I have had the privilege recently of hearing the views of many people with great expertise and wisdom on the topic of safe keeping. Safe keeping is the statutory confinement in a specific location of a child or young person where no offence has been committed but they are detained because their safety and wellbeing is at substantial risk.
There is growing interest in this topic across Australia. Both the Layton Report in 2003 and the Mullighan Report in 2008 recommended a secure therapeutic facility and arrangements in South Australia. The authors were understandably disturbed by the state’s seeming lack of ability to prevent young people from running away from state care and putting themselves at risk of grave exploitation. In June the Office of the Guardian issued a discussion paper on this topic and I thank those of you who responded to it and the participants of the round table discussion.
While listening to diverse opinions I formed the view that the government should not proceed with introducing the legislation and facilities for safe keeping for children. First, in the absence of other intensive therapeutic residential services, I am not convinced that it is necessary to detain children in order to engage them with an intensive service. Second, there is a high likelihood of abuse of purpose of the legal orders and facility because there is limited access to community-based therapeutic services and overdemand on the alternative care system. In other words, if we had tried other intensive therapeutic services first then the argument would be stronger for detaining some children to provide them with a service. But we have not. The therapeutic services for children and young people with high needs are thin on the ground.
Instead I suggest we implement a number of other reforms ahead of introducing safe keeping provisions. They are:
- Improved intensive therapeutic services for children in existing residential and family-based care, including those in youth training centres.
- Improved development opportunities and supervision for children in residential care including a higher staff to resident ratio.
- Protective behaviours training and sexual health education available to all residents of residential facilities.
- Smaller numbers of children accommodated in the residential facilities, from the 10-12 now to a maximum of six.
- Greater control over admission to residential facilities to enhance resident cohesion and the therapeutic environment, and clearer definition of purpose of each unit.
- Introduction of a strategy for assisting children with high and complex needs which recognises the need for intensive and highly-skilled case management and therapeutic care.
- An outreach service that locates, engages with and supports children who are missing from placement or who are putting themselves at high risk.
- Amendment to the Summary Procedures Act to restrain adults who exploit children by offering them shelter, drugs, or other goods in return for sexual favours.
There is a lot of support for better addressing the needs of children and young people who run away from their care placements and for whom the available help is not enough. I expect that we will see some changes in the next year that will make progress here. However, it will not be done by practice change and goodwill alone. We need a concerted financial and policy commitment to responding well to children and young people with high and complex needs.