Breaking down communication barriers in youth detention – the real difference “speechies” can make!

Senior Speech Pathologists Melissa Saliba (left) and Larissa Ashton

It is estimated 90% of young people in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC) are at risk of having a language difficulty*. A language difficulty is when a person has trouble understanding what is being said to them and is unable to express themselves clearly through their words, sentences and stories. And the effects of such a difficulty can be devastating.

“A person ‘at risk’ of having a language difficulty means if they underwent further detailed assessment, it is quite possible they would be diagnosed as having a language disorder,” according to Senior Speech Pathologist with DHS’s Youth Justice Division, Melissa Saliba.

“When a person cannot communicate and process language well, they can become frustrated, and if they are not supported or their needs are not met, it can result in the downward spiral of disengaging from school and making poor decisions,” Melissa said.

Melissa is one of the speech pathologists working with young people in the youth justice system (including in the AYTC) as part of Youth Justice’s state-wide rehabilitation program. The program aims to give young people access to speech pathologists, psychologists and occupational therapists, to help improve their short- and long-term outcomes.

AYTC Senior Speech Pathologist Larissa Ashton said the biggest problem is that communication difficulties often go undiagnosed.

“A lot of young people don’t know they have a language difficulty and have just ‘survived’. They are also very good at hiding their issues,” Larissa said.

“For others who do know they have difficulties, they often don’t have the necessary supports and opportunities to overcome them. Quite often the first time a young person receives support is once they have been detained at the centre.”

Both Melissa and Larissa have been working alongside the psychologists and occupational therapist who work with the young people, to piece together a young person’s needs and identify what support they need.

“Rather than seeing a young person as misbehaving, we explore the underlining reason for their behaviour and identify what support they might need,” Melissa said.

Once a young person is referred to the speech pathology service, the team then work with the young person, their families, school and other service providers to create an overall picture of what the young person is doing well in, and where they need help.

“Once we have assessed what their communication needs are, we will work with the young person, in the visitor centre, the unit or their classroom, to identify ways to help overcome some of their communication difficulties,” Melissa said. “We aim to work towards a focussed goal – for example, meeting new people.”

“Young people are keen to hear the results of their individual assessment. Knowing they have a language difficulty helps things make sense for them,” Larissa said. “After a session they often ask when we will be back, so our engagement seems to be making an impact.”

The role of the AYTC’s speech pathologists doesn’t just include working with young people. The speech pathology team also works directly with AYTC staff and service providers (both in and outside the centre) who work with the young people, to help them communicate in a way that is accessible and can be understood.

“It can be as simple as adjusting the way they communicate, like by adding more visual context, simplifying their language and checking in with the young person to ask if they understand what is being said,” Melissa said.

Since their time within the centre, both Larissa and Melissa have noticed staff becoming more adept at noticing the signs of language difficulties and have changed the way they communicate with the young people.

In the future, the speech pathology team hopes to review the written policies and consent forms given to residents to ensure they can fully understand their rights and responsibilities while in the centre.

Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions, the speech pathology team – along with AYTC’s other allied health services – is continuing to provide services to the young people via phone. Work is currently underway by the AYTC and the Department for Human Services to obtain the equipment needed to provide these services via video calls.

You can see just what a difference targeted speech pathology made for a particular young person in the NSW youth justice system in this inspiring video.

Identifying communication difficulties

Here are some signs that a young person has communication difficulties:

  • often says “I don’t know” or “I forgot”
  • uses lots of vague words (eg “things” or “stuff”)
  • unable to paraphrase what you have told them
  • cannot follow instructions
  • avoids reading or writing tasks
  • avoids eye contact.

What can you do if you suspect a young person has a communication difficulty?

  • Simplify the language you use when talking to young people – use short sentences, avoid jargon and keep instructions brief
  • Try using images (e.g drawings, pictures, a few written words) when communicating to a young person
  • Check in with the young person to ask if they understand what you have said
  • Seek help from a qualified speech pathologist.

*This 90% figure is based on results from a language screening assessment undertaken as part of the 2019 AYTC screening project to assess the needs of the young people and look at what services they may need.

ANZCCG commends documentary ‘In My Blood It Runs’

An upcoming documentary that tells the story of Dujuan, a 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa boy, as he tries to overcome systemic injustices, has been given full support by the Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ANZCCG).

As SA Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, Penny Wright is a member of this peak body, which is made up of those entrusted with safeguarding the rights and interests of children and young people in Australia and New Zealand. After watching an advanced screening of ‘In My Blood It Runs’ earlier this year, the ANZCCG have issued a joint statement commending the documentary and highlighting the ‘value and importance of listening to and understanding children’s voices and experiences from their own perspective’.

‘In My Blood It Runs’ follows the charismatic young ‘healer,’ Dujuan, and his family as they share their experiences trying to prevent Dujuan from entering the criminal justice system. After becoming increasingly disengaged from school, Dujuan soon comes under the watchful eye of the police and welfare agencies. But through the love and support of his family and community, Dujuan has been able to avoid falling into the justice system and has begun a powerful campaign to raise the awareness of addressing systemic racism that young Aboriginal children too often face.

Dujuan travelled to Geneva earlier this month and gained significant media coverage when he became one of the youngest people ever to give a speech to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. He shared his experiences about the youth justice system to build support for Aboriginal-led education models that would help prevent youth offending and support their connection to their culture and language. You can watch his speech here.

The ANZCCG encourages all Australians to watch this film and to share its message of ‘children having access to culturally safe, inclusive schools; addressing systemic racism in all our institutions; and preventing the criminalisation of young children like Dujuan, including reforms to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility’.

‘In My Blood It Runs’ will be in cinemas in February 2020.

Read the full ANZCCG statement.

The Guardian’s Newsletter – August 2019

In our August 2019 newsletter we explore the importance of education for children and young people in care by reflecting on:

• the importance of individual support in their education
• their rights to education
• the quantity of education provided by state schools.

Plus we celebrate the launch of our office’s artwork murals and share the work that our staff have been involved in over the last few months.

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.

How well did children in state care do in the state education system 2016-17?

In South Australia in 2017, 57 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in Department for Education (DE) schools.

The Guardian’s latest report Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2017, is now available.

The report explores how well the state school system is providing for children and young people in care.  It highlights a number of ongoing trends including:

  •  the proportion of children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools who identify as Aboriginal continues to be significantly higher than Aboriginal children and young people as a proportion of all children in DE schools (35.4 compared to 6.4 per cent in 2017).
  • there are lower rates of school absence for Aboriginal students in care compared to the overall population of Aboriginal students attending DE schools.
  • a greater proportion of all children and young people in care have learning disabilities compared to the overall DE student population, notably in speech and language skills.
  • the proportion of children and young people in care with an intellectual disability is nearly seven times, and those with a global developmental delay are almost five times that of the rate of disability in the overall DE student population.
  • children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools are more likely to be suspended or excluded than the broader DE school cohort.
  • students in care from non-English speaking backgrounds have an absence rate almost twice that of students from non-English speaking backgrounds who are not in care.
  • there are very high NAPLAN non-participation rates for students in care in DE schools. We know very little about the proficiency of almost half of Year 9 students, almost one-third of Year 3 students, one-quarter of Year 7 students, and just over one-fifth of Year 5 students in care enrolled in DE schools in 2017.
  • withdrawal rates from NAPLAN testing vary by year level and discipline but are significantly higher for children and young people in care compared to the broader DE student population.

Areas for attention

Data summarised in this report suggests further attention in some areas, including:

  • speech and language delays experienced by children before and on commencement of school
  • access to appropriate disability support services, for example in relation to intellectual disability (including a focus on whether and how the NDIS will contribute to the necessary support)
  • the evidence around the use of disciplinary measures such as school suspension and exclusion and options for alternatives, particularly for younger children
  • monitoring hours of attendance at school so that part-day absences and reduced-hours arrangements are reported and minimised
  • the experience of children and young people in care from non-English speaking backgrounds;
  • developing a better appreciation of the reasons for the high non-participation rate in NAPLAN testing and the implications this has for properly understanding the educational experience of children and young people in care.

You can read the full report on the Guardian’s website now.

Collaboration survey results – staff of Government schools and the DCP






The results from the survey completed in January 2018 show little change from the June 2017 survey in the rate of collaboration and cooperation between workers in Government schools (DECD) and those in the Department for Child Protection (DCP).  However, DCP and DECD workers see things quite differently with DCP workers consistently rating levels of collaboration and cooperation as higher than their education colleagues.

Collaboration between between staff of Government schools and DCP workers
nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn*
June 2017 – all responses71855201246
Jan. 2018 – all responses52058152105
Jan. 2018 – DCP employees0176711618
Jan. 2018 – DECD employees15224122027

*n is the number of respondents who felt competent to comment on this aspect of collaboration and cooperation. Where the numbers are small, one should be careful of drawing more than general conclusions.

Comments by DCP workers**

January is not a normal month as a lot of agencies slow down during the Christmas break and school holidays. Otherwise there is a lot of dialogue with schools and DCP.

There is extreme variation of quality and quantity of collaboration and coordination between individuals and agencies involved in the care and protection of children and young people. In my area, it is of particular concern that there is such poor communication between DCP and other government agencies (principally DECD), as well as the NGO sector with regard to the training and development of DCP staff, workforce planning and aligning practice between DCP and non DCP workers who are charged with similar roles in the child protection system. Not only is this poor management and support of the workforce, it contributes to inconsistencies in knowledge, skills and practice and thus poorer outcomes for children and young people.

Comments by DECD workers**

I feel that DCP needs to open up the lines of communication with DECD/schools. Education needs to be given a greater importance then DCP often give it. Connection to education is linked to future outcomes for students.

Lack of communication from DCP with schools and DECD Student Support services; difficult to get DCP workers to attend case meetings; difficult to get a DCP worker to talk to on the phone about one of their clients (e.g. a guardianship child). DCP don’t always put the required consideration in to what school to enrol a guardianship child. (Please note these are general statements, there can be DCP workers who communicate and interact well).

There are times when there is good information sharing and planning between agencies, but other times not so. Seems somewhat dependent on staff involved.

I am as social worker in a Children’s Centre and we work very well with the Department of Child Protection and other government and non-government agencies in relation to supporting children at risk. I believe the only reason why collaboration is not always available is due to lack of resources in relation to the Department of Child Protection given on the ground workers are always operating at full capacity.

DECD Support Services often makes contact with DCP caseworkers regarding children already in care – often without return contact or reply… I make lots of recommendations in my reports and I rarely hear if any of these have been followed up by DCP. Personally have found DCP staff very difficult to contact. Staffing vacancies in the country most likely contribute to this.

Comment by an NGO worker**

In my limited experience of working with young people in care in the public school system, there is very limited communication between DCP and schools. Incidents such as missing person reports, lack of attendance, mental health and physical health, suicide and self harm risks and many other factors that impact upon a young person’s ability to attend and engage in education have not been clearly communicated with the school. This means that we as educators and school support staff are unable to provide the required support to ensure that the young person’s right to an education is upheld.

**Comments have had minor proofing changes. Some comments have been edited for brevity and to minimise repetition.

Analysis and commentary

Although the number of respondents was fewer than in the 2017 survey, there is little change from the June 2018 survey in the rate of collaboration and cooperation between workers in Government schools (DECD) and those in the the Department for Child Protection (DCP). The comments left identify similar issues to those identified in the June 2017 survey.

It is reasonable to expect that cooperation and collaboration should occur ‘always’ or ‘frequently’. By this criterion, DCP respondents, DECD respondents and respondents as a whole give the Government schools-DCP collaboration a substantial ‘fail’.

The  respondents’ comments generally suggest that, as the most significant decision makers and holders of information, DCP should be taking the initiative in promoting this collaboration.

The coordination and collaboration survey – DCP and DECD staff perceptions

18 July 2017

We dig into the data and comments from our June 2017 Coordination and Collaboration Survey,to see how staff in Department of Education and Child Development (DECD) schools and Department for Child Protection (DCP) workers view the prevalence of coordination and collaboration in their relationship. (1)

 C and C occurs…nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalways
DECD staff2323505022
DCP staff094943047

When asked about how things had changed in the previous six months, perceptions were quite closer, biasing slightly toward the negative.

 C and C is…much worseworsethe samebettermuch better
%%%%% n
DECD staff10156010520
DCP staff7206310041

The comments mostly reflected the statistics and included the following:

Communication between DCP and education has reduced since the separation; there appears to be less support from DECD as previously; [Guardianship] children may have legislative rights to IEP’s however it is more of a tick box with some schools.  DECD regionals need to come along to more… (DCP worker)

One of my observations regarding significant improvements in communication about and services to vulnerable families in my region (Whyalla) is that it has been driven by the Manager of the local DCP office. She has done this in a number of ways: firstly, connecting to the community and engaging in community development activities (she knows her community, engages well with local government and non-government services and actions the philosophy of ‘child protection is everybody’s business’ through this engagement); secondly, she is solution focused and open to innovative practice (she takes the time to explore options); thirdly, she has made a commitment to work-force development (there has been a noticeable increase not only in DCP staff skills but also their ability to engage with clients and other stakeholders). (DECD staff)

As a school counsellor I am frequently involved in reporting child protection matters and supporting children and families with child protection issues. Our school has recently been ‘given’ a part- time Child Protection and Well-being Consultant. She comes to our school once a fortnight, for a day. She is very helpful and knowledgeable. However, I am concerned that the DCP is devolving too much responsibility on these (overworked) consultants. We are finding that some of our cases are closing and that we can also not refer children to Targeted Intervention Services anymore. We think that this is happening because the department is putting too much responsibility on the consultants. (DECD staff)

You can also download the Coordination and Collaboration Survey June 2017 – unfiltered results

(1) Sample numbers are small so data should be taken as broadly indicative only.

How well do children in state care do in the state education system 2015-16?

30 May 2017

In South Australia in 2016, 61.6 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in DECD schools.

The Guardian’s latest report Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2016, is due for release tomorrow.  The report explores how well the state school system is providing for children and young people in care in these and other areas:


  • A greater proportion have learning disabilities, notably in speech and language skills.
  • The proportion with an intellectual disability is nearly seven times the overall DECD student population.
  • The proportion with a speech and language related disability is over three times the overall DECD student population.


  • The absence rate is only slightly higher than that for the overall DECD school population.
  • Aboriginal children in care have lower rates of absence than the overall DECD student population in significant categories.
  • Children and young people in care from non-English speaking backgrounds have over double the absence rate of all DECD enrolled students.


  • Students in care have higher rates of suspension but only in their primary school years.


  • Many students in care in DECD schools do not sit the NAPLAN test, categorised as absent, exempt or withdrawn.  For example, for almost half of all Year 9 DECD enrolled students in care there is no information about them in critical areas such as numeracy and reading which may cast doubt on the validity of the reported figures.

You can read the full report on the Guardian’s website now.

How we will improve education for children in state care

23 May 2017


Engagement with schools can offer children in care opportunities for socialisation, a chance to achieve and the basis for success in further study and employment. Commissioner Nyland’s October 2016 report recommended widespread changes to the way education was managed in the interest of children in care and the Government’s response in December 2016 accepted most of those recommendations.

The Government undertook to:

  • Mandate Strategies for Managing Abuse Related Trauma (SMART) training for educational staff, requiring it to be part of professional development (R 89).
  • Review the Department for Education and Child Development (DECD) policies on school suspension, exclusion and expulsion and ensure that they are only used as a last resort (R 91).
  • Conduct a regular audit of children in care who are on reduced hours of attendance at school and ensure they have plans to re-engage in mainstream education (R 91).
  • Require the DECD to fund any in-school support needed by children in care (R 92).
  • Recruit and train a panel of school services officers to support children with trauma-related behavioural challenges (R 93).
  • Make modified payments to foster and kinship carers where the care leaver is engaged in tertiary education, apprenticeship, or post-high school training and their best interest is served by remaining in foster or kinship care until the qualification is completed (R 161).
  • Change policy and practice to support care leavers who want to access further education and training (R 163).
  • Establish a data system to allow access to a complete range of student data about children who move schools in remote Aboriginal communities (R 210).
  • Audit services in remote Aboriginal communities to ensure that there are adequate facilities to service playgroups, preschools and other services that visit the community (R 213).
  • Employ qualified child wellbeing practitioners in areas of need to consult with staff and to work directly with vulnerable families (R 52).
  • Provide secure, long-term funding for playgroups in remote Aboriginal communities, (R 209).

If you have an interest in education for children and young people in state care, watch out next week for our analysis of education data for South Australia from the Report on most recent Government Services.


Services for young people leaving state care

25 November, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #14

picture of girl on jettyThe 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 13 in the series are available.[2] We will post the rest over the next few weeks. [3]

Commissioner Nyland was particularly critical of the support provided to young people during and after their transition from care at age 18.  She presented data that showed proper transition planning had never been provided for more than one third of young people exiting care.  Where it had been provided, she said, it had been delivered by under-qualified staff and the support services available were rendered inadequate by a lack of coordination and cooperation between services.

Young people…report receiving limited career planning and little information about what training and employment options may be available to them. All too frequently, young people approach the age of 18 without a clear understanding of how they will access adult services and accommodation.

The Commissioner recommended a change in legislation to oblige the Minister to continue to provide assistance to care leavers up to the age of 25.

Such assistance should specifically include the provision of information about services and resources (especially financial grants and assistance for care leavers); financial and other assistance to obtain housing, education, training and employment; and access to legal advice, health services, counselling and support.

Services funded by government and delivered by non-government organisations should start working with young people well before 18 and continue through the transition period and into adult life.  Analysis of current post-care services usage could be used as an indicator of areas of need.

The Commissioner also recommended a review of the South Australian service model to align it with the principles and practice of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, Transitioning from out-of-home care to independence: A nationally consistent approach to planning, commonly known as the National Approach[4]

The Commissioner recommended that a re-invigorated Rapid Response process also be reviewed to extend the range of priority services for young people up to age 25 and that home-based carers be funded to continue supporting care leavers where they were engaged in school, trade or tertiary training until that qualification was completed. 

Independent living programs, she said, needed to be made more flexible about the ages at which young people could be admitted and leave and post-support programs should be more generously resourced to meet the unmet need.  The Commissioner also pointed out the opportunity for Housing SA to develop new housing models more suitable to the needs of care leavers. 

Recognising the central role of smartphones in the lives of many young people, she recommended the development of a smartphone app. to provide readily available information about the range of services available to them during and after transition from care. 

The Commissioner also recommended changes to allow care leavers to see and make copies of documents held by the organisation that had provided services for them more easily.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

  • amendments to the Children’s Protection Act 1993 to require the Minister to provide or arrange assistance to care leavers aged between 18 and 25 years
  • definition of a range of information services and practical supports to be provided for young people post-care including financial, housing, education, health care, education and training, employment and legal advice
  • payments to home-based carers continued past 18 while young people in their care pursue education and training
  • review of the service model for care leavers to align with the National Approach
  • greater age-flexibility in the provision of independent living programs
  • expansion of the priority services provided under Rapid Response to care leavers up to age 25
  • provision of intensive case management assistance to care leavers identified as particularly vulnerable
  • greater resourcing of post-care services
  • changes to facilitate care leavers’ access to documents about them from carers and organisations that had provided services to them.

Please join the discussion on child protection reform via the reply box below.

[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, Aboriginal children, Education , Stability and certainty in care, Responding to abused or neglected children, Children in care with disabilities, Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Children in care in regional SA.

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.

4 Council of Australian Governments (COAG), Protecting children is everyone’s business: National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020, Canberra, 2009.