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.

Free therapeutic counselling available

A free therapeutic counselling support is available now for people engaging with, or affected by, the Disability Royal Commission. This includes children and young people in care who have disability and have experienced trauma.

Relationships Australia South Australia (RASA) have received funding until 2022 from the Australian Government to provide counselling for people who have a disability (physical, psycho-social, intellectual, or learning) and who have experienced trauma as a result of violence, abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

This service is also open to people who are supporting those affected, such as parents, foster and kinship carers, support workers, siblings, and social workers. The child or support person does not have to be directly engaged with the Royal Commission but may be affected by the Royal Commission.

RASA Counsellor Zoë Dalton said this program addresses a gap in services for children and young people in care, with the services of highly experienced counsellors.

“Essentially, there are gaps in trauma-informed counselling for all people with disabilities. This gap has been particularly noted around the supports and care for children in care, residential care and detention. There just does not appear to be a therapeutic service that wraps around their needs from a disability perspective that is openly available, which is why this service has been established.” Zoë said.

“I have observed a lack of therapeutic support for people working with young people in care with a disability. This can have a flow on effect to the wellbeing and care provided to the young person. Our trauma and disability-informed counsellors can address this area too.”

There are currently five counsellors with capacity to see clients immediately, with no waitlists or delays. Counselling sessions are available at the RASA office in Hindmarsh or at a person’s home, school, or workplace. Sessions are also available via phone and video calls.

To make an appointment call RASA on 1800 577 571 or email or for more information visit the service page here. You can also find out more about the service and support groups through RASA’s Facebook and Twitter.

Education of young people in care

For children and young people in care, the benefits of education go far beyond grades—it’s an opportunity to meet friends, learn new things and find a sense of stability. The Guardian’s report, Children and Young People in State Care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-2018 looks at how well the system serves their needs and identifies a number of ongoing trends.

In 2018, 60.9 per cent of all students in care were enrolled in South Australian Department for Education (DE) schools, up from 57 per cent in 2017. The remainder may be enrolled in non-government schools, below school age or not enrolled for other reasons.

In the same period, 34.7 per cent of children and young people in care in DE schools identified as Aboriginal, which compared to 6.4 per cent of all students in the DE population.

Absence and attendance

Children and young people in care enrolled in DE schools show a higher rate of absence at 13 per cent, compared to 9.5 per cent for the general school population. Absence rates are higher for students in secondary school than for those in primary school.

The report also finds Aboriginal children in care are more likely to be attending school than Aboriginal children not in care.

Suspension and exclusion

According to the report, suspension and exclusion rates are consistently higher for children and young people in care than the broader cohort. The DE defines suspension as times when the student does not attend school for one to five days and exclusion as when the student does not attend for four to ten weeks, or the rest of the term or semester for students over 16.

Students in care in DE schools are suspended at a rate four times higher than DE students not in care and the report identifies violence and the main reason for suspension.

Learning and intellectual disability

The proportion of children and young people with an identified disability continues to be significantly higher for those in care than the broader school population.

In 2018, 30.3 per cent of students in care in DE schools were classified as having a disability, compared to the state average of 9.8 per cent.

NAPLAN results

Data consistently indicates children and young people in care in DE schools achieve poorer outcomes in NAPLAN in relation to meeting the National Minimum Standard.

Participation rates in NAPLAN testing are low for students in care in DE schools. While many have valid reasons for not participating, this makes tracking the experience of young people in care difficult. For example, only around half of eligible Year 9 students participated in NAPLAN testing in 2018.

Check out the Guardian’s report Children and young people in state care in South Australian Government Schools 2008-18 for further analysis, available below.

Lolly Jar Circus

girl dancing with ribbonsDrop in to a typical Lolly Jar Circus class and you will see young people, aged four to twenty-six, tumbling, balancing, leaping and juggling.  There is laughter, concentration, effort, frequent failure and renewed effort.

Founder of Lolly Jar Circus, Judy Bowden, assures me that this is all safer than it looks.

‘Our trainers are very experienced, they do lots of warm-ups and progress the young people from simple circus skills to difficult ones, based on their capabilities.

‘The point of social circus is not the skills themselves but the participant’s growth in confidence, resilience and social skills as their strength and coordination grows and success comes.

‘I first saw this sort of thing in action when my own children were involved in Cirkidz and after that I wondered how learning circus skills might benefit young people with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘Finally, we put together a board and, with some supporters, created Lolly Jar Circus.

‘Five years later, here we are.

‘In our classes are young people with a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities.  In many ways, that is the point, working together and understanding that our community contains many different sorts of people.

‘One of our trainers said recently “what keeps me going is the laughter”, and there’s plenty of that, but also we see the growth in our young participants and hear about positive changes from proud parents.

‘Recently, I was shown a video of a girl with a disability riding her bike for the first time and then there was the young man with cerebral palsy who could walk into school and hang his bag up unaided for the first time.

‘As well as the trainers who are paid, we are operated by a board, volunteers and myself.

‘We have to make a small charge to cover costs like hall-hire, but some of our donations are in the form of scholarships that we can provide to families who couldn’t otherwise afford their children to attend.

‘Some of our students are in state care and it is a good way for them to build skills, confidence and friendships in a safe environment.’

And the future?

‘We have some great supporters including the Department for Human Services and the Sisters of Charity.

‘Right now we have classes in Campbelltown, Glandore, Elizabeth and Windsor Gardens and we probably need to consolidate a bit, but in the future it would be good to have permanent premises of our own and, eventually, a paid manager.’

You can find out more about this great operation at the Lolly Jar Circus website.


Children in care with disabilities

15 November, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #11

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 Report1.  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 10 in the series are available.2 We will post the rest over the next few weeks. 3 

Children with disabilities are a higher proportion of the in-care population than in the population at large.  Some children enter care with disabilities caused by the abuse or neglect that brought them into care. Some children who already have disabilities are relinquished into state care by parents who lack the resources to manage the parenting challenges they present.

Commissioner Nyland is particularly concerned that children in state care do not miss out on the services and opportunities on offer from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Children in out-of-home care rely on attentive case managers to recognise their potential eligibility [for NSID funding] and negotiate on their behalf. 

To do this entails a more rigorous identification of children’s disabilities and their recording on the child’s electronic case management file so that every child potentially eligible can have an application made prior to the March 2017 deadline.  The respective role of foster and kinship carers and the Department for Child Protection (DCP) in relationship to NDIS will need to be clarified to avoid confusion and dislocation.  Commissioner Nyland recommended the ’employment of disability specialists and additional training…to develop expertise in the Agency’ about the NDIS.

The ‘child and family assessment  and referral networks’ recommended by Commissioner Nyland (see our post Responding to abused and neglected children) will also need to have the skills and knowledge to support families who are caring for children with disabilities. 

Foster families caring for children with disabilities sometimes face the simultaneous challenge of catering for a disability and dealing with trauma-related behavioural issues.  Commissioner Nyland stresses the maintenance of the existing Alternative Care Therapeutics Team (ACTT) program though its integration with the NDIS.   She also recommends determining the need for specialist disability foster care placements and funding those placements accordingly as well as funding the support and respite services needed to ensure those placements remain viable for foster parents and children. 

Commissioner Nyland discusses the situation of children with disabilities whose care is voluntarily relinquished to the state by their birth parents.  She forms the opinion that this group of children might not be best served by placing them in the care of the DCP but has insufficient information to make a formal recommendation.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

  • every child who is potentially eligible has applied to the NDIS by the 31 March 2017 deadline.
  • the electronic case management system modified to require a child’s eligibility for NDIS entered and caseworkers trained accordingly.
  • analysis of the unmet need for specialist disability foster placements and provision of it expanded to meet that need.
  • DCP caseworkers trained to meet the needs of children with disabilities and in the workings of NDIS and the employment of specialist disability workers to support them.
  • maintenance of the ACTT program and its expansion through and beyond the introduction of the NDIS.
  • the recommended ‘child and family assessment and referral networks’ given the skills and responsibility to help families engage with the NDIS.

Please join the discussion on child protection reform via the reply box below.


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, Aboriginal children, Education , Stability and certainty in care and Responding to abused or neglected children.

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.

Access to education for students in care with disabilities

cartoon of children at school gate5 July 2016

Students with disabilities are not a homogeneous group.  They each have abilities, dreams and circumstances and often a unique history of loss and trauma. They have to negotiate and seek out many of the things that other children take for granted. They work by different rules, they are the subject of written plans about them and their privacy is less preserved than others. They may struggle to see brothers and sisters, to keep personal things safe and frequently have to attend new schools.

They also are achievers, most of whom overcome disadvantage to be strong and sure.

The benefits of going to school go well beyond learning and grades. In conversations with the Guardian’s Office students say they like school because they can mix with friends and learn new things and that there is a welcome sense of stability in the seeing the same places and faces. They are also able to do the much the same things as everyone else their age.

School can contribute positively to their social and emotional wellbeing. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also often stress the importance of culture and identity and its relevance to education.

In reality, we must also recognise the practical challenge. An above average proportion of children in care of pre-school or school age compared with their age peers are “students with disabilities, additional learning needs and/or challenging behaviours”.

In September 2015 the Guardian made a submission to the Legislative Council Select Committee Inquiry into Access to the Education System for Students with Disabilities. In March this year, Guardian Amanda Shaw gave evidence before the Select Committee.

The focus of the Guardian’s submission and comments was on the state school system. Systemic data is not available about the work of non-government schools with children in care.The Guardian proposed that the gap in educational achievement and outcomes between children with disabilities in care and their age peers could be addressed by:

  • early specialist intervention for children with speech and language disabilities
  • strengthening capacity to build culturally supportive connections between Aboriginal students in care, local Aboriginal communities and schools
  • addressing the problem of lowered expectations of achievement for students with disabilities and/or in state care by providing information and challenging pessimistic views of educators, social workers and carers about capacity and capability
  • enhancing participation and engagement of students
    in care by, among other things, adopting alternative disciplinary measures in place of suspension and exclusion
  • monitoring and reporting on part-time attendance of students, with the aim of gradually increasing the hours of school attendance and participation
  • providing information and skills development for school staff in understanding and responding to children with learning disabilities resulting from early childhood trauma
  • agreement on a definition for learning disabilities that applies consistently across programs and across non-government and government schools
  • evaluation of the Flexible Learning Options (FLO) program to understand better its engagement with, and outcomes for, students in care who have, or are likely to, disengage with school
  • reviewing the impact of Individual Education Plans, expanding their use to non-government schools and enhancing the quality of their implementation
  • analysing the use of School Services Officers and allied health professionals in schools to better support individual students with learning difficulties
  • improving knowledge of year 12 completion rates and post-school activity so that we understand better the pathways from school.

You can access the 2015 GCYP submission to the Select Committee on the Guardian’s website..

This item originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of the Guardian’s Newsletter.

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How well do children in state care do in the state education system?

7 June 2016

We have just released our report Children and Young People in State Care in SA Government Schools – 2008-2015

Reading the most recent NAPLAN results, rates of suspension and exclusion, rates of disability and attendance figures together gives a more complete picture of how children and young people in care are doing in the state school system.

Here are the key takeouts

NAPLAN results show that 10 to 20% fewer children in care achieve the National Minimum Standard in literacy and numeracy than the state as a whole.  The disparity in reading and writing becomes greater than with numeracy skills as children age.  This figure should also be read with the knowledge that four or five times as many children in care are excused from NAPLAN testing than the state school population as a whole.

Disability rates for children in care enrolled in government schools are much higher than the state as a whole (30% versus 9%). As an example, the rate of children in care attending government schools in 2015 with an intellectual disability was nearly seven times that of those enrolled in government schools as a whole.  The rate of children in care reported as having a speech and language disability was over three times the rate of those enrolled in government schools as a whole.

Exclusion rates for children in care are four to five times the rate for the general school population, though the small numbers of children in care makes determining trends difficult. Rates of suspension are similarly higher for children in care, being more evident in primary-age students.

Absence rates are similar for children in care in government schools compared with the state school population as a whole.  Interestingly:

  • students with a disability who are in care have a lower absence rate than that reported of children with a disability within the overall school population, that is, they are more likely to be attending than those who have a disability but are not in care.
  • this is also the case for Aboriginal children and young people
  • students in care from non-English speaking backgrounds have about twice the absence rate than that reported for those students from non-English speaking backgrounds who are not in care.

You can read the full report with graphs, references and notes on areas for attention from our website.

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Access to the Education System for Students with Disabilities

The Guardian’s submission and evidence given to the Legislative Council Inquiry into Access to the Education System for Students with Disabilities is now available.

In important ways, children in care are the same as other children – they have ability, strength, ‘regular’ insecurities and they want to be treated the same. However, they do face more obstacles: issues about the state being their parent, who is their best advocate and who has the responsibility for coordinating their educational and health needs. Children and young people in care tend to have more professionals in their lives than friends.

Sara Bann, former Youth Advisor to the Guardian, 2014

The Guardian’s submission is available for download.

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Welcome to the Charter of Rights Network, EBL!

At a ceremony on 14 June this year, Guardian Pam Simmons and EBL CE Wendy Warren signed EBL's certificate of endorsement at a ceremony attended by the EBL staff team

At a ceremony on 14 June this year, Guardian Pam Simmons and EBL CE Wendy Warren signed EBL’s certificate of endorsement at a ceremony attended by the EBL staff team. EBL provide opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to have new experiences and meet new people while giving carers valuable respite.

Find more about children’s rights and the Charter in our Twitter feed.

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Cara, young people in care and the Charter of Rights

Cara CEO Denice Wharldall signs the Charter certificate watched by Guardian Pam Simmons and the Cara executive team.


Community Accommodation and Respite Agency (Cara) became the 48th organisation to endorse the Charter of Rights when it received its certificate on June 27th.

For over 60 years, Cara has provided accommodation and respite support services across South Australia for people with severe and multiple disabilities and their families.

Todd Williams, Executive Manager, Respite and Client Services, explains that ‘the incentive for us to engage with the Charter has been our relatively recent involvement with providing accommodation support for young people under the care of the Minister.

‘While we have always been involved with young people in care as part of our respite programs and camps, it is only in the last 18 months that we have taken on a more specific role.

‘Under an arrangement with Families SA, we provide a therapeutic care model of support to 11 young people under guardianship in three locations. Cara works with them to provide stable, safe and nurturing environments in preparation for adulthood, ultimately supporting their transition into suitable long term accommodation.

‘We have long recognised the value of having dedicated developmental educators working in our programs. Known as Program Coordinators, they work on site directly with the young people but also to support the other workers to create a consistent therapeutic living environment.’

Todd explains that the success of the program hinges on cooperation between the Team Leader and Program Coordinator who share leadership roles at the houses and between the support workers and the Program Coordinator to sustain the therapeutic environment.

‘We also work very closely with Families SA staff on the critical selection and matching of young people for each house.

‘Our values and our focus on rights already align with the Charter pretty well so endorsing was straightforward for the Board and the leadership team.

‘Where the Charter has been useful to us is to act as a kind of checklist that we can use to challenge ourselves and to guard against complacency about our clients’ rights.

‘The right to be heard and make choices, to be fully involved with decisions about what happens in the house and to have a secure private space to call their own, all these are strongly stated in the Charter and also very important to young people living with disability, learning to manage their behaviour as they develop as citizens and move towards more independent living arrangements.’

Cara has incorporated the Charter into its policies and practice and features information about the Charter and a link on its website.

Follow education and training developments for children and young people in care on our Twitter feed.

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