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Vulnerable children choose prison over residential care: guardian

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Children in state care are voluntarily choosing to stay in prison because they feel fearful and unsafe at residential care facilities, South Australia’s guardian for children has revealed.

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In her annual report tabled in parliament yesterday afternoon, Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright said young people who are detained at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre and are also under guardianship orders had elected to remain in detention once they reached the end of their sentence because they felt “fearful and unsafe” at residential or commercial care facilities.

It comes amid reports of serious physical and sexual abuse being perpetrated between young people in residential and commercial care, prompting Wright to declare “many aspects” of the state’s child protection system are “in crisis”.

According to Wright’s report, about 10 South Australian children under guardianship orders were, on any given day, also serving a sentence or on remand at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre.

Wright told InDaily this morning she was unable to reveal how many detained children in care had elected to remain in prison once their sentence had ended as “we don’t know about them all – we only know of the incidences that we are told”.

Wright provided InDaily with testimonies of children who had been detained and were contemplating returning to residential or commercial care.

One young person said: “I’m not going back there. If you send me back to that unit I’m running away.”

Another reportedly said: “Going to the Adelaide Youth Training Centre would be like going on a holiday compared to staying at the residential unit”.

However, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said that a young person was not able to voluntarily remain at the Adelaide Youth Training Centre once their remand or detention order was over.

“When a young person’s remand and/or detention order is complete, Adelaide Youth Training Centre staff work with support services such as temporary supported accommodation, Centrelink and schools to ensure the young person has the necessary supports available to them to safety and successfully return to community life,” she said.

“Family and community network are also consulted.”

Of the 406 mandated enquiries received by Wright’s office in 2018-19, the majority (17.7 per cent) were about safety concerns.

Wright wrote that children in residential care reported suffering emotional and psychological harm from co-resident intimidation, bullying, verbal taunts and threats, and witnessing incidents of physical violence and property damage.

She said advocates working at her office also identified “serious concerns” regarding the placement of children and young people in Department for Child Protection-run residential care houses.

Those included concerns from children that they are forced to move out of residential care facilities at short notice and against their advice to other facilities that were not suited to their needs.

“These issues reinforced a sense of instability, unpredictability, fear and anxiety about the future for the children and young people affected,” Wright wrote.

“In consideration of the extensive trauma that many of these young people have already experienced, ongoing exposure to trauma and abuse in care creates a significant risk of harm – both immediate and cumulative.”

According to Wright, two young people had disclosed that their co-residents in residential care had sexually assaulted them over the past year.

“Their advocate’s assessment indicated that DCP had not responded appropriately to the young people’s prior disclosures of sexual abuse, resulting in the young people’s ongoing placement together and exposure to further assaults,” she wrote.

Wright said following advocacy from her office, the Department relocated the young people to alternative placements “where they reported they felt safe and were not experiencing any further abuse”.

“Too many children and young people who have been removed from their families into the care of the state are still not actually safe,” Wright said in her report.

“On a day-to-day basis some are harmed or at imminent risk of harm from poor decisions in the system.

“For those who are harmed this is both a personal crisis and a betrayal.”

Wright told InDaily about one 13-year old young person who had been asking to leave their residential care placement for five months.

“It was clearly inappropriate and my team here was advocating for that person to be removed,” she said.

Wright said the young person was eventually placed in a different residential care facility, where an “incident” occurred.

“They were then detained for two months at the Youth Training Centre on the grounds that the Department couldn’t find another placement for them,” she said.

“That two months in detention was unnecessary.”

In a statement to InDaily, Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson said the safety and wellbeing of children was the Government’s “top priority”.

She said the Government had recently closed the 12-bed Queenstown residential unit and had introduced strategies to recruit more family-based carers.

“We have reduced the number of young people living in large-scale residential care units across the state, allowing closer and more responsive supervision for children with complex needs,” she said.

“We have a strong focus on placement matching where we work to identify the needs of each individual child informed by their past experiences of trauma, to find them the best placement option to meet their specific needs.

“We are currently looking at a range of different therapeutic residential care models, which will better respond to the needs of each individual child.”

Data from the Department for Child Protection shows in August this year, there were 416 children living in residential care and 97 children in commercial care.

According to Wright’s report, Aboriginal children continue to be overrepresented in non-family-based care, making up 35 per cent of children living in residential care and 33 per cent of children in commercial care.

The overall number of children in family-based care, however, is significantly higher than non-family based care, with 3479 children in August living in a family setting compared to 561 in residential, commercial or independent living care.

Opposition child protection spokesperson Jayne Stinson said that it was “utterly heartbreaking” to hear that some young people were choosing to stay in youth detention because residential care made them feel fearful and unsafe.

“That’s a serious failing and a shame on our state. The Minister should act immediately,” she said.

“To hear other children are being made to stay in youth detention because a safe home can’t be found for them is equally shocking.”

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