Residential care facilities given much needed makeover to support the safety of young people

DCP is currently rolling out a program to ‘make over’ the bedrooms and shared living areas of children and young people in residential care to make them more ‘homelike’. This is a very welcome initiative, with DCP announcing, as part of their MyPlace program, all DCP residential care properties will be transformed, to make them more therapeutic, culturally supportive and responsive to residents’ needs.

The MyPlace program is working with each child and young person directly to help design and create the overall feel of their house and their own bedrooms, so the rooms reflect their personalities and meet their individual needs.

Young people have consistently told us that a ‘homelike’ environment is a key aspect of feeling safe in residential care. By contrast, the institutional look and feel of many residential care facilities was a common theme in the Guardian’s Final Report of the trial Child and Young Person’s Visiting Program, published earlier this year. The report recommended that facilities should be more homelike and personalised and young people should have input into the process and design of the place in which they live.

Having a space where a child or young person can go to and feel a sense of comfort and ownership – not only because they helped create it but also because it reflects who they are as a person – helps promote their feelings of security and wellbeing.

MyPlace is an excellent initiative, which sees the child or young person involved in the whole process, from helping to prepare an image board so they can gain a visual perspective about how their personal space and shared rooms will look, to contributing to design, creation and installation, including unpacking and assembling flat-pack furniture and placing soft furnishings and items in their room. DCP has advised us that specialised staff also work with the team to ensure the fit-outs meet the needs of children and young people who are Aboriginal or from diverse cultural backgrounds or who have disabilities.

So far, feedback from the young people has been very positive. DCP shared some examples with us from a recently refurbished three-bedroom home in the southern suburbs.

Playroom before make over

Playroom after make over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 12-year-old boy said he would like his bedroom to represent his Aboriginal background. Cultural items were sourced and he chose the final design. A current family photo was arranged for both his bedroom wall and family room wall, creating a home-like feel and connection to family and culture. His reaction was, “This is awesome.”

Bedroom before make over

Bedroom after make over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An 11-year-old explained she was fond of beluga whales. She was involved in deciding the colours and layout of her room as well as textures and the overall theme. A built-in wardrobe was installed to create more space and storage, and other items like a beluga whale quilt cover, throw blanket, pillows, wall hanging, fairy lights, bean bag, rug, lamp, mirror and collage picture frame all complemented the overall look. Her reaction? “Wow, I absolutely love it, it looks amazing.”

We understand that residential care staff have reported that since being part of the program they have noticed a real change in the dynamics of the houses with many children and young people showing an increased sense of social responsibility and choosing to find enjoyment in more communal spaces.

This process of allowing children and young people to express their unique identities, have more influence over the environment they live in and feel acknowledged and heard, can only benefit their development and sense of safety.  It is this understanding that also informs the Australian Childhood Foundation’s Practice Guide: ‘Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care’.

We will be watching with great interest as this program continues to be rolled out to the remaining DCP residential care properties and look forward to hearing more stories of how being directly involved in the creation of attractive and personalised living spaces contributes to children and young people’s wellbeing.

Putting children first this week, and always

By Guardian Penny Wright

‘Putting children first’ is the theme of this year’s Child Protection Week. It is an important principle – but one that can be challenging to achieve. In many ways this is the very reason the Office of the Guardian was established in 2005, after the Layton Review of the Child Protection System.  The review found that children in care were the most vulnerable in South Australia and recommended the Guardian role, to articulate and safeguard their rights. It was a means of putting them first within a large and complex system.

There are now more than 4,000 children and young people living away from their birth families in the child protection system in South Australia. Every day my staff and I witness how difficult it is for those managing these demands to put individual children first, ahead of acute system pressures, however good their intentions. The role for my office has never been more crucial – to stand beside each child or young person who needs our support, one among many, and insist that their individual needs and best interests are respected and met.

Some of the most vulnerable of these children are living in residential care. Prior experiences and their lives within the care system will often mean they have experienced significant trauma, with long lasting effects on their emotional wellbeing and sometimes their behaviour. Responding compassionately and effectively to their needs and behaviours has long been a challenge for the systems in which they find themselves. Too often, in the absence of more effective interventions and therapeutic options, the child protection system responds by invoking another system – the justice system – leading to the police, courts and detention. There are very few effective interventions or therapeutic services in that system either.

In 2016, the Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland recommended that children who were considered to be at risk of harm – to themselves and others – should be sent to a secure therapeutic care facility where they would be detained while undergoing treatment for their behaviours.

Forcibly detaining children and young people for treatment or therapeutic care, although they have not committed an offence, might seem an attractive way to deal with their complex behaviours, especially if they habitually leave the place they are living and end up in trouble or are at risk.

But recently, consistent with previous advice from the (then) Guardian, in 2008, my team and I have advised the government against taking up this recommendation. Providing therapies and support for trauma is essential but detention is a drastic step, especially as research indicates that those affected usually have a history of high levels of mental health and social needs that have not been met.

Evidence of the effectiveness of secure therapeutic care is modest and depends on the quality of therapeutic input, the skill levels of carers and effective follow-up support services. In fact, these are the same factors that lead to the best outcomes for children and young people in care, generally – both residential and family-based.

There is already a widely acknowledged lack of sufficient support and therapeutic services for children and young people who need them, especially in residential care. There is a strong risk that secure therapeutic care would just mask this shortage and see children with troubled behaviours, often arising from their care environment, placed in a locked facility to manage a problem for the system. Instead, my office advised that all residential care should have a properly resourced therapeutic approach and that improved intensive therapeutic services should be available for all those children who need them.

Thankfully, the state government recently rejected the Nyland recommendation, a decision I support. In place of the secure care model, the government has committed to roll out a new program called the “Sanctuary Model” to provide therapeutic care across all residential care facilities. This includes providing Department for Child Protection staff at least two days of training, with a select group receiving more extensive training and development to support their colleagues. Training will also incorporate how to respond to the specific needs of Aboriginal children.

What comes next, including how successful this model will be and how the model will be evaluated, will depend on many factors, including its ongoing implementation and proper resourcing.

Twelve years since the Guardian’s first advice about this issue, a more therapeutic approach is long overdue. My team and I will wait with anticipation and hope that this new model will put children first and provide long lasting benefits for the safety and wellbeing of those who live in residential care.

SA the second biggest spender on child protection services

Data from the latest Report on Government Services 2020 which looks at how Australian governments are spending their money, shows that SA spends more on child protection services per child than all other states except the Northern Territory. In fact, in 2018-19, SA’s expenditure on child protection services was 25.1% higher than the national average.

We looked at how SA spends the money, this is what we found:

SA spends more on care services than intervention and family support

  • 6 per cent of all SA’s child protection services expenditure in 2018-19 was committed to care services* rather than intervention and family support services.
  • The national average on family support services per child was 10% higher than the South Australian average, despite SA increasing its expenditure for these services 168% since 2014-15.
  • It is important to note that these intervention and family support services include services managed by the Department for Human Services as well as the Department for Child Protection.

SA spends 87% more on care services per child than in 2014-15

  • SA’s expenditure on care services per child aged 0-17 has increased by 87% from $643.9 per child in 2014-15, to $1,204.4 per child in 2018-19

SA relies on residential care more than any other state/territory

  • South Australia also uses residential care^ at a higher rate than any other Australian jurisdiction, with just over 60% of total expenditure being spent on residential care.
  • SA children living in residential care make up 14.9% (including those in independent living) of children in care, which has decreased since 2018.

Aboriginal children continue to be over-represented in care services

  • Once again, Aboriginal children continue to be over-represented in care services. At 30 June 2019, 34.2% of children in care services placements were Aboriginal (1363 of 3988), and they comprised 37% of all children and young people in residential care (208 of a total of 568). This will be explored in more detail in a forthcoming companion paper which we will release next month.

You can read our full analysis of SA’s child protection expenditure here.

* Care services refers to the provision of out-of-home care services and other supported placement
^ The term ‘residential care’ in the ROGS report now includes all children in independent living placements as well as residential care and commercial care.

The future of the Child and Young Person’s visitor scheme

In 2016 Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland made it clear there were serious concerns and risks for the many children and young people living in residential and emergency care in South Australia.

Nyland recommended a community visitor scheme for children in all residential and emergency care facilities to be developed to address these concerns, and so the Child and Young Person’s trial visitor program was born.

Over the two-year trial period we worked towards developing, implementing and reviewing the scheme and how it would work. We visited 99 children and young people (aged from 2-17 years) across 24 individual facilities managed by the Department for Child Protection – some of these facilities we visited several times.

In addition, we conducted serveral group discussions with young people who live or have lived in residential care to find out what life is like for them and how the visiting program would work, as well as what being safe in residential care means.

A big challenge we faced with mapping out the program was the lack of evidence based learnings from similar children and young people visiting schemes, so we spent some time considering the purpose of the scheme, the nature and frequency of visits, the criteria for determining which children, or facilities, should be visited and the expertise required of the visiting advocates.

Ultimately, based on our research and hearing the voices of children and young people, we determined the primary purpose of the scheme was to enhance the safety of the children and young people living in the facilities visited.

Reflections of the trial program

Here are just a few of our reflections from the trial program:

  • The visiting program needs to be flexible and responsive to the needs of individual children and their varying backgrounds and situations.
  • Qualified advocates, including those with training and experience for children and young people living with a disability, would be needed to prepare, carry out the visits and provide post-visit reports and follow ups.
  • Visits were most successful when children and young people were prepared and informed about the role of the program and the advocates.
  • Regular and relatively frequent visits were needed to build connections and trust between the young people and the advocates.

Recommendations

Throughout the trial we presented the Department for Child Protection (DCP) with many recommendations regarding the facilities and residents we visited to address safety issues, individual resident needs, improvements to facilities, support for staff and for staff competencies and training.

The recommendations also addressed systemic issues that affected the residents (particularly those living in the larger units) concerning placement planning and decision making, staff responsiveness for children and young people with disabilities, and the quality, training and management of staff within these facilities.

At the end of the trial program we provided the department with 14 overall recommendations about what the scheme should look like, including, but not limited to:

  • ensuring the scheme’s purpose and principles are clear
  • focusing both on the ‘rights’ and the ‘best interests’ of children and young people, rather than one or the other
  • ensuring facility staff promote and facilitate visits to the facilities
  • allocating sufficient funding for the recruitment of qualified and trained advocates – especially those with experience working with children and young people with a disability – to undertake both pre- and post-visit tasks as well as visits themselves
  • recruiting an appropriate number of Aboriginal staff that reflects the proportion of Aboriginal children in residential and commercial care
  • amending the legislation to provide the Child and Young Person Visitor’s role with the same powers as the roles of the Guardian and the Training Centre Visitor.

In conclusion

Four years on from Commissioner Nyland’s report, the concerns and risks for these young people remain. Our office continues to receive a significant and increasing number of advocacy matters from young people living in residential care who are concerned about their safety, placement matching and their lack of connection to family and culture.

There are now more than 180 residential care facilities in South Australia, and it is evident this form of care is not going away any time soon.

The trial scheme has ended and we are currently awaiting a final decision as to whether funding and support will enable the establishment of a formal visiting scheme in the future.

You can download the final report.

What does being safe mean in residential care?

As part of the Child and Young Person Visitor trial program we asked a group of young people who used to live in residential care what being safe in residential care means to them. Their answers were both expected and surprising.

Together with Relationships Australia South Australia we sat down with these young care leavers to get a better understanding about what young people think constitutes being safe in residential care and how the role of the Child and Young Person Visitor scheme could help in recognising and responding to safety issues.

We discovered that being safe doesn’t just mean living in an environment free from physical harm, but it also means being supported by a network of people who accept you for who you are and help you overcome the challenges that life brings. Trust and feeling in control of your life was also a strong driver in feeling safe.

The findings from what the young people told us were summarised in the Safety in Residential Care report and fell into three distinct themes.

Stability and security

Young people said being safe is not being re-traumatised by sudden changes, unexpected situations or stressful environments. It is knowing what is going to happen in your life, having routines and habits, and having strong and consistent relationships.

“Knowing who will be in the house, kids and workers. And knowing how long you’ll be somewhere.” – Young care leaver, when asked about what safety is. 

Belonging and support

Young care leavers discussed being safe as a sense of belonging to a group, community and/or culture. It meant being welcome, loved and supported, being included, cared for, consoled and celebrated. They said having a comforting and comfortable, personal and homely environment plays an important role in this.

“Carers who actually care.”  – Young care leaver, asked what would have made them feel safer in residential care.

Trust and ownership

According to young care leavers, being safe is being respected and trusted by those who care for them; and having a reasonable degree of freedom and a say in decisions that affect them. This leads to a sense of ownership over their lives and a greater feeling of empowerment, as well as a greater degree of independence and resilience.

“Having a say. Having input. Having control over your life and environment.”  – Young care leaver.

How can the visitor scheme recognise and respond to issues in a residential care facility? 

The young people we spoke to shared a number of ways the visitor scheme could work in recognising and responding to safety issues in residential care facilities.

The visiting advocate should:

  • educate the young people about their rights and where to get help if they need it
  • visit a facility regularly and by the same advocate each time
  • look at the facility itself, how it looks, whether it is maintained, how comfortable and ‘homely’ it is
  • assess the safety of the neighbourhood in which the facility is located
  • not ask directly about whether a young person is safe but ask simple questions that align with the concepts of safety
  • be clear with children and young people about confidentiality in what they have shared
  • talk to the workers to get a feel for the relationship between workers and young people
  • assess the behaviour of the young people, being mindful of trauma responses (eg self-harm)
  • always ask what young people think and what they want to happen.

Download the Safety in Residential Care report.

If you missed last week’s article about young people sharing their view about living in residential care catch up on our blog.

Next week we will look into the trial program’s final report and the formal recommendations we have provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister for consideration.

 

Young people share their views about living in residential care

Making residential care facilities more ‘home-like’ with fewer residents, was just one of the many suggestions young people living in residential care made as part of an exploration into what life is like for this cohort of young people.

This article is the first of three which looks into the reports and findings from the Office of the Guardian’s Child and Young Person Visitor trial program which wrapped up late last year.

About the trial program

One of the recommendations that came out of the 2016 Nyland report was to have an independent visitor scheme to promote the best interests of children and young people living in residential care, and so the role of the Child and Young Person’s Visitor was established.

Penny Wright was appointed the inaugural Child and Young Person’s Visitor in 2018 and together with the program’s team went about setting up a two-year trial to investigate how the scheme would work.

As part of the trial, two projects were conducted to seek and incorporate the views and perspective of children and young people living in residential care.

The first project was to conduct a focused literature review and interview young people who currently live or once lived in residential care and to better understand how an independent visitor could make a difference. The second project was to interview young people in residential care to discuss what being safe in residential care looks like.

Findings from both projects were collated in the What Matters to Us report which we will look into further here. Detailed findings from the second project is available in the Safety in Residential Care report which we will explore further in next week’s blog post.

What Matters to Us report

Our office contracted Ulrike Marwitz to carry out the literature review, help conduct interviews with children and young people and prepare the findings in the What Matters to Us report.

Ulrike found that the themes from the four Australian reports she reviewed, were consistent with the feedback gained from the young people she interviewed.

So what did the literature and young people tell us about living in residential care?

  • Contact with adults who show care is important to children and young people living in residential care.
  • Children and young people want residential care facilities to be more home-like.
  • Children and young people with a care experience felt a stronger sense of safety in facilities with smaller numbers of residents.
  • Placement matching (who young people are placed with, and where) impacts young people’s sense of safety and belonging.
  • It is important to acknowledge children and young people living in residential care may have different perspectives or priorities than the adults in their lives.
  • Children and young people showed an awareness of challenges faced by staff, including high caseloads, staff retention and recruitment and budget restraints.
  • Children and young people expressed a desire to be recognised as individuals.

What did young people say they would like from a visiting program?

Here are some of the things young people would like to see from an independent visitor and visiting program:

‘It [visits] should be regular, probably once a week. If it’s a smaller place – not as many incidents, probably once or twice a month.’

‘Consistency is important – unless the child says they want someone else, have the same person who visited do the follow up and do future visits.’

‘Let kids know you are not DCP and what you do.’

‘Some people would want to meet one on one [with the advocate/visitor]; others are more confident in a group with others they know around, especially the first time – it depends on the person.’

‘It’s important to tell kids what will happen with what they have said, if there is going to be follow up tell kids that. Kids need to be reassured that what they’ve said won’t just be told to everyone…. They should be in control of where their information goes.’

‘Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble for anything they have said.’

The future of the Visitor role

While the functions and structure of the Child and Young Person Visitor Scheme have been legislated, the scheme has not yet formally commenced.

The final report of the trial program has now been provided to the Department for Child Protection and the Minister, for consideration.

We hope that the learnings of the trial program and the various reports it generated will contribute to a funded and supported scheme that will make life better for children and young people living in residential care.

Download the full What Matters to Us report. Stay tuned for next week’s blog when we delve into the Safety in Residential Care report.

Report finds children in care overrepresented in youth justice

Almost one quarter of children and young people who are detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre are under the legal guardianship of the state and are likely to be living in large residential care homes, a new report from our office has found.

A PERFECT STORM? Dual status children and young people in South Australia’s child protection and youth justice systems is the first report from a series of papers looking into the disproportionate number of children and young people who enter the youth justice system from residential care.

The report highlights that it’s not that these individual children and young people are inherently ‘criminal’ but that systems make their criminalisation more likely.

This suggests the state’s child protection system is struggling to undertake its core function of keeping children and young people safe – a concern that our office raised last week in the wake of the release of our annual report.

This new report finds that inadequate planning, policy, procedure, and communication across government and non-government systems mean that children and young people in care who need therapeutic support are instead being drawn into the criminal justice system.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recently stated that Australia’s child protection systems are insufficiently resourced, resulting in poorly supported staff, inadequate placement matching, and excessive reliance on police interference and youth justice systems to manage behavioural problems without providing appropriate therapeutic intervention.

Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright states that each of these factors contribute to the overrepresentation of those in care entering the youth justice system.

Ms Wright notes these vulnerable children and young people have been exposed to significant trauma and abuse prior to entering the child protection system and are not being provided with the care and support they need to heal.

“Instead of being provided with the essential therapeutic care they need, these young people are being put into homes and looked after by inadequately supported staff with other young people who come from troubled backgrounds. The young people’s behaviour is ‘managed’ by police and the youth justice system, and then at the end of the day they are taken back to the same environment in which the criminal behaviour took place,” Ms Wright said.

“What these children and young people need is a system that focusses on their safety and well-being first and foremost, keeping in mind the difficult circumstances that brought them into the system in the first place.”

“As one dual status young person eloquently said: ‘They kept putting us in the same situation but expecting a different outcome’.”

Download the first dual status report.

Further reports from this series will be made available in the coming months.

Further observations from young people in residential care

In our previous post, we quoted children and young people verbatim about some of their feelings about living in residential care.

It is not always ‘easy listening’ but we are committed to ensuring the voices of children and young people are heard, so that we can really try to understand their experiences as they feel them.

Resi care can be challenging and we know that ensuring safety and protection in residential care can make it hard to make a place feel like ‘home’.

We also know that carers work in wonderful ways with children from a variety of cultural backgrounds and abilities, many of whom have a history of trauma.

So here are some further vignettes, recorded by our Advocates from the Child and Young Person’s Visitor Program while visiting children and young people in residential care facilities.

New resources help children and young people in residential care have a say

graphic from one of the having a say posters

New resources, available today, will give children and young people in residential care information about their right to make a complaint and be heard.

Developed by CREATE Foundation, in conjunction with Office of the Guardian, the resources provide information and tools to assist them raise issues that concern them.

Central to the new feedback process is the the Post Incident Reflection Form, developed with input from young people in residential care.

Also available is a set of posters, brochures and two videos which tell children and young people in residential care about their rights and ways to address issues.

The resources have been developed in response to a recommendation from Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s 2016 report The Life They Deserve.  Recommendation 136 from that report proposed that the Guardian’s Office develop an educational program for children and young people in residential care to explain and promote their rights and give them encouragement and the means necessary to have their voices heard.

The live action video shares the stories of young people who relate some of the incidents they faced while living in residential care. It also advises young people in care why it’s important to understand their rights.

For younger people, an animated video describes the Post Incident Reflection Form and how a child in care has the ability to make a complaint at any time.

If resolving an issue with residential care staff does not work, children and young people are encouraged to fill in a complaints form or phone the Complaints Unit directly on 1800 003 305.

Printable files of the posters can be downloaded now from the Resources page of the Guardian’s website and printed copies of the posters and booklets will be available to be ordered from that page in February.