When I started in my work at OGCYP five years ago, I was very mindful of what an immense privilege it was to be entrusted with the roles of Guardian and Training Centre Visitor. I knew it would be a tough gig but that it brought with it the exciting potential to make a real difference to a group of South Australian children and young people who need us all, as a community, to extend them extra-special attention and support.
No child ever asks to end up in a situation where they have to live away from their birth family. No child is ever born aspiring to be in trouble with the law or locked up in youth detention from the age of 10. Life just throws things at some children that they haven’t asked for and don’t deserve. All kids are born with a unique personality, curiosity, a heart ready to love and the potential and, I believe, the desire, to be the best they can be.
Early on I flagged the standard I would use to keep me accountable for my future work and choices. I wanted these children and young people to have the same things I wanted for my own children. No more, no less – to be cared for and loved, to be kept safe, to have the opportunity to find their own unique strengths and passions and to grow up to be secure in themselves and proud of who they are.
The only thing I would change now, five years later, is to add that I would also like them to be able to feel proud of, and draw strength from, what they have been able to survive – experiences and challenges that most children and young people have never faced.
In 2017 I joined a skilled, dedicated and compassionate workforce in OGCYP and nothing has changed since then, except that it has grown (and is set to expand further). I am immensely grateful for the hard work, commitment and support of my staff, some of whom have come and gone but all of whom have contributed to what we have achieved together, always mindful that ‘it’s all about the kids’.
There have been many highlights from our work but one stand-out is the graduated closure of the large congregate residential care units that had been in the sights of OGCYP for many years. These environments have been the subject of numerous recommendations from inquiries and commissions in SA and nationally, and are notorious as often being harmful and dangerous places for kids to live in. To their credit, the previous Minister for Child Protection and DCP took up the challenge to phase them out between 2018 and 2022, despite immense pressures with sourcing alternative accommodation. Three have now been closed, one repurposed for Covid management (with another closed but on the books for Covid use) and one has been reconfigured and refurbished to create a safer and more home-like environment, co-designed by the young people living there.
Another highlight has been the establishment of the TCV role, bringing powerful, independent oversight and regular visiting to the children and young people detained in Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice detention. There are now fiercely independent eyes on their conditions and we have been able to advocate effectively for their rights and best interests, including helping to secure an end to over 1000 strip searches a year.
As well as larger gains, there have also been the myriad improvements and ‘wins’ (small and large) that came out of the hundreds of requests for advocacy my staff have taken over the years. From being moved away from a place where they have been afraid and scared, to being reunited with their siblings, to being able to access sanitary products in youth detention with dignity, these things are always significant for the children and young people involved.
The system challenges are immense and they are not going away. Creating an alternative ‘home’ for children who can’t live with their families is a difficult thing and nothing can magic away the trauma that has preceded a decision to remove children, or the effect of that removal. We all know that the better alternative is to support and conserve a family if it can ultimately meet a child’s needs for safety, attention and love. Increasing Newstart to a liveable level and deeply investing in families and their parenting are crucial foundational steps in stopping the flow of children into care, and into the youth justice system.
I am humbled by the immense heart and commitment I’ve witnessed from so many people working in, caring about, and contributing to the child protection and youth justice sectors. Whether it is executives holding responsibility for large, complex and struggling systems, case managers and youth workers juggling impossible caseloads and challenging environments, or carers and volunteers offering up their hearts and homes to kids who need them, I see many wonderful people turning up day after day, week after week, year after year, for these children and young people. I take my hat off to you all.
Finally, when I think about the children and young people I’ve met during my term, I am awed by their unquenchable spirit and the courage and the compassion they often show for others who are doing it tough. I have been fundamentally changed by this work and – wherever I go – I’ll take with me my immense admiration and respect for these children and young people, and the hooks they’ve left in my heart.
Ngaityalya (Kaurna, thank you)
Guardian for Children and Young People/Training Centre Visitor