Residential care contributing to ‘criminalisation’ of young people

South Australia’s highly stressed child protection system is contributing to the criminalisation of children and young people in care, a new interim report from the Office of the Guardian has found. 

“Through the ongoing work of our office, it became clear that there was a strong link between children and young people living in State care, particularly residential care, and being detained in Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre,” Guardian for Children and Young People, and Training Centre Visitor, Penny Wright said.

Earlier this year, Senior Advocate, Conrad Morris and Senior Policy Officer, Jessica Flynn, went about setting up the year-long South Australian Dual Involved Project, to explore how the child protection system may be contributing to the involvement of children and young people in care, in the youth justice system, either directly, or indirectly. Children and young people caught up in both the child protection and youth justice systems are referred to as ‘dual involved’, due to the dual orders they are placed under. Other states and territories call them ‘cross over children and young people’.

The project’s interim report, Six Month Snapshot of the South Australian Dual Involved Project: children and young people in South Australia’s child protection and youth justice systems provides an initial summary of what dual involved children and young people told us about their experiences, as well as some key systemic issues. 

As part of the project, we identified 51 dual involved children and young people who were detained in Kurlana Tapa on 124 separate occasions between 1 February – 31 July 2021. Of those:

  • 47 lived in non-family-based care (mostly residential care placements) (92.1%)
  • 17 were female (33.3%), 34 were male (66.6%)
  • 21 were Aboriginal (41.1%)
  • 14 were under the age of 14 years (27.4%)
  • 21 had a diagnosed disability (41.1%).

It is important to acknowledge that these 51 children and young people are not necessarily a representative sample of the 4,600 children and young people in care. These particular individuals came to our attention because they were detained. 

It is also important to acknowledge that due to their common experience of significant trauma, including early disadvantage or neglect, factors arising from these experiences, such as dysregulated behaviours, disability and drug and alcohol misuse may have contributed to their involvement in the criminal justice system.

However, leaving aside individual characteristics, we wanted to delve deeper into any systemic factors that might be at play. By listening carefully to the young people we were meeting, could we identify common factors in their care experience that had contributed to their involvement? Understanding these factors creates the powerful potential for response and change. 

It is noteworthy that children and young people living in family-based care have often experienced similar adverse childhood experiences to those in residential care but they are not as seriously over-represented in youth detention. One of the challenges for the project was to understand why. Genuinely hearing things from their perspective is an important part of answering this question.

Six months into the project we found that:

  • children and young people in residential care are at far greater risk of involvement in the youth justice system, with the risk that they begin to identify as ‘criminal’
  • a lack of suitable options and poor placement decisions increase this risk 
  • residential care often exposes children and young people to peers with difficult behaviours 
  • interagency relationships are strained and lack clarity about relative responsibilities
  • transitions from the youth detention back into the child protection system can be poorly planned and result in  unnecessarily extended periods of detention.

Most of the children and young people we spoke to felt let down or overlooked when in residential care. Some young people even told us they preferred to be in Kurlana Tapa rather than in their residential care placement as they felt safer and ‘heard’ by staff.

Here are some of the things children and young people told us:

“I know a hundred per cent I would not be here [Kurlana Tapa] right now if it wasn’t for resi, like if it wasn’t for DCP putting me in resi care.  I say that with confidence too.  I know a hundred per cent wouldn’t, would not be here.”

“Cause eventually you are out there in the house like where you’re all by yourself and eventually it just gets too much … and you don’t want to return to return to your, the house so you end up doing a little crime and come back in here [Kurlana Tapa].” 

“I’ve got everything [in Kurlana Tapa] that I wish I had on the outside… this place is so much better than being on the outside in those houses [residential care houses]. There’s no proper support to get you back to school and all that stuff.”

“I don’t feel safe for my future. I feel like I’m in a road that’s just going to go downhill every day.”

Read the interim report.

The final South Australian Dual Involved report will be released in early 2022.

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