In search of a “forever home”

This opinion piece was written by Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright. It was featured in The Advertiser on 23rd December 2020.

Every kid needs a loving home at Christmas, but for a growing number of children and care will go without one again this year, writes Penny Wright.

Kelly is 11 and has been living in residential care since she was seven. She recently told me: “I want a foster home. I have been in the same (resi) house for 3¾ years.”

Kelly lives with three other girls in a house staffed by paid carers. The workers are nurturing and kind but, at the end of the day, it is their workplace and when their shift ends, they go home.

Across the years, Kelly has seen other kids arrive and leave – reunified with their families or going into foster or kinship arrangements.

It is no reflection on her but she feels overlooked and sad.

It’s just the reality of a system where there are more children needing families than there are families available.

Every state is seeing more children and young people coming into care every year.

Many South Australian children, like Kelly, live in residential care but yearn for a “forever family”.

It’s not rocket science that children need to live in safe, stable environments with caring adults who are there for them every day. Especially children or young people who have experienced trauma and harm. Love, stability and healthy relationships are their key to growth and healing. For most kids, the best option is living in a family.

Part of my role is to promote the best interests of children and young people in care. So I’ve been wondering about what kind of people are willing to open homes – and hearts – to children who need them. What can they tell us?

For many years, fostering was on Rose’s bucket list before she took the plunge three years ago. She provides respite care to children on weekends, once or twice a month, supporting both them and their foster carers.

Her front room is a Christmas wonderland full of toys. She has always wanted to bring “joy into kids’ lives”, conscious some come from having nothing. Rose tells me “some of these children don’t know what a warm bath or a warm bottle is” but are often surprisingly undemanding. Rather than things, “they just want love” and “lots of cuddles”.

She remembers bathing a four-year-old who said to her, “Thank you for looking after me so well”.

When I spoke to her, Rose had two little ones with her and it was busy. One has had five foster homes in her three years so her behaviour is sometimes challenging. But Rose has noticed she is settling easier and this time she went to bed without a problem, saying: “This weekend, all she wants is hugs – ‘Can I have a hug?’” I say: “Of course you can”.

Mick and Sonia are new to fostering. They were looking for a way to give back but had thousands of questions. After attending information sessions, they found “all these obstacles came to nothing”. It’s clear they are already hooked. They say: “If your heart is in the right place, do it!”

Their first child was four-week-old Sammy. They were surprised how much their own children have gained from the whole process. Apprehensive at first, they quickly became involved with bathing, reading and caring for him and have all grown in their understanding about “the reasons behind the way people have ended up”.

After six months, their family helped Sammy to transition to first-time carers who will be looking after him long term. It went well, he is now 10 months old and Sally and Lindy love and adore him. The two families have forged a strong bond.

They catch up weekly and shared a Christmas together.

After Sammy, Sonia and Mick cared for a little boy called Jamie until he was nearly two. In four short months, they saw huge improvements in his trauma-related behaviours. They say he had “every reason not to trust and love” but showed an amazing capacity to open up to our love and care. At first, he was not interested in sitting still to look at a book.

“But towards the end, he would bring a book to us and sit on our lap so we could read to him,” they said.

A common theme with these special people is their conviction that it takes a village to raise a child. While sometimes challenging, they all said it was worth it. For anyone interested, there are various agencies that recruit, train and support foster and kinship carers to be part of our South Australian foster “village”.

Visit: childprotection.sa.gov.au/children-care/become-foster-carer or call 1300 2 FOSTER

Reflecting on 2020

What a year it has been! We will all certainly remember the year 2020.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to rethink our plans for the year and adapt to constant changes, we continued our work for the children and young people who turned to us for support.

We achieved some important milestones, met many incredible people and consistently advocated for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in care and detention. We also had a bit of fun along the way.

As we reflect on the year, we would like to thank the children and young people who have been brave enough to speak out for their rights and have their voice heard and for participating in our various activities (online and face-to-face), and the adults who have supported us and worked with us to try and create a better life and future for the young people we work for.

Here is a snapshot of our highlights from the year…

We wish you all a safe and merry festive season. Here’s to a brighter and more healthy year ahead!

*Please note our office will be closed from 1pm on Wednesday 23 December until 9am on Monday 4 January.

A new Education Department team aims to improve school experiences and results for children in care

A new team in the Education Department is offering advice and training to educators, support staff and leaders in government schools with the aim to improve the experience of education (and the outcomes) for children and young people in care.

In the Guardian’s annual education report, released in July, we looked at the data relating to children and young people in care who attended South Australian government schools. We found that students in care consistently registered higher absence rates, significantly lower NAPLAN participation rates and were more likely to have a learning disability, than the overall government school population.

In a welcome development to help address these issues, the Department for Education’s Children in Care service was established earlier this year to support the unique needs of children who have a care background. It aims to increase understanding in schools about the complexities which affect children in care and provides advice, support and professional development for education staff so they can help children to better engage in school.

“We know that children and young people in care have poorer education outcomes,” Senior Social Worker – Children in Care, Deidre Lockley said.

“Many schools and teachers have a basic idea on what being in care for a child means, but they often don’t fully understand what this actually means for the child and how they can help,” Deidre said.

“This is especially true when a child is in residential care. With rotating rosters, a child can often wake up in the morning to a new worker in the house who might not know where their school is, the name of their teacher, or even if there is any homework to hand-in. This can have a big impact on the child even before they arrive at school for the day.”

The Education in Care service also seeks to inform teachers and schools about ways to better communicate with carers and children in care, as well as ensuring they have the necessary resources and support they need to meet the children’s educational needs.

“Although we don’t work directly with carers and the children themselves, we encourage schools to better communicate with the carers and young people so they are all working towards improving the educational outcomes of the child,” Deirdre said.

So far, the team has provided advice to education staff on how to approach teaching, based on trauma-informed practice. This might involve, for example, knowing the triggers for when a child gets upset and what a teacher could do differently in class to avoid these triggers. They have also worked with Education and Department for Child Protection (DCP) case workers to consider and build on the strengths of individual children and how these could be used to improve the child’s willingness and ability to participate in school and learning, as well as providing support to schools to overcome communication breakdowns with carers.

While the service doesn’t work directly with non-governments schools, it can also consult with DCP case workers about individual circumstance for a child in a non-government school, and make recommendations about various support options.

To find out more about the Children in Care service phone 8366 8800 or email: Education.ChildrenInCareService@sa.gov.au.

Advocacy issues for 2019-20 continue to be dominated by safety and stability in placement

For the third consecutive year safety and stability in care continues to be the biggest advocacy issue raised by children and young people in care, as reported in our latest Guardian for Children and Young People Annual Report.

As at 30 June 2020 there were 4,263 children and young people under the guardianship of the Chief Executive through care and protection court orders – an increase of 9.5% from the previous year. The number of Aboriginal children and young people in care also increased by 13% from last year’s numbers, reflecting a nation-wide systemic trend of Aboriginal children and young people being drastically overrepresented in child protection systems.

During the year, our advocates received 442 enquiries, of which 391 were within our mandate. Of these, 137 children and young people in care approached us themselves. Children and young people with disabilities were the subject of 20% of the enquiries received and almost one third of enquiries (32%) related to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

Placement safety and stability was raised as a primary issue by young people who felt unsafe because of the behaviours of other young people. The most commonly reported safety issues were fear of, and risks posed by, co-residents, due to bullying, intimidation, threats of harm, physical assaults, harmful sexual behaviour, verbal abuse, witnessing physical and verbal outbursts resulting in property damage and being pressured/coerced to engage in substance abuse and criminal activity. The majority of young people who reported feeling and/or being unsafe in their living arrangement requested advocacy support for a placement move.

Other advocacy enquiries from children and young people included concerns and issues in relation to their case management (from having difficulties contacting their case manager to not understanding the rationale for case work decisions that affected their lives); and not having contact with their ‘significant others’, most notably their siblings.

The annual report has also raised a number of other issues, including:

– an increasing number of children and young people caught in both the child protection and youth justice systems (described as having ‘dual status’). Since we began receiving data on the rates of admissions to KTYJC in 2018, the proportion of admissions by those in care has jumped from 30.8% to 39.4%. In 2019-20, more than 28.3% of all individuals admitted to Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre (KTYJC) were also in care at the time of their admission.

– serious systemic gaps and failings that interfere with the detection and prevention of harmful sexual behaviour between children and young people in care

– concerns regarding the ongoing, targeted sexual exploitation of children and young people in care by adults in the community.

For more details about these issues, as well as highlights from our office from the year, you can read the report in full here.

Residential care facilities given much needed makeover to support the safety of young people

DCP is currently rolling out a program to ‘make over’ the bedrooms and shared living areas of children and young people in residential care to make them more ‘homelike’. This is a very welcome initiative, with DCP announcing, as part of their MyPlace program, all DCP residential care properties will be transformed, to make them more therapeutic, culturally supportive and responsive to residents’ needs.

The MyPlace program is working with each child and young person directly to help design and create the overall feel of their house and their own bedrooms, so the rooms reflect their personalities and meet their individual needs.

Young people have consistently told us that a ‘homelike’ environment is a key aspect of feeling safe in residential care. By contrast, the institutional look and feel of many residential care facilities was a common theme in the Guardian’s Final Report of the trial Child and Young Person’s Visiting Program, published earlier this year. The report recommended that facilities should be more homelike and personalised and young people should have input into the process and design of the place in which they live.

Having a space where a child or young person can go to and feel a sense of comfort and ownership – not only because they helped create it but also because it reflects who they are as a person – helps promote their feelings of security and wellbeing.

MyPlace is an excellent initiative, which sees the child or young person involved in the whole process, from helping to prepare an image board so they can gain a visual perspective about how their personal space and shared rooms will look, to contributing to design, creation and installation, including unpacking and assembling flat-pack furniture and placing soft furnishings and items in their room. DCP has advised us that specialised staff also work with the team to ensure the fit-outs meet the needs of children and young people who are Aboriginal or from diverse cultural backgrounds or who have disabilities.

So far, feedback from the young people has been very positive. DCP shared some examples with us from a recently refurbished three-bedroom home in the southern suburbs.

Playroom before make over

Playroom after make over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 12-year-old boy said he would like his bedroom to represent his Aboriginal background. Cultural items were sourced and he chose the final design. A current family photo was arranged for both his bedroom wall and family room wall, creating a home-like feel and connection to family and culture. His reaction was, “This is awesome.”

Bedroom before make over

Bedroom after make over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An 11-year-old explained she was fond of beluga whales. She was involved in deciding the colours and layout of her room as well as textures and the overall theme. A built-in wardrobe was installed to create more space and storage, and other items like a beluga whale quilt cover, throw blanket, pillows, wall hanging, fairy lights, bean bag, rug, lamp, mirror and collage picture frame all complemented the overall look. Her reaction? “Wow, I absolutely love it, it looks amazing.”

We understand that residential care staff have reported that since being part of the program they have noticed a real change in the dynamics of the houses with many children and young people showing an increased sense of social responsibility and choosing to find enjoyment in more communal spaces.

This process of allowing children and young people to express their unique identities, have more influence over the environment they live in and feel acknowledged and heard, can only benefit their development and sense of safety.  It is this understanding that also informs the Australian Childhood Foundation’s Practice Guide: ‘Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care’.

We will be watching with great interest as this program continues to be rolled out to the remaining DCP residential care properties and look forward to hearing more stories of how being directly involved in the creation of attractive and personalised living spaces contributes to children and young people’s wellbeing.

Podcast highlights the importance of connecting to culture

In recognition of NAIDOC Week last week, CREATE Foundation interviewed Isaiah Dawe, a young Aboriginal man who spent 18 years in care, for their latest Voices in Action podcast – a podcast giving voice to young people in care or with a care experience.

In this inspiring and insightful interview, Isaiah shares his story about life in the care system and the importance of being connected to culture and family. This episode addresses a number of issues faced by Aboriginal children and young people in care, including being disconnected to culture and family and having a lack of wholistic support and mentoring services available.

Isaiah says he didn’t know what it meant to be Aboriginal when he was growing up in care, and it wasn’t until he was 18 and left care that he finally reached out to his extended family.

Isaiah talks about the courage it took to connect with his family and community but as a result he now knows who he is and has a bigger direction in life.

“Once you connect with your Aboriginal culture and your family you will truly fill that void that you have in your heart, it will be filled up with all that love and respect… you’ll be able to feel the healing journey,” Isaiah says.

Isaiah is also the CEO and founder of ID. Know Yourself, an organisation supporting young Aboriginal people with a care experience to connect with their culture. Although ID Know Yourself is currently based in NSW, they are looking to expand to provide support to all Aboriginal children and young people in care across Australia.

Check out the podcast of the interview at CREATE Foundation’s website.

A year of reforms and achievements for young people in detention

Humane and respectful reforms for children and young people detained in SA’s only youth detention centre have been highlighted in the Training Centre Visitor’s latest annual report.

In the 2019-20 year, despite considerable stresses and uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19,  the TCV and staff were working hard to provide ongoing advocacy to make positive changes for the young cohort detained in the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre (KTYJC).

“This has been the biggest year yet for the program and my staff,” Training Centre Visitor, Penny Wright said.

“Three years ago, we set about consulting with young people in the centre, then designing and implementing the Training Centre Visitor Program. Today we acknowledge the mammoth efforts my team have made in advancing the interests and rights of the young people in the centre, assisted by the willingness of the Department for Human Services (DHS) and Youth Justice Executive to respond thoughtfully to the issues we have brought to their attention,” Penny said.

“We acknowledge decisions by DHS Youth Justice and KTYJC management to allow our regular, safe face to face contact with the young people throughout the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in SA. This continued contact ensured that the young detainees had ongoing access to our support in what was an extremely difficult time for everyone.”

Here is a snapshot of the TCV annual report.

Overview of children and young people detained

The graphs below indicate the number of individual children and young people admitted to the KTYJC (graph 1) and the number of admissions in total (graph 2).

Highlights of the year

– Use of spit hoods prohibited

– End of (almost all) semi-naked searches

– Greater privacy in bedrooms and toilets

– Respectful access to sanitary products for girls and young women

First formal inspection of the centre carried out, obtaining the voices of the children and young people, and examining whether their rights and needs are being met.

Concerns raised

– Need for more supportive rehabilitation and care that is trauma focussed

– Lack of legal powers under legislation for the TCV to provide oversight and advocacy for children and young people who are outside KTYJC but still detained within the criminal justice system (ie in transit to court or in hospital)

– Increasing number of children and young people under a guardianship order of the Chief Executive of the Department for Child Protection who end up in detention

– Increasing number of girls and young women being detained

– Cultural needs of Aboriginal children and young people continue to be a high priority

– High numbers of children between the ages of 10-14 admitted to the centre.

You can download the report in full here.

 

 

Nunga Oog is taking shape

The long-awaited safety symbol for Aboriginal children and young people in care, Nunga Oog, is taking shape after our face to face workshops kicked off earlier this month.

A group of Aboriginal children and young people joined artist Sasha Houthuysen during the October school holidays to start designing what Nunga Oog could look like. These sessions came on the back of art boxes we sent to selected residential care facilities in July to invite young people to come up with some initial designs.

After the delay in workshops due to COVID-19, it was great to be able to sit down with the young people and see and hear their ideas in person. They told us that:

Nunga Oog should…

– look different to Oog

– have some black on it

– have the Aboriginal flag on its belly

– have colours of the Aboriginal flag

– be cuddly

– be gender free

– not be so round

– have big ears to listen to children and young people

– tell a story of safety by using symbols

– be brown with symbols and dot work (journey lines).

The workshops also provided opportunities for the children and young people to take away some new-found art skills and learn about Aboriginal symbols and how they can tell stories using these symbols. The young people were keen for us to share their designs with you.

And after the second workshop, the draft outline of Nunga Oog began to take shape…

Workshops will be continuing in the January school holidays to help design Nunga Oog, with sessions being planned across the state in collaboration with Aboriginal artists. If you know an Aboriginal child or young person in care who would like to get involved, please register their interest by emailing Leila at leila.plush@sa.gov.au or Conrad at conrad.morris@sa.gov.au by Friday 13 November.

Launch of our new logos

We are excited to launch our new logos and branding which were inspired by two young people in care/detention.

The Guardian for Children and Young People and the Training Centre Visitor now have their own individual logos. Moving away from the Government of South Australia logo, we wanted to create a brand that young people could connect with, using bright images that tell their story about their relationship with our office.

So how were the logos designed?

You may remember earlier this year we ran an art competition for children and young people in care to help design the logo for the Guardian for Children and Young People. Our office voted on the entries, with the winning artwork given to a designer to create the final logo.

                               
The young person who inspired the logo said she designed this logo because “anywhere you are there will always be an adult to care for all young people. It doesn’t matter who you are we should all have a place to live and be treated fairly”.

The Training Centre Visitor (TCV) logo was inspired by art workshops that we held in the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre in June with the help of Aboriginal artist and youth mentor Shane Cook. The artworks were used to develop a larger art piece to promote the Charter of Rights for youths detained in detention centres as well as the TCV logo. The Aboriginal artwork in the TCV logo represents a journey path.

 

             
Both the logos have a strong Aboriginal theme due to the overwhelming representation of Aboriginal children and young people in care and detention. We wanted them to know our office and our advocates provide a safe place for them where their culture is respected, and their voices are heard.

Penny Wright, Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor said she was grateful to the young people who inspired the logos.

“The voice of children and young people is at the forefront of everything we do so I’m very happy that our logos were inspired by them as that really reflects the values of our office. I hope the young people who inspired the logos feel proud of their contribution,” Penny said.

And although we have a new look, Oog will still be part of our family and we look forward to meeting Nunga Oog in the near future.

We are also working on developing a new website, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Safeguarding children in care and detention with disability

Last month our office provided feedback on SA’s Safeguarding Taskforce Report – a report that examined and outlined gaps in the oversight and safeguarding for people living with disability. This is a summary of our feedback in relation to our role as an oversight body for children and young people in care and/or detention with disability.

It is estimated that approximately one third of children and young people in care have disability, and a recent study of the residents at Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre indicated that nine out of ten residents assessed had disability or disability-related needs. However, the full extent of these numbers is unknown.

There are currently serious limitations on the ability of the Guardian for Children and Young People and the Training Centre Visitor to oversee the circumstances of these vulnerable young people due to staffing constraints and a shortage of necessary, relevant information. As a result, we generally rely on the children and young people contacting our office to tell us what is happening for them. This excludes those children in care who are too young to contact us or who have communication or other disabilities that impede their ability to seek assistance.

During the two-year pilot program of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor program, which concluded in September 2019 and is currently unfunded, OGCYP staff became aware of the significant number of young people with disability who live in residential care. Historically, this cohort’s issues have been predominant in our individual advocacy work and have indicated that the residential care system gives rise to unacceptable amounts of harm and distress to those living in that environment. We do not have accurate data about how many children and young people with disabilities live in residential care, or where they are placed. Nor do we know the nature of disabilities experienced by these young people and what care and support they are receiving.

From our advocacy and monitoring work, we do know that children and young people living in residential care are at risk of harm when poor ‘matching’ of co-residents occurs.  A child with disability, for instance, may be particularly vulnerable to influence or coercion if placed with another child or children who exhibit harmful sexual or physical behaviours. Poor, or no, placement matching results in cases of injury and sexual harm and this is exacerbated if there are not sufficient staff to mitigate the risk. Without an adequate capacity to visit facilities and oversee these issues, there is a considerable risk that many of these incidents remain hidden from view.

The Training Centre Visitor and staff are aware of significant concerns relating to the adequate care, treatment and control of children and young people with disabilities in the youth justice centre – particularly when behaviours that are considered a threat to security within a detention environment are actually disability-related.  However, it is also heartening to see the recent development of Youth Justice Assessment and Intervention Services and their work to address some of these concerns.

Finally, it is notable that both DHS and DCP staff are often not yet adequately equipped to navigate complex NDIS or other disability systems on behalf of those in their care. This can then result in already socially isolated and institutionalised children and young people leaving the care and/or youth justice systems with little support and limited capacity to navigate adult life.

Our feedback highlighted the need and importance of our office being able to effectively provide oversight and safeguarding measures to lower the real and identifiable risks faced by this vulnerable cohort. With so much stacked up against them, they need to know the adults looking after them are committed to ensuring their individual needs are being met, including their disability needs, so they can thrive in all aspects of their lives.

You can read our full feedback submission here.