and Young People (August 2015).  This flagged the need for a set of qualitative performance indicators to help monitor and evaluate how the care provided supports the right of the young residents to participate in and benefit from their Aboriginal culture and community.

The Guardian’s Office is developing those culture and community indicators now.

The new indicators will help Advocates monitor how residential care services support the right of the young residents to participate in and benefit from their Aboriginal culture and community connections.  They will complement the Office’s current monitoring practice.

They will also be useful for house managers and staff, complementing in a practical way existing policies and activities such as Aboriginal Identity Planning and other standard practices such as annual case reviews.

What the Guardian’s Office and residential care staff learn from applying the new indicators will be included in the reports we provide to houses and Families SA and to advocate for policy and practice developments.

The new Indicators will focus on how a residential service:

  • helps the young person to understand their current situation and supports their involvement in making decisions about their life
  • supports access to their culture and community
  • uses culturally appropriate tools and service methodologies and
  • involves a range of carers and other service providers in meeting the young person’s needs.

Applying the indicators, Advocates will ask young people directly about their contact with culture and community.  They will look at how the house applies the culturally relevant policy and operational expectations of that service provider and the residential care system and they will assess cultural aspects of the house’s physical and social environment.

Focussing on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in this way will help the Guardian to meet her statutory obligation to ‘promote the best interests of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister, and in particular those in alternative care.’

The Office is discussing aspects of the new indicators with a variety of stakeholders.

The indicators will be included as a part of the information package that accompanies the Residential Care Self-evaluation Survey in June 2016.

For further information about the development of the new Culture and Community Indicators, please contact Alan Fairley, GCYP Senior Policy Officer, at alan.fairley@gcyp.sa.gov.au.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Guardian’s Newsletter.

download button

Young people tell the Royal Commission how the care system should be

a group of young people at the Royal Commission consultation.

.

Thirty-five young people under, or previously under, the the guardianship of the Minister gave their views of the child protection system in a consultation with the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission on the afternoon of 25 March 2015.  The young people were invited to work through a series of scenarios involving an imaginary family and their children and to speculate what could and should be done to support and protect them.

Guardian Pam Simmons said that she was very pleased with the result.

‘As always the young people amazed us with their thoughtfulness, enthusiasm and generosity and I know that the Royal Commission will benefit from the immediacy and relevance of the young people’s contribution.’

While views differed on some of the detail, one young person summed up for all with, “The children must be heard -in their own words.”

The consultation was a partnership between the Royal Commission, CreateSA and the Guardian’s Office, who will share the outputs from the session, with the support of Red Cross SA who provided an excellent meeting space.

 

New Charter of Rights endorsing tool

Endorsing the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care is now more straightforward and efficient with the introduction of the Guardian’s Office online Charter endorsing tool.

Organisations looking to endorse can enter the tool and browse around to find out what endorsement is all about.  They can leave and come back as they wish and finally proceed all the way to the end by applying for endorsement.

Applicants will be able to enter information more conveniently and make changes more easily than with the old paper application method.  We have also added a couple of additional information fields to allow us to work better with endorsed agencies and updated it to take account of the important role of volunteers in some organisations.

The endorsement tool is part of a completely rewritten and redesigned set of Charter information pages which were launched with the endorsement tool for 2013.

Charter Coordinator Meagan Klapperich is available, as before, to provide advice, group presentations and to help with applicants’ questions at every stage.

The changes were prompted by the increase in the rate of endorsements that saw six new agencies endorse in the latter part of 2012.

Read the latest Charter news via our Twitter feed.

link to twitter

What’s been done – September to November 2010

The Office has joined the consultation on the 2010 update of South Australia’s Strategic Plan to propose this target specific to children in care:

Exceed the Australian average for wellbeing of children and young people in out of home care, as indicated by educational achievement, stability and successful transition to adulthood.

We are also supporting new targets for healthy child development and prevention of abuse and neglect of children.  Team members have attended consultation workshops, participated in online conversations and prepared a submission, Making our state a better parent.

The Charter of Rights was tabled in Parliament on 30 September 2010. Two additional agencies, Cora Barclay Centre and West Coast Youth Services, have endorsed the Charter, taking the total to 45 agencies. A survey of agencies who have endorsed the Charter closed on 11 October. The response rate was very high and a report on the findings will be finalised in November.

A discussion paper on improving the mental health of children under guardianship was released for consultation on 16 September. Work on this will continue in November.

Advocate Belinda Walker spoke at the ICAN and Mentoring Statewide Conference, Youth development: everybody’s business, on 27 August focussing on the importance of children’s rights and involvement in developing Individual Education Plans.

The Guardian’s Office has released A Community Visitor Program for Children in State Care report on the feasibility of introducing such a program in South Australia. The report includes background research on other community visitor programs, the outcomes from a discussion with South Australian experts and consultation with the Guardian’s Youth Advisors.

In the period August to October staff from the Office audited 57 annual reviews and conducted 21 monitoring visits.

A report on the Office’s audit of annual reviews of children and young people in care has been compiled and provided to the Minister following opportunity for comment from Families SA.  A Summary of the 2009-10 Audit of Annual Reviews is available in PDF.

With the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS), the Office continued a series of information sessions for the NGO sector about the Information Sharing Guidelines (ISG) and is receiving positive feedback about the booklet A Guide to Writing an ISG Appendix. We have been working with Anglicare and Community Centres SA, formerly CANH, to promote the ISG.

The selection process for committee members for the Youth Advisory Committee (see the article on page 6) was held in August and September and the first meeting was held on 1 October.

The Guardian’s 2009-2010 Annual Report, was tabled in Parliament on
30 September 2010.

The independent Report on the Review of Performance and Effectiveness of the Office that was commissioned in April has been delivered.  As well as the evaluation, the report contains suggestions about needs and priorities gleaned from a wide range of stakeholders which will  be included in forthcoming strategic planning.

The brochure You and your future: choosing the right path to university has been updated and reissued for 2010-11 with the assistance of the three South Australian universities.  Distribution has started with the help of Families SA offices, the Department of Education and Children’s Services, the universities and YACSA.  Copies of the brochure can be ordered from the materials page of our website and can also be viewed  in a PDF version.

The Office responded to the Department for Families and Communities’ consultation on directions in alternative care which closed on 3 September.  The Response to Directions for alternative care is available in PDF on the Guardian’s website.

Fewer children to rescue – more families to help

Pam Simmons Guardian

Working in human services is rewarding and challenging, and child protection every bit so. I was reminded of this during Child Protection Week when I listened to Justice Robyn Layton talk of the need to combine practice supported by evidence of effectiveness, with personalised and individualised service. This requires a high level of skill and use of professional knowledge. A great deal of satisfaction results when they come together to help and empower someone in need.

At the same time, I was reading Rosemary Kennedy’s book Duty of Care in the Human Services: Mishaps, Misdeeds and the Law. The responsibility sometimes feels overwhelming, not for fear of legal action but for fear of getting it wrong and the harm caused. Ms Kennedy comprehensively argues that, while the costs of mistakes are high, the value placed on human services is relatively low. The low value attributed to human services partly stems from society’s unease about the people we serve and the ambivalence about those considered ‘undeserving’.

This ambivalence is seen at times in implementing policy and planning. Six years ago, when the State Government responded to Justice Layton’s comprehensive review of child protection, the resulting plan, Keeping Them Safe, inspired a collective effort to do better by children. It also resulted in two significant boosts to the budget, the first in 2004-05 and the second in 2006-07. The bit of the plan that suffered under the twin handicaps of low value and ambivalence was family services.

As simplistic as this analysis seems, I think society feels good about rescuing children and, at the same time, feels bad, and angry, about parents’ failure. So the subsequent financial and human investment shifts from the ‘feel bad’ to the ‘feel good’.

Those of us who work in human services often end up overwhelmed, and troubled, by rescuing children while lacking the resources to intervene to prevent harm occurring in the first place. Six years ago, at the release of Keeping Them Safe, there were 4.2 children per thousand on care and protection orders. There are now around seven in a thousand. It is not that children are being brought into care unnecessarily. Far from it. Partly it is that decisions to take action are being made when children are younger. Very likely it is also partly explained by curtailed intervention services for families in crisis.

A similar fate awaits the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. Simon Schrapel, Chief Executive of UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide, drew attention to this in a June 2010 opinion piece Can A National Approach Really Make a Difference?. [Sorry, this link is no longer available] Early action on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of out of home care standards and a common approach to assessment, referral and support, he says, will not revolutionise the way we protect children and young people.

What will make a difference to the growing child protection demand are services to families in high need. Our most vulnerable children live in families grappling with drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and violence, sometimes compounded by isolation and poverty. Greater focus on family services by federal and state governments will not stop the growth in numbers of children requiring state care but it will slow it down.

Even if South Australia reduced the growth to five per cent instead of the average nine per cent now, that’s 93 children at the end of the 2010-11 year who would not be in state care. The change would not happen in a single year, and probably not two or three, but it would happen. Fewer children to rescue but more families to help. This is a whole lot more satisfying and empowering for all. And working in human services would be that much more satisfying.