Advocacy issues for 2019-20 continue to be dominated by safety and stability in placement

For the third consecutive year safety and stability in care continues to be the biggest advocacy issue raised by children and young people in care, as reported in our latest Guardian for Children and Young People Annual Report.

As at 30 June 2020 there were 4,263 children and young people under the guardianship of the Chief Executive through care and protection court orders – an increase of 9.5% from the previous year. The number of Aboriginal children and young people in care also increased by 13% from last year’s numbers, reflecting a nation-wide systemic trend of Aboriginal children and young people being drastically overrepresented in child protection systems.

During the year, our advocates received 442 enquiries, of which 391 were within our mandate. Of these, 137 children and young people in care approached us themselves. Children and young people with disabilities were the subject of 20% of the enquiries received and almost one third of enquiries (32%) related to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

Placement safety and stability was raised as a primary issue by young people who felt unsafe because of the behaviours of other young people. The most commonly reported safety issues were fear of, and risks posed by, co-residents, due to bullying, intimidation, threats of harm, physical assaults, harmful sexual behaviour, verbal abuse, witnessing physical and verbal outbursts resulting in property damage and being pressured/coerced to engage in substance abuse and criminal activity. The majority of young people who reported feeling and/or being unsafe in their living arrangement requested advocacy support for a placement move.

Other advocacy enquiries from children and young people included concerns and issues in relation to their case management (from having difficulties contacting their case manager to not understanding the rationale for case work decisions that affected their lives); and not having contact with their ‘significant others’, most notably their siblings.

The annual report has also raised a number of other issues, including:

– an increasing number of children and young people caught in both the child protection and youth justice systems (described as having ‘dual status’). Since we began receiving data on the rates of admissions to KTYJC in 2018, the proportion of admissions by those in care has jumped from 30.8% to 39.4%. In 2019-20, more than 28.3% of all individuals admitted to Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre (KTYJC) were also in care at the time of their admission.

– serious systemic gaps and failings that interfere with the detection and prevention of harmful sexual behaviour between children and young people in care

– concerns regarding the ongoing, targeted sexual exploitation of children and young people in care by adults in the community.

For more details about these issues, as well as highlights from our office from the year, you can read the report in full here.

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.

Safety in residential care

graphic of residential care

When we take children[1] into the care of the state, a prime responsibility is their safety.

We have matched comments about safety given to the Office of the Guardian by children during our monitoring visits and advocacy with those from the December 2016 Royal Commission paper Safe and Sound.  There were overwhelming similarities.  In this article we blend the two sources to consider the questions ‘do children feel safe’, ‘when do they feel safe’ and ‘what would they suggest to make things safer?’

How safe do children feel in residential care?

Residents often feel unsafe in residential care. Bullying and harassment are common. Adolescents report that they are frequently worried by the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Older residents say that the impact of witnessing violence, self-harm and the abuse of fellow-residents, leaves them stressed and feeling unsafe.

Children generally think it is unlikely that they would be abused or harmed by a worker, although a small number report that they have encountered or heard about abusive staff. Some are concerned by the behaviours of ‘creepy adults’ and those who try to create inappropriate and overly-familiar relationships with them. Children assess how safe workers are based on their past experiences of abuse, by watching the adults’ behaviours and by how other residents act around them.

Many children describe residential care as feeling unsafe due to its instability and frequent changes of staff. Some relate times when they were moved to less safe residential care placements for no reason than that other young people could take their rooms.

A few adolescents report that adults outside of residential care take advantage of children in care, exploiting their need for a sense of belonging, accommodation and money. A few report that some children in residential care engage in prostitution.

When do children in residential care feel safe?

Children feel safe in a placement that is home-like and where young people feel welcome.  They like it where things feel ‘normal’ and where adults look out for them.

They want to see that organisations and workers take a resident’s safety seriously, that they are interested and take measures to protect them.

They feel safe when there are cordial relationships with their fellow-residents and workers, and that there are other supportive relationships, such as with a social worker or teacher, with people outside of the unit.

Really building relationships with kids works, because then they feel safer to come to you with pretty much any problem.  They’re not going to come to you with problems, even if it’s something as simple as being bullied, they’re not going to come talk to you if they think you don’t like them or don’t listen.

Safe and Sound, p 66

Stability and predictability are important.  Children need to know what is going to happen, and that any difficulties with fellow-residents can be resolved.  Routines, reasonable rules and an opportunity to have a say in decisions give them confidence and sense of control.

They believe that when they are safe, children and young people feel relaxed and calm and are less likely to be aggressive and to harm each other.

Younger residents tend to value security measures such as locks on doors, surveillance equipment and alarms.  In contrast, for older residents, these measures reinforce their sense that residential care is not home-like and is unsafe.

How could we make things safer?

Placements

Find more suitable care arrangements, particularly for those who are younger and more vulnerable and make better placement decisions that allow residents to have a say in how they are matched with other residents. Treat residential care as a long-term arrangement and make sure that changes are kept to a minimum.

Staffing

Train staff about the things that can harm children and their vulnerabilities, particularly their inexperience about sexual relationships and exploitation.  Have sufficient numbers of properly trained staff so that they have the time to develop relationships, are around and have the time to watch out for threats.

Cooperation

Train staff to take on parent-like responsibilities for protecting residents from harm.  Get staff to discuss with residents the risks and how to keep themselves safe. Get staff and residents to work together to identify safety risks and develop ways of dealing with them. Staff need to take the initiative in enquiring after residents’ safety because it is easier for staff to ask residents if they are being harmed rather than waiting for them to report it. Try to create an atmosphere where there are positive relationships between residents where young people can look out for each other.

Hearing the resident’s voice

Staff need to be prepared to listen when residents raise concerns and to be understanding and patient, even when the issues do not seem important at first.  Residents need to be informed that it is OK to raise an issue, what sorts of issues to raise and how to do it.  Make sure that it is safe to do so and that they will not suffer retribution.

A lot of the time it can feel like nothing happens [when an issues is raised] or it gets lost or stuck in the system… No matter what, [issues] should be followed up by someone and the young person should be kept in the loop with regular communication.

Young person in residential care

The Child and Young Person’s Visitor Scheme that is hosted in the Office of the Guardian is now well under way and we look forwards to presenting more of the views of children and the state of the system in future articles.

[1] We use the term ‘children’ to include children and young people up to the age of 18 years. We use terms such as ‘adolescent’ and ‘pre-teen’ to refer to specific age ranges within that group.