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.

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.

Report finds children in care overrepresented in youth justice

Almost one quarter of children and young people who are detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre are under the legal guardianship of the state and are likely to be living in large residential care homes, a new report from our office has found.

A PERFECT STORM? Dual status children and young people in South Australia’s child protection and youth justice systems is the first report from a series of papers looking into the disproportionate number of children and young people who enter the youth justice system from residential care.

The report highlights that it’s not that these individual children and young people are inherently ‘criminal’ but that systems make their criminalisation more likely.

This suggests the state’s child protection system is struggling to undertake its core function of keeping children and young people safe – a concern that our office raised last week in the wake of the release of our annual report.

This new report finds that inadequate planning, policy, procedure, and communication across government and non-government systems mean that children and young people in care who need therapeutic support are instead being drawn into the criminal justice system.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recently stated that Australia’s child protection systems are insufficiently resourced, resulting in poorly supported staff, inadequate placement matching, and excessive reliance on police interference and youth justice systems to manage behavioural problems without providing appropriate therapeutic intervention.

Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright states that each of these factors contribute to the overrepresentation of those in care entering the youth justice system.

Ms Wright notes these vulnerable children and young people have been exposed to significant trauma and abuse prior to entering the child protection system and are not being provided with the care and support they need to heal.

“Instead of being provided with the essential therapeutic care they need, these young people are being put into homes and looked after by inadequately supported staff with other young people who come from troubled backgrounds. The young people’s behaviour is ‘managed’ by police and the youth justice system, and then at the end of the day they are taken back to the same environment in which the criminal behaviour took place,” Ms Wright said.

“What these children and young people need is a system that focusses on their safety and well-being first and foremost, keeping in mind the difficult circumstances that brought them into the system in the first place.”

“As one dual status young person eloquently said: ‘They kept putting us in the same situation but expecting a different outcome’.”

Download the first dual status report.

Further reports from this series will be made available in the coming months.

Further observations from young people in residential care

In our previous post, we quoted children and young people verbatim about some of their feelings about living in residential care.

It is not always ‘easy listening’ but we are committed to ensuring the voices of children and young people are heard, so that we can really try to understand their experiences as they feel them.

Resi care can be challenging and we know that ensuring safety and protection in residential care can make it hard to make a place feel like ‘home’.

We also know that carers work in wonderful ways with children from a variety of cultural backgrounds and abilities, many of whom have a history of trauma.

So here are some further vignettes, recorded by our Advocates from the Child and Young Person’s Visitor Program while visiting children and young people in residential care facilities.

New resources help children and young people in residential care have a say

graphic from one of the having a say posters

New resources, available today, will give children and young people in residential care information about their right to make a complaint and be heard.

Developed by CREATE Foundation, in conjunction with Office of the Guardian, the resources provide information and tools to assist them raise issues that concern them.

Central to the new feedback process is the the Post Incident Reflection Form, developed with input from young people in residential care.

Also available is a set of posters, brochures and two videos which tell children and young people in residential care about their rights and ways to address issues.

The resources have been developed in response to a recommendation from Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s 2016 report The Life They Deserve.  Recommendation 136 from that report proposed that the Guardian’s Office develop an educational program for children and young people in residential care to explain and promote their rights and give them encouragement and the means necessary to have their voices heard.

The live action video shares the stories of young people who relate some of the incidents they faced while living in residential care. It also advises young people in care why it’s important to understand their rights.

For younger people, an animated video describes the Post Incident Reflection Form and how a child in care has the ability to make a complaint at any time.

If resolving an issue with residential care staff does not work, children and young people are encouraged to fill in a complaints form or phone the Complaints Unit directly on 1800 003 305.

Printable files of the posters can be downloaded now from the Resources page of the Guardian’s website and printed copies of the posters and booklets will be available to be ordered from that page in February.

Safety in residential care

graphic of residential care

When we take children[1] into the care of the state, a prime responsibility is their safety.

We have matched comments about safety given to the Office of the Guardian by children during our monitoring visits and advocacy with those from the December 2016 Royal Commission paper Safe and Sound.  There were overwhelming similarities.  In this article we blend the two sources to consider the questions ‘do children feel safe’, ‘when do they feel safe’ and ‘what would they suggest to make things safer?’

How safe do children feel in residential care?

Residents often feel unsafe in residential care. Bullying and harassment are common. Adolescents report that they are frequently worried by the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Older residents say that the impact of witnessing violence, self-harm and the abuse of fellow-residents, leaves them stressed and feeling unsafe.

Children generally think it is unlikely that they would be abused or harmed by a worker, although a small number report that they have encountered or heard about abusive staff. Some are concerned by the behaviours of ‘creepy adults’ and those who try to create inappropriate and overly-familiar relationships with them. Children assess how safe workers are based on their past experiences of abuse, by watching the adults’ behaviours and by how other residents act around them.

Many children describe residential care as feeling unsafe due to its instability and frequent changes of staff. Some relate times when they were moved to less safe residential care placements for no reason than that other young people could take their rooms.

A few adolescents report that adults outside of residential care take advantage of children in care, exploiting their need for a sense of belonging, accommodation and money. A few report that some children in residential care engage in prostitution.

When do children in residential care feel safe?

Children feel safe in a placement that is home-like and where young people feel welcome.  They like it where things feel ‘normal’ and where adults look out for them.

They want to see that organisations and workers take a resident’s safety seriously, that they are interested and take measures to protect them.

They feel safe when there are cordial relationships with their fellow-residents and workers, and that there are other supportive relationships, such as with a social worker or teacher, with people outside of the unit.

Really building relationships with kids works, because then they feel safer to come to you with pretty much any problem.  They’re not going to come to you with problems, even if it’s something as simple as being bullied, they’re not going to come talk to you if they think you don’t like them or don’t listen.

Safe and Sound, p 66

Stability and predictability are important.  Children need to know what is going to happen, and that any difficulties with fellow-residents can be resolved.  Routines, reasonable rules and an opportunity to have a say in decisions give them confidence and sense of control.

They believe that when they are safe, children and young people feel relaxed and calm and are less likely to be aggressive and to harm each other.

Younger residents tend to value security measures such as locks on doors, surveillance equipment and alarms.  In contrast, for older residents, these measures reinforce their sense that residential care is not home-like and is unsafe.

How could we make things safer?

Placements

Find more suitable care arrangements, particularly for those who are younger and more vulnerable and make better placement decisions that allow residents to have a say in how they are matched with other residents. Treat residential care as a long-term arrangement and make sure that changes are kept to a minimum.

Staffing

Train staff about the things that can harm children and their vulnerabilities, particularly their inexperience about sexual relationships and exploitation.  Have sufficient numbers of properly trained staff so that they have the time to develop relationships, are around and have the time to watch out for threats.

Cooperation

Train staff to take on parent-like responsibilities for protecting residents from harm.  Get staff to discuss with residents the risks and how to keep themselves safe. Get staff and residents to work together to identify safety risks and develop ways of dealing with them. Staff need to take the initiative in enquiring after residents’ safety because it is easier for staff to ask residents if they are being harmed rather than waiting for them to report it. Try to create an atmosphere where there are positive relationships between residents where young people can look out for each other.

Hearing the resident’s voice

Staff need to be prepared to listen when residents raise concerns and to be understanding and patient, even when the issues do not seem important at first.  Residents need to be informed that it is OK to raise an issue, what sorts of issues to raise and how to do it.  Make sure that it is safe to do so and that they will not suffer retribution.

A lot of the time it can feel like nothing happens [when an issues is raised] or it gets lost or stuck in the system… No matter what, [issues] should be followed up by someone and the young person should be kept in the loop with regular communication.

Young person in residential care

The Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme that is hosted in the Office of the Guardian is now well under way and we look forwards to presenting more of the views of children and the state of the system in future articles.

[1] We use the term ‘children’ to include children and young people up to the age of 18 years. We use terms such as ‘adolescent’ and ‘pre-teen’ to refer to specific age ranges within that group.

Some favourite artwork from young people in care

We would like to share with you some of our favorite artworks from young Aboriginal people in residential care that have come to our notice in the past year.  Please click on the thumbnails to see a bigger version.