Security and stability of placement dominates requests for advocacy

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The Guardian’s Office received a record 96 in-mandate[1] requests for advocacy in the first quarter of the new year, representing 127 children and young people.

This was an increase of 35 per cent in inquiries and a 24 percent increase in the number of children represented compared to the preceding quarter.

Last year the Office averaged 64 in-mandate requests per quarter.  This follows the trend of an increase in the number of requests for advocacy and in the complexity of the issues raised.

The top five people who initiated in-mandate requests in July-September 2018 were:

Adults in the child’s life                                  42

Children and young people themselves      33

Department for Child Protection staff          10

Health, education and youth justice              5

Non-government organisations                     3

The top five presenting issues (by inquiry)[2] were:

Stability and security of placement              29

Safety                                                                21

Participation in decision making                   18

Contact with significant others                      15

Appropriate care                                               24

These are also the top five issues identified in the Guardian’s 2017-18 Annual Report and substantially the same as those reported in previous years.

The 33 children and young people who requested advocacy directly were in the following care arrangements:

Residential care                                             16

Adelaide Youth Training Centre                     5

Relative care                                                    4

Foster care                                                       2

Commercial (emergency) care                       2

Unknown                                                          4


[1] The Guardian is mandated by legislation to promote the interests of children and young people below the age of 18 years who are living in out-of-home care.  Another 17 inquiries were determined to be not within the Guardian’s mandate and those callers were assisted to make contact with a more appropriate organisation.

[2] Young people often present with multiple, interrelated issues.  Presenting issues are counted as primary and secondary and these are added to achieve the numbers reported.

New way to challenge DCP decisions starts this October

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Children and young people in care will soon be able to seek an external review of decisions made by the Department for Child Protection (DCP) as to their placement, care, education and health.

On 22 October, the final sections of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 will come into operation.

This means the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT) will have the power to review certain decisions made by the DCP.

SACAT is designed to be an easy to access, low cost and user-friendly method of resolving civil claims or disputes and seeking review of government decisions.

Most decisions (those made under Chapter 7 of the Act and excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able.  We discuss appeals about contact decisions below.

A child or young person must first request that DCP review the decision, and if they are not happy with DCP’s review, they can then apply for an review of that decision at SACAT. This application must be made within 28 days of receiving DCP’s review.  SACAT may grant an extension if they are satisfied that special circumstances exist.

The legislation also provides that in these proceedings,

…a child or young person to whom the proceedings relate must be given a reasonable opportunity to personally present to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal their views related to their ongoing care and protection.

SACAT plans to be flexible in order to to support a young person’s participation and comfort.  This might include taking their views off-site or separately and preventing contact and cross-examination by other parties.

SACAT will also be able to obtain information from DCP.  This will include information such as the young person’s current situation, any history of abuse or trauma and the availability of an advocate for the young person.

In the end, the SACAT has the power to affirm the DCP’s decision, vary the decision, make its own decision or send the matter back to the DCP for reconsideration.

This is new territory for SACAT and DCP so there will be considerable work taking place to ensure that this process is as child-friendly as possible, and to ensure that the voice of the child or young person is at the centre of the decision-making.

How this will play out for children and young people in practice depends how we address these and other issues.

Delays in resolving issues.  Under the arrangements as they seem today, it is possible that several months could elapse between an unsuitable decision being made by DCP and that decision being reversed by SACAT.  Three months is a long time in the reality of a child in care.  Unsuitable decisions on placement, education and health could cause irreversible damage and disruption to a young person during that time.

Who is to be the child’s advocate?  The review process is complex so it is likely that few reviews will be mounted by a young person without the support of an adult advocate.  Who will this be? The young person’s DCP social worker may lack the knowledge to advocate (as we have seen in some NDIS matters) or the will to oppose the views of colleagues and superiors. A child’s social worker could face a conflict of interest.

Other adults closely involved in the matter may not be able to separate their own emotional and material interests from those of the young person.  Advocacy support may come from a body such as the Office of the Guardian or by the appointment of a duty solicitor to act for the young person.

What about Aboriginal children and families?  How well will the process be able to manage the language, location and cultural barriers that might discourage Aboriginal children and their advocates seeking a review and being able to represent their position effectively if they do?

What is a review-able decision?  What if a young person or their advocate believes a decision falls within scope, but the DCP doesn’t? There is some guidance.  Decisions made under Chapter 7 of the Act (excluding decisions regarding contact arrangements) will be review-able. Section 84 of the Act sets out review-able decisions relating to the placement, care, education, and health of children and young people in care but deciding what is review-able may not be simple in practice.

Additionally, can a refusal to review be itself reviewed? Would this be referred to the DCP complaints unit, by appeal to the Ombudsman or by some other mechanism still to be devised?

Disputes over contact arrangements

Legislation recently passed through Parliament  which means that, from 22 October, children and young people will be able to apply to the Contact Arrangements Review Panel which can affirm, change, or set aside contact decisions.   The child or young person will have 14 days after the DCP’s decision to apply for review although there is provision for ‘special circumstances’ to extend that time. Right now, it is unclear if a decision made by the Contact Arrangements Review Panel can be appealed or reviewed.

For more information, check out the Internal reviews page on the DCP website and the SACAT website.  SACAT have told us that they expect to be developing more materials explaining the review process in the next few month.

Emergency care – numbers are not the whole story

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Amanda Shaw Guardian

14 February, 2017

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love statistics.

‘Without data you are just another person with an opinion’ – W. E. Deming [1]

So it was with growing unease that we dutifully recorded each month over the last few years the steady growth in the numbers of children and young people being placed by the state into what is called ‘emergency care’.

In emergency care children are looked after in temporary accommodation by rotating shifts of workers with minimal training, provided mostly by commercial companies. In the popular shorthand they have become known as ‘kids in motels’ although their ages vary and the places in which they reside include bed and breakfasts, caravan parks and short-term rentals.

We have frequently reported, and Commissioner Nyland’s investigations reached the same conclusion, that emergency care is very unsuitable for children. It does not and cannot support their psychological needs and social development and potentially places them at greater risk of abuse.

There are now nearly 200 children and young people living under such arrangements so we need to get the numbers down – yes?

Well, yes – but with a very strong proviso.

Finding a suitable alternative placement is much more than just finding a bed. In a complex calculation, the child or young person’s age, gender, cultural identity, maturity, previous experiences, psychological state, personality and disabilities all form part of the planning. A placement in home-based or residential care must have the best chance to make them feel safe, secure, accepted and support them to reach their full potential. As well, a good placement has to consider not just the best for the child or young person being placed but, equally importantly, what is in the interests of those who already live in that placement.

Getting this right has consequences for the safety, happiness and wellbeing of the children and young people being placed, not just now but for the future and perhaps for the rest of their lives.

In the past we have seen efforts to ‘get the numbers down’ lead to children being placed into unsuitable home-based or residential care placements. They were often hastily planned and executed, poorly matched and ignored the views of the children.

We need to acknowledge the community and media pressure on the new Department to ‘get the numbers down’ but the safety, wellbeing and interests of children and young people must come first. A number of matters coming before the Office’s Advocates recently have raised my concern that an emphasis on ‘getting the numbers down’ is once again coming at the expense of good placement matching. Placement options are being discussed that appear very unsuitable, that children and young people do not want and that may place them at risk.

There is also some evidence that children and young people in settled circumstances are being shuffled among the residential care houses in order to create places. There is a dilemma in taking action for the greater good – making more placements within the same resources available – while not losing sight of the individual’s rights, wellbeing and, importantly, their voice.

South Australia already has the highest average number of placement changes per child in Australia and we have previously documented the negative effects of forced placements changes in reports and in young people’s own words.

There is no shortcut to creating suitable quality care placements in foster care, relative care and residential care. It will take time, resources and sustained effort but creating suitable alternatives is the only acceptable way to reduce the numbers in emergency accommodation.

In the end it will be the stories of the children and young people behind the statistics that will be the evidence of our success or failure.

1 William Edwards Deming was a notable American management innovator and champion of evidence-based decision making. Wikipedia

This article also appears in the February 2017 edition of the Guardian’s Newsletter.

Stability and certainty in care

3 November, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #9

The team from the Guardian’s office have analysed the 850 pages and 260 recommendations from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report[1].  We have extracted some themes and priorities to allow us to critique the government’s response, judge the improvements over time and to shape our own work.  Following is a description of the issues and a short list of things to watch for in the reform process.  The first eight in the series are available.[2] We will post the rest over the next few weeks. [3]

We would hope for all children that they are safe and settled in a care situation that fulfils all of their needs.  Commissioner Nyland describes how this is not always the case for South Australia’s children even from the point at which they enter care.

Once removed, the child’s need for stability and certainty is given insufficient weight. Attempts to reunify children with their parents drag on for far too long, causing instability as well as denying young children the certainty of the attachment relationships crucial for their development…many children taken into care are subsequently reunified with their parents when the issues that undermined their safety in the first place have not been sustainably addressed.

She recommends that formal permanency planning should start with the imposition of the court order that places the child into care and that time limits be set for reunification efforts after which long-term orders should be sought.

The current system fails to assign to every child in care a social worker who regularly visits and this failure raises stability and safety issues for children.  Annual reviews of the circumstances of each child in care, also required by legislation, are sometimes not done or done poorly,  which removes another level of safety and continuity that should be in place.

South Australia has an extraordinarily high rate of placement instability compared to other Australian jurisdictions…Placements that appear to be in danger of breaking down should be promptly identified. Early therapeutic support would help carers who may be having difficulty in coping with the challenges of caring for children with high or complex needs.

Each time a child changes placement it can inhibit the formation of attachments to people, place and community, undermine formation of healthy identity and disrupt schooling.  Children can be further distressed by having little or no say in the decision making, timing and destination of new placements.

A young person’s need for stability and support does not cease when they turn 18. In a later post we will consider how they can be assisted to make a smooth transition to independence and the support they need to continue through further education, entry into the workforce and beyond.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

  • Permanency planning for children that commences at the time of an order bringing a child into care.
  • Concurrent  planning being given greater emphasis in case planning, especially for children while they are forming attachments.
  • Annual reviews being universal, independently chaired and subject to revised and more rigorously enforced standards.
  • A review of the reasons for the low level of Other Person Guardianship in South Australia.
  • All children currently receiving a differential response be assessed for eligibility for Other Person Guardianship.
  • Every child in care being allocated a social worker who visits them at regular intervals determined by an assessment of the circumstances and the child’s preference.
  • Involvement of the child in discussion about the need for placement change and how and when it will occur.
  • The inclusion of the voice of the child in all discussions at which decisions are made about significant matters that affect them.

Please join the discussion via the reply box leaving a name and an email address in the spaces provided.  We will remove them from the published post if you request in your reply.

[1] Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report,
[2] See also posts on Coordination and Collaboration, The voice of the child , Emergency care , Residential care, Home-based care, Therapeutic care – everywhere. Aboriginal children and Education.
[3] This is not intended to be a précis of Commissioner Nyland’s report which provides a very clear and readable summary.  Because of the Guardian’s mandate, this analysis will tend to focus on issues for children in out-of-home-care.

The impact and experience of moving while in care

suitcase small square erodedThe Guardian’s Inquiry into the Impact and Experience of Moving While in Care sought children’s views about the impact of changing their care placement and what would make it a better experience.  The Inquiry also sought the views of people who most influence placement moves and looked at case records to see what happens when those decisions are made.  It commenced in September 2012 and concluded in June 2013, followed by discussion with the South Australian child protection authority.

Some lessons from the Inquiry are captured in the words of three young people in a nine minute video.
Inquiry Report – the impact and experience of moving while in care is on this website.

Summary of Recommendations from the moving in care report is a short document containing just the Report’s recommendation and some contextual notes.

Practice Takeaways from the inquiry into children’s experience of moving in care combines themes and quotes from children with comments from adults to draw out the practical implications of the Report.

The Moving in care inquiry literature review and bibliography presents an analysis of what the academic literature has to say about the experience and impact of children moving in care and has a substantial bibliography.

link to GCYP twitter

6 things about moving while in care

6 things about moving while you are in care graphic

The Guardian wants to find out what it’s like for children in care when they change placement so it can be made better for them.

When we asked 20 children individually about their experiences, six themes emerged .  To check if we were on the right track, some young people from CREATE came around  to tell us what they thought about each of these themes.

This is what we heard…

1. We want to hear the stories and experiences told by other children

It helps children and young people to not feel alone and to know that other children and young people may have experienced the same.

2. Some moves are easier than others

The really difficult moves are when a sibling gets left behind or are moving. Also, saying goodbye to someone special such as a carer or another child in the home, can make the move hard even if the move itself is well managed. Adults should work extra hard on preparing for the move when there are important people to farewell.

3. Our views about where we are going to live and how the move occurs are important

A lot of change for a child in care is unfair and children often don’t receive enough information about decisions that are being made. Sometimes a move has to happen but children are not kept informed nor given the opportunity to participate in the decisions. Also, when a young person is offered a choice they have to talk through the consequences of that choice, which is a good thing.

4. We struggle to trust adults when change is not well managed

Children and young people know they have little choice and control over what happens in their lives. Talking this through though means that they can say what they feel, rather than getting it out in bad ways.

5. We need to be prepared

Children need to be consulted and to understand the reason for the move. When there is a crisis, adults are less likely to talk with children and young people.

6. We need support from key people

A child’s social worker should make sure the child knows where they are moving to and to meet their new carers before the move. Children and young people need someone who understands what they are going through. They need a positive welcome from new carers, as well as children who already live there. Sometimes the welcome from other young people is more important than that of the adults, particularly in residential settings. There was a keen sense of what is unfair – children need to be treated fairly and not made to feel different. Children and young people want to be treated as part of the family.

The Guardian will put this and much more into a report about children’s experiences of moving while in care which will be released in September.

Thanks to the young people and staff at CREATE SA.

More about the Moving in Care project in our Twitter feed.

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The impact and experience of moving while in care – a review of the literature

moving in care logoThe story of a child in care will include at least one move from birth family to carer family, and usually subsequent moves.  Of the 2,546 children in out-of-home care in South Australia at 30 June 2012, almost one in every five children had had between six and ten placement moves and another one in seven had had more than ten placement moves.

As the number of young people in care has grown, researchers and practitioners have wondered how it must feel for children to be removed from their birth family and ‘adopted’ by another, or several others, in turn.  The literature has much to tell about the likely impact, and something to say about how children view these events.

The The impact and experience of moving while in care literature review conducted as part of the Guardian’s inquiry, is now available in PDF.  It summarises international and national research and opinion about stability in care, the impact on children and children’s views.

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The report of the inquiry, which brings together the voice of children, case file evidence and public consultation, will be published later in 2013.

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Do we coordinate well with others when we change a child’s placement?

Many respondents to our Charter Champions survey believe that we coordinate well while others have observed that we do it seldom or not at all.  Perhaps ‘well’ means different things to different respondents?  Should it involve former or future carers, the child’s worker, teachers, psychologist?  Our free text survey produced all of these suggestions and more.  Many agreed that the earlier, more complete, more inclusive and more comprehensive the planning, the better.

There have been a number of placement changes I’ve been involved in where there has been an opportunity to discuss the child’s needs at length and a plan has been implemented to make the transition as smooth as possible on the young person. The plan may be a gradual change where the child visits the placement several time before moving in, or sometimes we’ve moved forward quickly because the child is likely to become highly anxious over the change and was likely to become violent if given too much time to process the information. These considered approaches have involved a great input from case managers, supervisors, youth workers, therapists, and whoever knows the child best. In some cases we’ve been able to maintain schooling, peer groups, community involvement etc. and the placement change has been successful. – Supervisor

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