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.
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.
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.