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”]

Charter of Rights launched

Charter launch 2006Lions roared, parrots squawked, monkeys howled and the first Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care in Australia was launched.

In a lunchtime ceremony in the Rotunda of the Adelaide Zoo on April 19, young people involved in the development of the Charter explained why they felt that a clear statement of rights for children and young people in care was important.

Reflecting on her time in guardianship, 19 year old Rachel Hopkins said, “Most kids don’t know what to expect when they go into care.

“They want to know why them and what is going to happen next. The Charter will help clear up a lot of those things and make sure they know it’s alright for them to ask questions.”

Eighteen year old David Wilkins who chaired the event said, “Children in care want to feel like any other children – they want to have the same opportunities and support.”

“It’s really important for children in care to know they have rights. For those coming in to the system, this Charter will be able to provide them with information to help them deal with being placed under guardianship.”

Surviving a simian heckling that he said rivalled even that of his parliamentary colleagues, Minister for Families and Communities, Jay Weatherill congratulated the children and young people, carers and the many professionals whose work created the Charter.

“Children and young people are placed under guardianship when they are unable to remain in their family home making them among the most vulnerable,” he said.“They need to know they can expect to be treated well and cared for properly while they are under guardianship. It also is crucial for them to know they have options if something goes wrong. The Charter is a great way of telling them this and preventing problems such as abuse.

“We are going to ask people and organisations providing care to endorse the Charter and build it into their ways of working with children and young people including their performance standards and reporting process,” he said as he officially launched the Charter.

The launch was attended by more than 100 children and young people and about the same number of carers and other interested adults. After the launch they joined the Office of the Guardian staff for a hotdog and gourmet sausage sizzle and were entertained by young DJ Ben and Dr Blot the clown before spending a sunny afternoon at the Zoo.

The Charter and the value of formalising rights for children and young people in care will be promoted strongly over the next few months.

To read the Charter and to view the promotional materials, visit the Charter of Rights page or contact the Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People on 8226 8570, email

“There’s no point in her being at school…” homelessness and children

The following are excerpts from an address to the Homelessness SA forum on the impact of homelessness on children, 31 March 2006.

There’s no point in her being at school, it’s not like you can sit her down at night and read her books, with this stuff going on around us.

homeless family in a private hotel

Pam Simmons Guardian

Children come into care to protect them from harm. Their families cannot care for them for a variety of reasons. This ranges from parents who cannot get enough support to care for a child with profound disabilities to parents who seriously and criminally abuse their children. The contributing factors for Aboriginal children are steeped in their families’ history of separation and alienation.

It is of no surprise that the factors that place families under stress and lead to the separation of children from their care are similar to the factors that contribute to homelessness. These are domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, intellectual disability, low incomes, transience and poor family supports, among others. There is significant overlap between homelessness and children being in care.

You’re just a totally isolated unit as a family, friendship just doesn’t come into it. Even the kids, they’re like ships in the night, you know? None of us have any relationships, it’s really weird.

homeless family

 The impact of homelessness on children is huge but has largely been overlooked. In the past we have treated the family as a homogenous unit with the parents representing and protecting the interests of the children. It is only since the 1980s with growth in the study of children, and the consequent ‘discovery’ that they were social actors, and the commitment to children’s rights that we have started to consider the needs of children as linked to but also distinct from the family as a whole.

From a child’s perspective, homelessness may look like this: losing pets, leaving treasures behind, being in strange and threatening environments, being separated from friends and sometimes siblings, changing or missing school, falling behind, insufficient food, persistent illness with no treatment and adults distracted all the time.

It happened lots. I just got used to it. They’d just come and pick us up and take us when mum was going psycho.

In their own words, Create June 2004

Children in care who are often changing placement are homeless but have not been considered as such. It is not our notion of what homelessness is. But the definition of ‘secondary’ homelessness covers such circumstances – constantly moving between relatives or friends because of no home of their own.

We do know that young people who are in state care use homelessness services. In South Australia at 30 June 2005 there were 190 young people on care and protection orders and in independent living arrangements such as private board, renting on their own, engaged in a program of learning to live independently and living with their partner and children. It has been estimated but not confirmed that 100 of these young people drift in and out of homelessness services. We don’t have accurate data here.

There are many things we still don’t know. We don’t know how many families were homeless when the children were removed. We don’t know how many children have been separated from their parents because residential services couldn’t accommodate children. We don’t know how well our homelessness services meet the needs of children or how safe children are while there. We don’t know how many homeless people are care leavers but we suspect it is a significant number. We don’t know how, or if, homelessness services should be integrated with alternative care.

We do know though that child safety starts with awareness of children and empowerment of children. So we can proceed without perfect knowledge to improve our approach to children in planning and providing homelessness services.

Preventing sexual abuse

This information paper is about the sexual abuse of children in care and ways in which it can be prevented.   We provide information for policy makers, professionals, carers, journalists and the public and suggest some ways forward.

In the first section we examine some of the themes emerging from the literature.  In the second we canvass some of the changes that have occurred in child protection in the recent past and look at the child protection system as it operates today.  While there is much in this paper that can be usefully applied to the prevention of other forms of abuse and to the avoidance of abuse of children in the wider population, it is primarily about the prevention of sexual abuse of children and young people in care.

The information paper is based on a longer written submission to a South Australian Commission of Inquiry into the previous sexual abuse of children while in state care.

Responsibility for the contents of the paper rests with the Guardian for Children and Young People.

[ddownload id=”6330″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download the paper”]

Child protection is everyone's business

There’s an ethical dilemma that we all may face at some time. When you see a parent screaming at a child in a public place should you intervene?

Responses to this vary from minding your own business, stepping between the two to comfort the child or moving to empathise with the parent in order to diffuse the situation.

Whatever you do it is likely that you will be criticised by someone who holds a different opinion.

Writ large this is the dilemma faced by our front line child protection workers every day.  Do they intervene? How? Who should they first support?  What right do they have? It is a tough job. It is unenviable in many ways but holds its own rewards.

The child protection system has many parts: reporting and recording concerns, investigating those notifications, deciding on the best first response, meetings with the family and others, decisions by the Youth Court on what legal arrangements should be made, making alternative care arrangements, providing other services to the child and family and helping young people who face major conflict or trauma.

There are three brass tacks to the child protection system. It is necessary. It can’t be everything people want. We all have a stake in it.

It is necessary because we have jointly made a decision that children should be protected from harm and some children are at risk. This year is it likely that more than 600 children and young people will be taken into temporary or ongoing care of the Minister for Families and Communities to protect them from harm.

For different reasons some families will not be able to adequately care for their children and we, through the child protection system, intervene. Three out of four of the children taken into care will be cared for by the state until they reach the age of maturity. A significant number will live with extended family.

The child protection system can’t be everything we want because like the ethical dilemma above there is different opinion on what should be done, when and for whom. Add to this the constrained capacity of services and workforce because resources are not endless and you have disappointed and disaffected punters.

There is a sizeable gap between what many of us think constitutes good or even adequate parenting and the legal and moral mandate for the state to intervene.

This has partly come about because over the past century we have made great strides in first recognising childhood as a distinct human condition and subsequently ascribing rights, characteristics and responsibilities to and for children. This is progress. Like other such social change though, it happens in fits and starts, there are proponents and detractors and the institutions of our time reflect this mix.

So we allow considerable leeway in parenting practice before we can legally intervene. This is good. It acts as a brake on abuses of power and until we can offer families more support we must not judge quickly.

And the third brass tack is that we all have a stake in the child protection system. It is our response to what our society needs to protect children from harm and it is part of our society. The system needs to be both strong and adaptable. It needs to respond flexibly to different cultures and communities, taking into account capacity, history and belief but without compromising a child’s safety and wellbeing.

It is fair to expect that when the state intervenes we offer good care, and at the very least better than what we are removing children from. It is imperative that we respond with appropriate reparation and that we learn everything we can from instances of sexual abuse that occurred in the past. It is my view, shared by many others, that we are doing better at this now with higher levels of training, support and scrutiny. However no one would claim that all children in care are safe from harm.

Children and young people in the child protection system are not someone else’s children. Once we jointly decide to intervene, through our courts and agencies, we accept a greater responsibility for their development and care.

Workers and carers may be at the centre providing day to day assistance but, if we value such basics as opportunity, trust and participation then we all play apart in rearing and caring for children who are most in need of our help.

Pam Simmons


A version of this article first appeared in The Advertiser in September 2005.