Celebrating great practice

photo of Penny Wright

By Guardian Penny Wright

As we approach the end of a busy year and a time for festivities and holidays, I am reflecting on the impressive work my staff and I see, every day, among the child protection workforce in South Australia.

In the recent Guardian’s Annual Report I noted that the child protection system in South Australia has been troubled for years, and I named aspects of the system which are in crisis in 2019. But I also recognised that many, many individuals – who are working in the Department for Child Protection and non-government organisations, residential and commercial care facilities and in foster and kinship families – are willing to go above and beyond, day after day, for the children and young people they care for.

This week I have just been completing one of my favourite tasks – writing to practitioners about excellent practice that I’ve become aware of. I’d like to share some of these shining examples, knowing that they represent just a fraction of the good work that is going on, every day of the year.

  • A senior practitioner/case worker who built a strong rapport with a young person and really listened to their voice about being bullied at school. Through the worker’s energetic advocacy, she was able to effect change at the school. She also worked with the young person to help them develop a clear sense of who they were, as a person, through a high-quality case plan that was descriptive, and focused on their strengths. The worker also created a beautiful life story book/album, with many coloured photos of the young person since birth, and their family, copies of awards and certificates and a very moving piece written by the young person about their aspirations.
  • A case manager who supported a 17-year-old young person in their transition towards independence. Her commitment to the young person was clear from her detailed knowledge of the young person’s needs, her weekly contact with the young person and her energetic approach to helping the young person put independent living arrangements into place.
  • A case manager whose good placement matching and strong placement support for a young person in foster care had made a clear and positive difference in her life in the space of just five months. The young person was making great progress in her foster care placement and this worker received very positive feedback from both the foster carer and the agency support worker.
  • A case worker who demonstrated a strong knowledge of a young person of 16, especially regarding who they were and their aspirations. The worker energetically advocated for the young person to support and help them achieve their independent living goals. This same worker also showed great commitment and care for another young person who had complex needs and this work contributed to the progress they had made over the last year (including attending and contributing to their annual review meeting). Among other things, the worker held monthly care team meetings, with the young person attending, and created a case plan which reflected a strengths-perspective for the young person.
  • A case manager who demonstrated a strong, child-centred focus at the annual review for a young person, at which there was a written agenda, including requests from the young person, that the worker had developed with the young person.
  • A case worker who supported young siblings in kinship care. She built rapport and trusting relationships with the carers and the children, while working through placement challenges and complexities in a respectful, supportive and committed way.

Child protection is not a place for the fainthearted. In fact, the system only works at all because of lionhearted people who get out of bed every morning, to meet the day, determined to do what they can to support kids who are in need of love, nurture and a home. Whether in regional offices, in residential care, in the placement area, in working with (or as) carers, or wrangling dollars or policy – there are challenges everywhere and it takes courage to face them.

I am often privileged to receive a response to the emails I send. One of them thanked me and told me, ‘your acknowledgement has come at a time when I have been questioning my ability to make a positive difference in the lives of our young people. You have reminded me of why we are here, with your acknowledgment and how much our passion and dedication to our children enhances their strength and ability to create the best future for themselves with us standing by their side.’

For those of you who do this often rewarding but also extremely challenging work, please know that it is crucial, it is valued and the children and young people within the system absolutely need you.

Thank you!

Collaboration survey results – foster carers and the DCP

The results from the Collaboration and Cooperation Survey completed last week show little change in the rate of collaboration and cooperation between foster carers and the Department for Child Protection, with percentages in each category being similar to those in June 2017.  Responses from those identifying as foster carers varied significantly from the overall result but the number of foster carers who responded is small.

Collaboration and cooperation between foster carers and  (DCP) workers

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn*
June 2017 – all responses (%)




Jan. 2018 – all responses (%)



Jan. 2018 – foster carers  (%)81742330


*n is the number of respondents who felt competent to comment on this aspect of collaboration and cooperation. Where the numbers are small, one should be careful of drawing more than broad general conclusions.

Foster carer comments

Five of the foster carers who responded left comments.  Some comments have been edited for brevity and to minimise repetition.

Cooperation and collaboration between Foster Carers, Kinship Carers and the Department remains sub-standard… Examples of this are an absence of communicating with carers about a child’s access to biological parents which is only known after the access has occurred or material decisions being made with no regard to the best interests of the child.

I am more than disappointed that DCP don’t involve carers in case planning [and] reunification planning…

Carers are being excluded from children’s annual reviews including meetings, copies of their own annual reviews, case planning [and] financial agreements…  Meetings are taking place without carers … decisions are being made by staff, both NGO and DCP, who have never met the children nor the carer and with no knowledge at all…

There is no or very little effective communication … in working WITH foster (carers) parents…

NGO’s are failing to support foster carers who are left to advocate for their children alone. No one has ever checked to see if foster carers are receiving the support NGO’s are paid to provide them. Foster carers are leaving the system and only few are joining!

Comments from other than foster carers

Communication between DCP and Carers (foster and kinship carers caring for children in the statutory care system) can be improved. Many issues that arise for carers are due to lack of communication, miscommunication or poor communication. (NGO Manager)

DCP workers do not have the attitude and skills to work respectfully and collaboratively with families and other professionals….The message about respect and collaboration is not breaking through. (child protection worker – area not identified)

I think communication can be excellent and it can be really poor. I believe it is person-led and not necessarily because any organisation applies quality assurance measures across the agency consistently. (DCP worker)

I’ve not noticed any significant change as recommended by the Royal Commission, in particular foster carers are provided with next to no information on the children residing in their homes. (DCP Worker)

Analysis and commentary

Although the number of respondents was fewer than in the 2017 survey, the responses indicate that there has been little change in the frequency of coordination and collaboration between foster carers and the DCP.  The comments left by foster carers highlight similar issues to those raised in the June 2017 survey and are supported by respondents elsewhere within the system.

It is reasonable to expect that cooperation and collaboration should occur ‘always’ or ‘frequently’. Only 25 percent of respondents to the June 2017 survey and 22 percent of the 2018 survey gave a ‘pass mark’ to the DCP/foster carer collaboration by this standard.  The bulk of the commentators suggested or implied that the DCP should take the initiative in improving the collaborative relationship. Numbers of commentators suggested that workload for DCP workers limited opportunities to develop collaborative practice.

Knowing who you are and where you belong

Charter of Rights Forum websizedWe wish for every child that they grow up with a healthy sense of themselves as worthwhile and with a strong connection to family, community and culture.
How to turn this aspiration into practice for children in care was the question 85 attendees at the Charter Champions’ Forum in November last year set out to answer.
They concluded that family, variously defined, is vitally important to the development of identity and it is especially important to understand and record who the child values as important to them.  Knowledge about other cultures is essential, or at least how to seek advice and support in working with children and families who have different cultural backgrounds to your own. With knowledge comes the opportunity and responsibility for workers to nurture and support the child’s connections with their family and culture.
Beyond the bounds of family, school is for many children the first bridge into the wider world and workers rightly focus on getting and keeping children in school. Supporting extra-curricular activities such as sports and hobbies and fostering friendships outside of school allows a child to see themselves as belonging to a world not defined by being ‘in care’.
Attentive workers can pick up on comments made in conversation to offer or suggest that the child might want to take up a hobby, interest or community activity such as volunteering to help people or animals. A small investment in time and resources will pay enormous rewards in the development of a strong sense of identity and connection.
It is beyond the reach of any single adult in the child’s life to build identity and belonging and the workshop placed a premium on people working together.  Participants regarded regular meetings as essential, where concerned adults can confer and cooperate to share ideas, review progress and ensure the work of therapy is carried into the child’s everyday care experience.
Permeating all of this was the importance of the relationship and the conversations between worker and child. Sustained over time, respectful, enjoyable and open-ended conversations with a worker can, in themselves, help to support a child’s sense of worth and belonging. Beyond that, the opportunity to envision with the child, exploring ‘who do you want to be?’ and ‘what do you want to do?’ can allow the child to dream and to imagine a future and give insights to all that will help sustain those dreams.
Read more about about Debbie Noble-Carr’s and the Australian Catholic University’s work on identity and belonging  or check out the the pdf Charter Champions’ Forum Takeaways.

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Annual Reviews – the most important thing we do?


picture of Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

I write this letter fresh from the celebration of a new year which, for many of us, is a short holiday and time to take stock.  The brave among us make resolutions. Some people are good far-sighted life planners, others are good at setting bite-sized goals with or without a life plan.
Planning for children is usually in the hope of giving them the best start for a secure and fulfilled life.  It is usually wrapped up in planning for the family and is done as and when big (and small) decisions crop up.

Planning for children under guardianship of the Minister is complicated by the number of adults involved and the procedures required of public administration.  In many ways though, it is the same.  The decisions range from the day-to-day care to the critical ones about moving house or changing school.  Less frequent is the time to dream, aspire, and hope for what we want for the child.

The Children’s Protection Act requires an annual review of a child’s circumstances when the child is under the long-term guardianship of the Minister. Administration of an annual review checks off on the ‘life domains’ for a child, such as physical and mental health, education, family contact, and placement. More significantly though, it is a ‘pause’ in the day to day business of parenting a child who is in care. It is a time for reflecting on the goals and ambitions, achievements and challenges for each child or young person. It is sometimes the one time in a year when the many adults in a child’s life can confer on whether they can ‘parent’ better.

A high standard of annual review is one where the focus is on the quality of the child or young person’s care arrangements with consideration given to their stability, sense of belonging, connectedness to carer and birth families, cultural identity, physical safety, emotional security, development opportunities, academic achievement and the child’s wishes now and for the future. It is not an administrative process. The child, their carers, relevant agencies, and where appropriate, the birth family, should be included.

In the very busy and demanding work of child protection agencies, the reasonable response to a non-urgent task that requires a heap of coordination, is to defer or ration it by doing the minimum.

But if we shift our way of thinking about this, it is possible that an annual review could become the most important thing to do, and the most enjoyable.

Just for a moment, if I stop being ‘the worker’ and become ‘the parent’ I want to know how she (the child) is, what she thinks, what brings meaning to her life and what she finds funny or misses or hopes for.  I look forward to asking about her and to sharing what I hear with others who want the best by her too. I listen closely to what others say about her because they see parts of her life I don’t. I want to prevent the hurts and disappointments, and if I can’t do that I want to be sure that she has someone to help her through.

Workers aren’t parents of the children in care. However, to a greater or lesser extent, they have parenting responsibilities, together with a bunch of others and especially the carers. There lies the joy. In our new way of thinking, this is the one chance in a hectic year to acknowledge the parenting achievements and challenges, and those of the child.

Senior Advocate Amanda Shaw joins annual review panels for the purpose of auditing.  She tells me of reviews that are joyous or wretched, and sometimes both. The reviews done well are heavily influenced by the Manager’s attention, the panel chair’s skill, the social worker’s knowledge of the child, the information from others such as the school teacher, the carers’ input and the child’s presence, in person or ‘voice’. A good review takes an hour and balances heavy topics with light, and has both detail and open discussion. Everyone leaves the review knowing what is to be done by whom and by when, and with a good sense of this child and how they are faring.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the annual review is mandatory because it must feel imposed. If instead it was triggered by an anniversary or a celebration, like the start of a new year, then everyone would approach it with enthusiasm and anticipation. In the real world of too much to be done and too little time, if not approached with enthusiasm, at least with knowledge of the significance of the discussion to this child’s future.

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Young people tell social workers ‘Why You’re Important to Me’

The popular video Why You’re Important to Me, formerly available only on DVD, is now on YouTube.  This fun animation reveals the feelings young people in care have about their social workers based on interviews collected as part of the Guardian’s inquiry Quality Contact between Children and Young People and their Workers in 2009.


Check out the Why You’re Important to Me resources page for other videos and printed materials that can be used along with Why You’re Important to Me for training or self education.

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Report on the audit of the annual reviews of young people in care 2011-12

An annual review of a child’s circumstances is required by law when a child is under the long-term guardianship of the Minister.  It is a pause in the day to day business of parenting to reflect on the goals and ambitions, achievements and challenges for each child or young person.  It is a time when the many adults in a child’s life can confer on whether they can ‘parent’ better.

The Office of the Guardian attends some of the reviews as part of its monitoring function and to advocate for improved outcomes.  It is an external audit process that provides feedback to the child protection agency on the circumstances for children and the quality of the casework service.

In 2011-12 the Office audited 194 of the reviews at 15 Families SA offices.

Read our Audit of Annual Reviews Report 2011-12 for the full version

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Youth Advisors’ tips for saying a quality goodbye

While undertaking the mental health project file audit, an Office staff member had cause to read a handwritten goodbye letter to a child from his social worker.

The social worker reflected on the child’s achievements, strengths and what she would remember about working with him. Youth Advisors and staff began to talk about the inevitable separations between young people and their workers and how they should and could happen.


These are some of the Youth Advisors’ thoughts:

The nature of the goodbye children seek from their social worker depends on the relationship.  The more connected the relationship, the greater need for a planned goodbye.  If the relationship has only been in existence for a few weeks with minimal contact, the goodbye-needs may be quite different.  Nevertheless, a goodbye that recognises the relationship and reflects the needs of the child should occur.
It is a challenge for social workers to manage the personal versus professional ending of a relationship with a child.  Some young children may find it difficult to recognise the difference between professional and personal relationships if they have not experienced professional relationships before.
Some social workers didn’t say goodbye at all or just made a quick phone goodbye on the day they moved on.  One advisor remembered calling the worker’s office only to be told their social worker was gone.  They recalled that the unprepared departure did not provide enough time to process the ending of the relationship, and left them hurt, offended and untrusting.
A number of advisors recalled not knowing what happened to their social worker and never heard about them again.  Sometimes young people do not realise the value of the social worker relationship to them until later in life so it is important that the social worker takes steps to acknowledge the relationship with each child.

Advisor tips for saying a quality good-bye

  • Let us know in advance, wherever possible, so we can prepare for it.
  • Talk to us about it each time we see you.  This helps us plan and prepare for the time left.
  • Tell us why you are leaving.
  • If you have time, you could send us a card or letter.
  • It’s great if you know who our new social worker will be and introduce them to us. If you donÕt know who our social worker will be, tell us as much as you can.
  • Tell us face to face.
  • Take a photo of you and me and leave it for me.

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The unmet need in mental health services for children and young people in care

In 2011 the Guardian’s Office audited 60 case files from five Families SA offices to understand the extent and nature of unmet need in mental health services for children and young people in care.  The audit did not attempt to examine the quality or outcomes of the intervention.

The audit showed that the majority of children and young people whose files were viewed received a service.  However, many needs were not being met for reasons which included:

  • assessments that did not focus exclusively or primarily on the child’s mental health
  • delays between assessment and provision of the service and
  • little integration of mental health issues and progress into case planning and annual reviews.

Read the findings and recommendations in the Unmet need in mental health services summary on our website.

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Audit of Annual Reviews 2010-11 – report summary

In 2010-11 the Office of the Guardian audited 246 annual reviews in total, conducted in 16 Families SA offices.  This was 12 per cent of the reviews that should have been conducted in the year.

A full report of the audit is provided to the Minister for Families and Communities, following opportunity for comment from Families SA.

The following are main points from the Audit of Annual Reviews 2010-11- Summary Report which can be downloaded in PDF.

  • Six offices facilitated children and young people to attend the review meeting.
  • The direct participation of children and young people increased from 16 per cent in 2009-10 to 25 per cent. Additionally, in 39 per cent of cases reviewed the social worker spoke in detail about the child or young person’s involvement in case decisions and demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the child’s views.
  • Thirteen per cent of children and young people did not have a voice in case planning or annual reviews.
  • Nineteen per cent of children and young people did not have regular contact with the same case worker.
  • Sixty-eight per cent of children and young people whose cases were reviewed were in stable, long-term placements.
  • Eighty-nine per cent of children and young people whose cases were reviewed were receiving services to meet their needs.
  • Nineteen children and young people, including ten adolescents approaching independence, did not have any significant connections beyond Families SA.
  • For the most part, good efforts, and in some cases exceptional efforts were made to ensure family contact was maintained.
  • Sixty-two per cent of the Aboriginal children whose cases were reviewed were placed with their extended family or with Aboriginal carers. In most cases there was evidence that the children had been provided with information about their cultural heritage and identity.
  • Thirty-three per cent of the children and young people had a Life Story Book.
  • There was evidence of strong inter-agency collaboration in 101 cases (41 per cent of all cases, and 61 per cent of cases requiring interagency collaboration). In 81 cases, Families SA reported that no other agency was involved in the child or young person’s life and that inter-agency collaboration was not needed.


Responding to neglect

Pam Simmons Guardian

My 2011 consultation with health, education and child protection workers is nearing an end and I have had the benefit of a great deal of practitioners’ knowledge about how well we are doing in looking after children.

There was much talk of difficult decisions in removing children from families, decisions that are never made lightly and are tested thoroughly in the court process. In particular, I heard something of the complexity of decisions about chronic neglect.

Neglect is the failure to receive socially acceptable standards of care. Chronic neglect is arguably the most damaging type of maltreatment, causing delays in normal child development that are very difficult to overcome.

In South Australia, neglect is now around 40 per cent of the substantiated reports made to the Child Abuse Report Line, making up a substantial part of the statutory child protection work. It is also highly contested because one person’s definition of neglect is likely to be different from another’s.

Recent history tells us that definitions of neglect are value-laden and shifting. In the last century definitions of child neglect had a profound impact on Aboriginal people. Our attention was drawn to this in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. It provided evidence of the history of seeing Aboriginal children` as synonymous with neglected children. Perhaps in overreaction, we now have some evidence of Aboriginal children being neglected by both family and the broader system for protecting children, such as evidence examined in the Northern Territory’s 2010 Bath Report Growing them strong, together.

I learned that neglect is a hard concept to work with and an appropriate response is equally hard. Social workers can easily become overwhelmed by seemingly intractable family problems or underwhelmed because they have seen it all too often. The underlying drivers of neglect such as low incomes, substance abuse, mental illness and the isolation of sole parenting are complex and chronic and the statutory child protection agency is not geared well to deal with these problems.

I heard angst in the voices of those responsible for taking action when children are reported as being neglected. It is not only that their decisions will be subjected to scrutiny and criticism but also because sound decisions require good professional judgment. Professional judgement in turn depends on forming a relationship with the child and family, critical reflection, professional reasoning and skilled supervision. I think that too many were afraid that there was too little time in a busy demanding day to get this right.

This round of visits reminded me of the challenges of being a child protection worker, the significance of a sound, safe and well resourced organisation within which they work, and the importance of trust and respect between agencies so that conclusions can be tested by different viewpoints and values.

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