Written by Shona Reid
I still consider myself a newbie to the roles of Guardian, Child and Young Person’s Visitor and Training Centre Visitor, with four months having passed since I began. I have enjoyed greatly connecting with old colleagues and meeting new people within the sector. There have been some changes since I was last in youth justice and child protection roles in the late 90s and early 00s, in fact there have been lots of changes. Different and better ways of doing things, a greater focus on inclusivity of culture, gender and health needs. I have seen the changes and am grateful for the efforts and investments involved.
I have cherished the opportunities to spend time with, and listen to, children and young people in care and in youth detention (between you and me, this has been the best part of the job). These conversations are unapologetically grounded and raw and real, whilst simultaneously being insightful, elegant, and piercing. I often walk away thinking I should just hand over ‘my little soap box’ and allow them free and unfettered access.
But then they look at me with this hope, that their words will go to places only I can take them. They look in hope that I believe them and that I will provide some level of fair and rightful resolution to the troubles, worries and sometimes inconceivable situations they find themselves in at times.
They’re right you know; they are right to hope that my office and I will be unrelenting and faithful to their truth.
But I can’t unsee what I have already seen. Eyes and words of loneliness. Calls for help through acts of self-torment. Small children and big young people lost in systems and silos and databanks and regulations and whatever else may, at times, impede the common good or sense.
All I can say, four months in is: I am worried… and you should be too.
As a parent of seven, my responsibilities for their care and wellbeing are paramount, their ability to grow well, grow safe and grow with access to all that they need is my primary driver and is constantly in my thoughts.
I (and so should you) have the same expectations for children and young people in care and in detention. The same all-consuming thoughts that we have for our own children, should be front and centre for the systems that removed or detained them. Parental responsibility lies with the state. I am not just talking about the Department for Child Protection or the Department of Human Services. When the state decides to take on the parental responsibility for children and young people, the entire state needs to parent.
Which means that this already vulnerable group of children and young people needs purposeful and meaningful ongoing access to everything that upholds their human rights. Rights that ensure that their physical, developmental, emotional, health and social needs are met. Rights that are rehabilitative and restorative. Rights that are universal and not conditional.
I am worried because I see a system struggling to come to terms with its responsibilities.
I am worried about the state’s disproportionate reliance on residential care, an environment which is no substitute for a home and is too often filled with disruption and conflict and limited by resourcing pressures. I know this because one third of requests for assistance that came to my office from the child protection sector in 2021-22 came directly from children and young people, nearly 4 in 5 of whom lived in residential care. The most common issue they raised? Safety and stability of their living arrangements.
I am worried because as a collective, we simply fail to properly address the systemic discrimination that continues to disproportionately impact upon First Nations children and young people, which has evidently led to proportionally higher rates of children placed in out-of-home care and youth detention.
I am worried because absolution of responsibility – no matter how small – can have devastating and long lasting consequences, ones that we would not tolerate in our own families.
My Office recently provided a submission to the review of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017, calling for a greater legislative focus on the rights of the children and young people in care. At the core of our submission was the need for our laws to set high standards for the wellbeing and safety of the state’s children and young people to make sure that the decisions adults make for them are in their best interests. Just as we would expect and demand for our own children.
We need strong legislative protections and guarantees to ensure that decisions are made with children and young people rather than for them – and that they can access the right advocacy support when they need help to know their rights, express their views or make their voices heard. Our submission highlights that, when the state assumes parental responsibility for a child or young person, government must ensure that care, development and support must mirror that we would expect for any other child in our community. That responsibility extends across the whole of government. You can read our submission here.
It is not only me who should be worried; you should be too. Governments and our whole community need to listen to what vulnerable children and young people are saying.
I don’t want to be worried any more, I want to be hopeful.
I want us all to give them what they have asked for… fair and rightful resolve to their needs, troubles and worries.