‘First ever’ forum gives young people power to call for change

A group of incredible young adults with a care experience got the chance to share their personal stories last month in a bid to influence policy change, at CREATE Foundation’s first ever Hour of Power in SA.

The forum, which was led by the young adults themselves, provided an opportunity to tell the audience of their life experiences while in care and to offer ideas to key decision makers, including the Minister for Child Protection, about how to improve the care system.

Sibling contact and cultural connection were the themes for the day.

For those presenting, their siblings were important in maintaining their identity and mental wellbeing, and yet many of them did not live with them while they were in care and/or had issues keeping in contact with them.

“When you don’t live with your siblings, it can be hard to connect with them when you do see them,” one young person said.

After reflecting on their experiences with their own siblings, the young people offered ways in which the system could change to improve sibling contact for those who are still in care, which included:

– DCP must place greater significance on sibling connection and the importance of sibling relationships

– siblings should be able to stay together, wherever possible

– if siblings cannot stay together, they must be able to maintain connection with one another while in care

– sibling connection arrangements should be included in case planning

– the term ‘sibling’ needs to encompass other cultural and social interpretations to include other important relationships like cousins and foster siblings.

The young people then asked the panel to reflect on the issue. Guardian Penny Wright was among the panellists, along with April Lawrie, Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People, and Cathy Taylor, Chief Executive of Child Protection.

Penny told the audience one of the biggest concerns from young people who call our office for advocacy support is about sibling contact not occurring (or occurring infrequently and much less often than children/young people are requesting) and outlined the barriers that standi in the way of this happening.

“There are a number of factors behind why sibling contact isn’t occurring. They include carers or case managers in disagreement about sibling contact, the challenge of siblings living in distant geographical locations, lack of transport and time pressures on carers,” Penny said.

“Managing sibling contact among children in care can be complex. This doesn’t mean we don’t do it, it just means we have to work harder.”

Cultural connection was the next topic for the forum. One of the young adults said they didn’t know how to connect with culture while they were in residential care and weren’t given the opportunities to do so, but once they got to connect to family, land and their culture they said “it was natural”.

“To know your cultural identity, at least for me, is seeing family regularly, getting a chance to go out to the bush often, learn about bush tucker, connection and cleansing, learn about dreamtime, totems and spend time with the old fellas and nanas,” the young person said.

To improve and maintain cultural identity and connection for young people in care, the youth presenters were clear that DCP needs to prioritise connections to family and strengthen the commitment to all of the five elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle. They also said more funding needs to go to enriching cultural experiences, as well as employing more Aboriginal workers within the sector.

The event was a fantastic platform for empowering the young adults to share their thoughts and suggestions and play a positive role in creating change for the many thousands of children and young people who are still in care today.

Jacqui Reed, the CEO of CREATE, observed that the Hour of Power was a unique way of bringing children and young people’s voices to decision makers so they could better understand the perspective of those with a lived experience within the care system.

“I was thrilled with the first ever Hour of Power in South Australia. The energy in the room buoyed all those present to make the system better for children and young people,” Jacqui said.

CREATE is currently working on a summary report about the forum, along with its key outcomes, which will be available soon.

Celebrating the rights of young people on Care Day

It’s “Care Day” today. On the 19th of February every year – all around the world – we celebrate the awesomeness of children and young people with a care experience. Here are our greetings to all of South Australia’s children and young people in care. PLEASE SHARE this video from our Advocates, far and wide, and especially with any young people in your care.

 

 

 

Law intern finds doli incapax is not protecting children from entering youth justice system

We were lucky enough to have our first law student complete an internship with our office last year. We set Brooke the task to research the concept of doli incapax and how it is applied to children under the age of 14 who come before the youth court.

But first, what is doli incapax? If a child is between the ages of 10 and 14, they are presumed to be doli incapax (from the Latin ‘incapable of evil’) and cannot be convicted of a crime, unless the prosecution can prove the child had the mental capacity to understand what they did was seriously wrong, and not just ‘naughty’.

Through Brooke’s research and hearing first-hand accounts of how doli incapax operates in South Australia from various stakeholders, it has become clear that doli incapax is not working as it is intended.

Brooke found that, instead of the prosecution meeting its requirement to prove the child did have the necessary mental capacity, doli incapax is commonly viewed as a ‘defence’. This means that defence lawyers are having to prove the child did not have the mental capacity to tell the difference between serious wrongdoing and naughtiness. Although the common law presumes that children under the age of 14 do not have capacity to commit a crime, this reversal of the onus means that, in practical terms, those under 14 are assumed to have capacity and defence lawyers must disprove it.

Brooke also found that:

 – Doli incapax assessments, which are commonly relied upon to establish a child’s doli incapax status, can be difficult to get, take a large amount of time to complete and can see children and young people remanded and bailed from Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre multiple times       while they are undertaken

– There is a lack of understanding as to how the presumption should be applied throughout the youth justice community, especially from SAPOL

– Children and young people who are Aboriginal, in the care of the Department for Child Protection, have a disability and/or live in regional, rural or remote areas are particularly disadvantaged by the youth justice system

– There are limited services available to help children and young people who are doli incapax (ie do not sufficiently understand the nature of their behaviour) to correct their behaviour and avoid reoffending in the same way

Based on her research findings, Brooke made the following recommendations on how this law could better protect children from entering the youth justice system in the first place:

– Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years of age

– Alternatively, insert the principle of doli incapax into legislation to clearly outline its application

– Increase referral services for doli incapax children and young people to teach them why their behaviour was wrong and help them to change it

– Ensure that the meaning and implications of doli incapax is included in SAPOL interview procedures

– Ensure that those who use children and young people below the age of 14 to commit crimes on their behalf are held criminally responsible

Brooke’s research and recommendations offer a valuable insight and perspective into how we can ensure better outcomes for children under 14 years old who find themselves before the courts. Unfortunately, there is extensive evidence that the younger the child is when they come into contact with the youth justice system, the more likely they are to reoffend – and start on a path to life-long involvement in the criminal justice system. This issue only highlights our ongoing call to urgently raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years – a concern which was also raised by the United Nations last month.

New Charter of Rights waiting to be approved

We are excited to announce the proposed Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care (Revised) has been sent to the Minister for Child Protection for approval.

The revised Charter was developed over nine months using the voices of 77 children, young people and adults who are, or have been in care, and 6 other stakeholders. The revised Charter details nine rights that reflect what children and young people told us was important to them – this includes being safe in care; connecting to culture, family and friends; and having access to education, play and good health.

Here are just some of the things young people told us about what they want the new rights to include…

“Listen to kids what they want not what you think.”

“[Young people] need more info about why they come into care otherwise the child will start thinking it is their fault.”

“Being a part of decisions about us.”

“Knowing about & connecting to culture.”

“Keeping in contact with family.”

“All children in care need SSO support or extra help with school, even if they don’t have a disability.”

“Learning life skills earlier to prepare for when you go independent.”

As part of the Charter review, our working group collated all the feedback and drafted the new rights, which were later endorsed by 111 children and young people, and other care leavers, aged between 6 and 25 years. As part of the endorsement, children and young people were asked if the new rights made sense and if they reflected their experiences. They were also asked if anything further should be added or changed. The final revised Charter and supporting report was then sent to the Minister to be approved and tabled in Parliament.

Once the revised Charter has been tabled, all organisations who work with children and young people in care will need to endorse the new Charter. We will be in contact with all existing Charter Champions to arrange endorsement so please make sure we have the most up to date contact details for your organisation’s nominated Charter Champions.

While we wait for the Minister’s approval, we will begin developing a raft of new accessible, culturally diverse materials for children, young people and their carers and provide further guidance and support for the agencies who endorse the Charter. We will also be looking at the endorsement process to see what improvements can be made.

If your organisation does not yet endorse the Charter, with a designated Charter Champion, and you would like more information, please contact Mardy McDonald at Mardy.McDonald2@sa.gov.au

We’re looking forward to sharing the new Charter with you all very soon!

Welcoming our new principal advocate

We would like to give a warm welcome to our new Principal Advocate for the Training Centre Visitor Unit (TCVU), Simone Deegan. Simone will be joining the team for the next 12 months while Belinda Lorek is taking leave.

Simone has a background in law and criminology as a researcher and (legal) advocate with a particular interest in the experience of young adults in the criminal justice system. She has previously worked as a defence solicitor for young people and adults charged with a range of offences.

More recently Simone has been researching the circumstances and needs of ‘juveniles’ charged with murder. Her research work has given rise to both systemic and individual advocacy to improve the law and the outcomes for individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. Simone is acquainted with the work of the TCVU and produced a thematic analysis of the voices of the residents for the TCV Pilot Inspection Report last year.

We hope you join us in welcoming Simone to the team. We decided to ask her a few questions to help us get to know her better…

What motivates you to advocate for children and young people caught up in the youth justice system?

Misconceptions about who they are and why they offend. While not discounting the role of personal responsibility or choice in offending behaviour, there needs to be recognition that who, when and where you are plays a large role in the choices that are available to you. My work is also informed by the idea of the juvenile brain as plastic and open to experience.

How do you think learnings from your previous roles will support this new role in advocating for the wellbeing and rights for children and young people in detention?

My background as a solicitor and as a researcher into serious crime, repeat offending and desistance (i.e. why and how do people stop doing crime) gives me the practical skills and the theoretical knowledge of what works well, and not so well, for young people in secure care and prison environments.

What are you most looking forward to in the role as principal advocate?

Working with young people to make a difference, however big or small, in their lives. I am also looking forward to forming successful working relationships with other professional people and learning more about what they do and how the pieces of the puzzle come together.

What are three words that best describe you?

Determined, passionate and driven.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Anything fitness related: competitive tennis, running, lifting weights … not to mention cooking and eating (but mostly eating!!!).

 

Poverty cycle puts pressure on parents

In a recent opinion piece by Ross Womersley, Chief Executive Officer of SACOSS, Ross looks at some of the underlying reasons why vulnerable children fall into the child protection system. It’s an excellent perspective looking at the factors that cause children to be removed from their home, and calls for more preventative measures so children don’t need to come into care in the first place.

This is a longer version of the opinion piece published by The Advertiser on 31 December 2020 and can also be found on SACOSS’s website

The 2020 annual reports from the SA Department for Child Protection and the SA Guardian for Children and Young People highlight concerning statistics on the number of children in state care in South Australia. Taken together with news reports in recent weeks that highlight just how vulnerable children in state care can be, they provide a compelling case for action.

We call it ‘state care’ because that is exactly what it is meant to be – care by the state for children and young people who, the state judges, cannot live at home with their families.

The role of the state is to care for these children as a ‘good parent’ would.

The reasons children and young people end up in care – temporary or long-term – vary. It may be due to the illness or death of a parent, abuse or neglect, or their families simply being unable to safely care for them, at that point in time.

The statistics in the recent annual reports from the SA Department for Child Protection, and the SA Guardian for Children and Young People, are both shocking and distressing.

So too is the picture revealed by recent news reports that have thrown a spotlight on just how vulnerable children in our state’s care, can be.

Clearly, despite the hard work of many caring, compassionate, and dedicated people who work in the system, state care can fail, and fail critically, in its ‘good parent’ duties.

These failures, when they occur, make it all the more disturbing that the number of children and young people in the state’s care just keeps going up.

At the end of October this year, there were 3,757 South Australian children under Guardianship: 351 more than mid-last year. The total number of children in care (4,456) has increased by 468 since 30 June 2019.

Concerningly, based on SA data on the stability and permanency of placements, children are in care in SA for longer than in any other state or territory. The worry is that the longer children are away from their family and home community, the harder it can be to return.

And while the financial costs of providing care are high, if the state then fails its ‘good parent’ responsibilities, the personal costs to those children and young people can be lifelong.

Over the past five years, the number of children and young people in out-of-home care has risen by a huge 50%, and the number of notifications made to the Department have been steadily increasing.

In fact, post-COVID, these figures are only likely to increase further.

Tens of thousands of individuals have lost work and thus income. And while many got some relief with the federal government’s coronavirus supplement – that is now being wound back to an un-liveable level, despite continuing record levels of unemployment and underemployment. Bank loan and debt deferrals, together with the ‘moratorium’ on rental evictions, will have their end too.

As South Australians, can we truly say that we find it acceptable for this flood of new children into state care to continue?

Poverty itself doesn’t send children into child protection, but it certainly increases the pressures that can lead parents to struggle. Poverty undermines parents’ and caregivers’ capacity to raise children in safety and security, to leave unsafe relationships and places, to break away from things that are negative and harmful.

Children become vulnerable when their parents and households are under stress, and stress often results in relationship breakdown, family violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, poor judgement and neglect.

Helping children to be and stay safe starts with supporting all families to give it their best shot, and crucially, helping people when they are struggling. Sometimes out-of-home care is needed, but if that’s the case, it needs to really be ‘care’ – not more damage, not state neglect.

So, why are we collectively unable to keep children safe in South Australia?

A knee-jerk response is to blame the Department for Child Protection when things go wrong, but it is effectively the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

We need to develop and invest in many more safe pathways to prevent people getting to that cliff: a systemic overhaul of the social security safety net, decent housing, more mental health services, more help for people who struggle with addictions, or people who struggle to control their violence – more helping hands.

And if the state does take that huge step of removing a child from their home, their family or community, we need to be damned sure it is offering something better. The state needs to be everything and more of the ‘good parent’ that it is meant to embody.

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.