Serious repeat young offenders

Among other statutory functions the Guardian for Children and Young People acts as an advocate for the interests of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister for Families and Communities.  This includes young people in the secure care centres.  It is in this capacity that the following submission is made.

This submission is prepared on the basis of the Office’s experience in investigating individual matters, talking with experts in the area of youth justice, and our knowledge of policies and practice in Families SA.

You can download a PDF file of Serious Repeat Young Offenders .

Preventing homelessness in young people after care

About one hundred young people each year ‘graduate’ from state care to independence, most at age 18. Their move to independence is about three to five years earlier than their age peers. From research interstate, it is likely that more than half of them will not have completed their schooling to Year 12. About one in three of the young women will have children of their own or be pregnant by the time they turn 20, compared with two per cent in the general population.

As you would expect, the group of young people leaving care are not homogenous.  Some are doing really well, some are struggling. Almost one in four is an Aboriginal young person and a growing number, though still relatively small, are refugees from Southern and Central Africa and the Middle East.   Just under half are young women.

To read more on homlessness and the wellbeing of young people after graduating from care, download a PDF of the Guardian’s paper Preventing homelessness in young people after care .

Support the family and the child

Pam Simmons Guardian

People are rightly angry at child abuse and neglect. It seems decent common sense to investigate all claims of abuse. But even in an ideal world we may not want to go down the investigation route in every circumstance. Child abuse notifications range from clear evidence of sexual and physical abuse to concern about lack of parental presence or truancy at school.

In South Australia the most common type of abuse substantiated in 2004-05 was neglect which makes up 42 per cent of the total. At 35 per cent emotional abuse was the next most common. Of course all are signs of a child in need of attention. And herein lies the crux of the matter.

Before leaping in to sending two investigating officers around to the child’s house to question the family, good child protection workers consider what is the best approach in the child’s circumstances. Sometimes it should be heavy-handed and decisive.

More often than not though a supportive approach to the family as a whole will benefit the child in the long run.

Put yourself in the child’s world. Mum or dad may be having a very rough time and you’re copping some of it. You do want someone to help but you want them to help your mum and dad as much as help you. Children generally have such strong bonds to their families that they’ll put up with barely adequate parenting in preference to being separated.

The difficult decision required of the child protection worker and other professionals is what is the best approach that both keeps the child safe and protects what is dear to the child. I don’t envy them that decision, a decision they have to make every day. I also don’t envy them the disappointment when the help the family needs isn’t there. That’s when the cycle of re-notifications starts and the child is at risk of escalating tension, neglect or abuse.

Lack of timely family help is one possible reason for the 45 per cent rise in notifications in South Australia over the past five years. The other likely reasons are heightened public awareness and greater willingness to report. Health professionals are reporting a rise in the use of amphetamines by adults. Child protection professionals are reporting a rise in the number of children neglected because of drug-affected parents. We can remove the children and place them in an overstretched alternative care system, temporarily or permanently. And, sometimes, your inclination is to do just that and punish the parents.

The 32 per cent rise over the past five years in the number of South Australian children coming into care suggests that this is a growing response. But again, if you asked the children they would almost certainly say they wanted their parents to do better by them.

So, if for no other reason than putting children first, we have to think about support for their birth family and what the best approach will be.

Drug and alcohol services, parenting support, mental health services, secure housing and practical home assistance may be just what the child needs – for his or her parents.

This is not an argument or excuse for inaction. There are sizeable gaps in the child protection system and one of those is in the capacity to investigate notifications.

We could keep putting dollars into investigations but we have to make choices. The bigger gap, in my view, is in capacity to respond to family crisis or persistent problems.

In plugging this hole, we can curb the growth in notifications, investigations and children in care. I know where I’d put my money, and more of it.

[This article first appeared in The Advertiser on 5 January 2007.]

Do we like children?

Pam Simmons Guardian

Recent amendments to child protection law have a renewed focus on child-safe environments designed to keep our children safe at school, at clubs, at camps and in churches.

A lot of this activity is about restrictions, such as keeping certain people out,  increasing adult supervision of children, limiting movement in cars and open space.

This is done with the right motives. We have a special responsibility towards children that comes with being dependable adults.

Truly child safe environments do not pen children in but offer freedom to explore, move, participate and engage. They’re increasingly referred to as child-friendly environments or child-focused or child-centric.

They look different because children are present, usually in person and sometimes in symbols. It requires us to really like children, to have them participate and voice

opinions. It requires us to consider how they see the world.

But what does participation and engagement have to do with child safety? Evidence here and overseas demonstrates that children who are encouraged to be present, to be heard and to engage are also much more likely to speak up when they feel unsafe. Indeed, it is a major determinant of protection and early disclosure.

Disclosures by children of abuse have been dismissed in the past and partly account for the extensive and belated reparation required now as a result of formal inquiries. So listening and believing is essential too.

While adults readily accept that children have rights to be safe from harm and free from exploitation we often find other rights challenging. Rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and to express views come smack up against strong Anglo traditions of ‘protecting’ children from major decisions and changes, and silencing them in adult company. Obviously child-environments like schools are streets ahead on participation. But the right to be safe from harm is partly dependent on the right to be heard and to express views.

Frequent contact between children, young people and adults who have genuine interest in their wellbeing is a protective measure and a winning one.

‘He wants to be here’

August 13, 2006For many reasons, children in care are excluded from schools at a much higher rate than their peers. Malcolm Downes recently visited a small primary school to distil inspiration and some lessons from their work with a boy we will call Carl.

When 12-year-old Carl joined Rick Whitehead’s year 6-7 class at Gumeracha Primary School at the start of 2006 some things were going to go right for him for a change. But it didn’t seem likely at first. A traumatic personal history and some bad experiences at previous schools had left him perpetually anxious and angry, prone to walk out of class when asked to do school work and colourfully abusive when confronted.


Rick and Principal Angela Clacherty were not unprepared. They knew something of Carl’s history and just two weeks into the term met with Families SA and Education’s Student Inclusion and Wellbeing and Behaviour Support Coordinator to work out what could be done. A small table in a corner of Angela’s office became a refuge where Carl could safely work out his anger and frustration by pounding plasticine into extreme and sometimes beautiful shapes when tension in the classroom became too much. Fortuitously, Carl shared two of Rick’s passions, sport and music.


‘His eyes lit up when he saw the drum kit set up at the back of the class,’ Rick recalls.

The start of the football season also saw Carl playing for Gumeracha juniors wearing the same black and white club colours that Rick had worn a few years earlier.

Carl has developed a good relationship with Kassie Wildman, the energetic School Services Officer who works with him as a consequence of that first meeting. The four hours per week of support she provides has enabled him to tackle some tasks and situations that would have previously sent him racing outside.

He is enrolled in the music program, doing guitar on Monday and drums on Wednesday.

‘Occasionally he says he doesn’t want to go to music but after a bit of encouragement he usually does,” observes Rick, ‘but I think he just wants the extra attention.’

Still, Carl’s integration into the school community has not been smooth or easy and is far from complete.

‘Carl has good days and he has bad days and sometimes a bad day will be triggered by something outside of school,’ says Angela.

‘Tomorrow is a new day’ has become something of a mantra for Carl and those working with him, she explains.

The school has an excellent relationship with Carl’s carers, an aunt and uncle who are willing to provide the time and the commitment that he needs. There is trust and a sense of partnership that makes sure that issues that cross the boundary between Carl’s home and school life are supportively addressed.

Talking to Rick and Angela it becomes clear that their own close communication and shared willingness to work creatively and flexibly with Carl is one of his major assets in the school. Angela admits that not all teachers, including some on her own staff, would accept or be comfortable with the latitude that Carl is shown. A photo of Carl proudly holding up a school project beams down from above Angela’s desk and Rick comments on his great sense of humour. They clearly like Carl.

For Carl’s classmates too, these two terms have been a journey.

‘It became clear to them right from the start that Carl was troubled. There were questions and some resentment with a few kids asking why he got favourable treatment, why they had to do work and he didn’t,’ said Rick. He and Angela explain how these questions led to challenging discussions about rules and fairness and also about Carl’s needs and place in the class. Carl is now a part of the class. The minor disruptions are tolerated, his achievements are celebrated and some members of the class even take special pride in looking out for him.

Even with all that has been achieved, the future presents some challenges for Carl and his school. Rick estimates that he is at year three in his school work and admits that, with 24 other children to teach, he cannot put in the one-to-one tutoring that is needed. Carl’s emotional state still limits his ability to concentrate and academic progress is slow.

Next year he will go into year seven and beyond that there is the major challenge of high school.

For the time being, the immense achievement of his teachers, principal, carers classmates and support agencies to date are eloquently summarised by Angela Clacherty when she is able to say of Carl, ‘He wants to be here.’

Social worker checklist

This checklist was developed with the input of children and young people in care to assist workers to provide the child or young person with information about what is happening to them when entering or changing placement.  You can download the Social Worker Checklist from our website.

Doing more than is practicable

Today, I am going to talk about some of the things we can do to equip children and young people in the care system for when they leave our care. In doing so, I am going to begin by referring to a particular section of the Children’s Protection (Miscellaneous) Act 2005, Section 3 part B, where one of the objectives is

To ensure as far as practicable that all children are cared for in a way that allows them to reach their full potential…

This section refers to our obligation to help children and young people achieve their potential, yet, like many other aspects of the legislation, it contains the rider ‘as far as is practicable’ and therefore could suggest minimum standards or just our statutory responsibility.

I want to talk about the importance of doing more than is practicable, of doing more than fulfilling our statutory responsibility, and to emphasise how important it is to proactively work with children and young people so that they can reach their full potential. I shall also discuss the consequences if we do not.

I will therefore be focusing on the things that we need to do to prepare young people for leaving care that I call ‘non-concrete’ or the ‘non-tangibles’ as opposed to the concrete things, like budgeting, using a washing machine, accessing services etc.

Download a PDF pf Angela Andary’s keynote address to the Leaving Care Conference—April 2006 Doing more than is practicable – How can we assist children and young people in care to reach their full potential?

[ddownload id=”5632″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download the paper”]