In February 2018, as well as my existing roles of Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, I agreed to take on the new role of ‘Child and Young Person’s Visitor,’ to head up a visiting and advocacy scheme focused specifically on the children and young people living in residential and emergency care.
Since then, my staff and I have worked extremely hard to make the role work for the benefit of these children. As Guardian, I conducted a funded two-year trial visiting program then, when that funding ceased, we spent many more (often unrecorded) hours, refining a system of visiting and feedback that reflected children’s voices, serious safety concerns and both good and poor practice.
Before the last budget I submitted a detailed business case to government to support a scheme to visit a reasonable proportion of the 200 residential care properties which now house over 600 children and young people. As this was not successful, there is no ongoing funding for the role or scheme.
I have now concluded that, in the absence of any dedicated resourcing for the Child and Young Person’s Visitor, and no likelihood of resourcing in the foreseeable future, I am just not able to meet the obligations of the role.
In principle, the South Australia community would take some comfort in knowing that there is a statutory position dedicated to looking out for these vulnerable children and young people. However, a role in name only, without resources, does not enable me to fulfil its functions even to a minimum standard.
It is for these reasons, as a matter of good conscience and transparency, that I resigned from the role of Child and Young Person’s Visitor, on 23rd August.
Guardian and Training Centre Visitor
Background to the Child and Young Person’s Visitor role
The role of Child and Young Person’s Visitor was established in the Children and Young People (Safety) Act in 2017. It was intended to head up a ‘scheme’ for visiting and inspecting over 180 individual residential and emergency care homes, to meet with and advocate for the children and young people who were living in them.
Thanks to the work of Justices Layton, Mullighan and Nyland, in a series of South Australian inquiries and royal commissions spanning more than 15 years, the risks and challenges faced by children living in residential care are well understood.
South Australia has a much greater reliance on residential care to house children in care, than any other state. There are now over 600 children and young people living in residential care in South Australia, in over 200 facilities. This is about 14% of the care population. The national average is 6.5%.
The role of Child and Young Person’s Visitor came out of recommendation 137 of the Nyland Inquiry (the ‘South Australian Child Protection Systems Royal Commission’). This inquiry heard case studies and information about longstanding safety and wellbeing issues associated with residential care, where children are housed together, with rostered carers. Some of these young people have very complex behaviours, related to past and ongoing trauma. Residential care can be a volatile environment where children and young people are at a higher risk of conflict, peer-to-peer sexual abuse and other critical incidents than they would be if they were living in foster or kinship care.
Commissioner Nyland’s recommendation was based on evidence that community visiting schemes can help keep vulnerable people in institutions safe and give the residents an opportunity to have their voices heard.
In 2018, before the formal appointment of a Child and Young Person’s Visitor, the Office of the Guardian was already running a trial visiting program for 100 children and young people in residential care. By the end of the trial, DCP had accepted the great majority of the 129 recommendations made by my office, resulting in tangible improvements to children’s safety and protection, health and disability support, access to culture, their living environments and the quality of care they received. When children told the visitors about their fears and concerns, DCP responded by identifying ‘problematic practices by staff’, raising care concerns and moving particular staff members away from a facility. The report from the trial is here.
Past Guardians have always visited a small number of residential care facilities as part of the Guardian’s responsibility to ‘monitor’ the circumstances of children in care. These ‘monitoring visits’ will continue, with the assistance of the existing GCYP advocates. However, since 2017 the Advocacy Team has remained at five, although its workload has increased significantly due to a 30% increase in the numbers of children in the care system and an 80% increase in inquiries and requests for assistance. In the absence of additional resources for visiting, it is estimated that less than 10% of residential facilities (ie less than 20 facilities) will receive a ‘monitoring visit’ this year and the nature of the visiting will be less comprehensive that envisaged by a formal ‘visiting scheme’.