Often, we hear about children and young people in kinship or foster care living with families – and, in fact, this is the most common type of out-of-home care arrangement here in South Australia and nationally. However, there are over 700 children and young people in South Australia who are not living with families, but instead living in what are technically known as “Residential Care Facilities”. We tend to call these residential houses (mostly because we don’t like the word ‘facilities’).
Our office knows that children and young people in residential houses can face particular issues and vulnerabilities. This is why we operate a ‘Child and Young Person’s Visitor’ Program, with the primary intent to see how children and young people in this residential house are faring, and ensure that these residential houses are fit for purpose (i.e., looking after little awesome people that need extra attention because of struggles and trauma in their lives).
This program has been active for approximately 7 months now, after the Minister for Child Protection, the Hon. Katrine Hildyard, provided funding for a 4-year period. We have visited a total of 35 houses across the state – with our Visiting Advocates and the Guardian herself having visited regional towns including Ceduna, Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie, in fact, next week we visit Port Lincoln.
Reflecting on the work of this program, the Guardian, Shona Reid said “it is an absolute privilege to be able to directly listen to children and young people and amplify their voices in what can be a world dominated by lot of ‘grownups’ and ‘grownup’ opinions”
Every visit is unique and there’s always lots to talk about and plenty of things to show us. Be it a tour of the house, favourite toys or even a game of table tennis or (dare we say) a basketball “shoot the hoop” competition. Our Visiting Advocates cherish the opportunity to be welcomed into the houses that children and young people grow in and more importantly see how they are, if things are going well for them or if things could be better.
Our genuine thanks go to the Care Teams who diligently support children and young people to engage and get ready for our visits. It can be a bit hard to understand sometimes, from a young person’s perspective, who we are and what we are there to do. So, the preparation beforehand plays a big role in being able to successfully connect with children and young people in meaningful and beneficial ways.
Our Advocates have come across lots of different stories of young people and this gives great insight into the experiences of living in residential care. Some themes our Advocates have noticed are that:
· young people in residential care don’t always get to live with their siblings and in these cases, they miss them immensely. Often, they talk about wanting more contact with them, or would even like to live in the same place.
· having a consistent Care Team is important. Having a “random” or casual carer who don’t know the young people makes things harder.
· young people wanting sleepovers with friends but feel the process of safety checks required beforehand is “embarrassing” and makes it hard to be a “regular kid”.
We have made it our job to ask some important questions like “what they call their placement”; in response, most children and young people state they don’t call it “home”. One young person said that “it doesn’t feel like a home”. This provides really important information about how children and young people view and feel about their placement.
Whilst it’s easy to look at what isn’t working well, the Visiting Advocates share that children and young people also talk about what they like about their time in residential care houses, such as:
· outings and holidays with carers, where they make shared memories they can reflect on these later together at the house
· regular takeaway nights at the house with the carers and young people
· care teams praising and encouraging their artistic hobbies, with paintings in pride of place throughout the houses
· the development of strong, personal relationships with individual Carers.
“I am so proud of the children and young people that have been able to share their voices and speak their truth to my Visiting Advocates. Listening and understanding is the most powerful tool my office has; it gives me guidance on how I can best represent children and young people living in residential care at an individual and systems level” Shona said.
We are acutely aware that the visits undertaken by Advocates are just a slice in time, and that children and young people have much more depth to their story than what we see and observe on each visit. We do continue to engage after visits through our individual advocacy service, where needed, and it is not uncommon for a child or young person that we visit to call us later for advocacy on things important to them.
“I think it is important to take a moment as a ‘grownup’ to think about what it must be like for children and young people living in residential care houses. When your whole world; your relationships, your living environment, the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you think about at night is all centred around you not being able to live at home with your own family and be safe – that must be tough. But it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for better, for more investment in families to build their caring capacity, for more opportunities in family-based care options, and for residential houses that feels like a home” Shona said.
The Guardian’s annual report on her observations relating to children and young people living in residential care houses is due to be tabled in parliament later in 2023.