Guardian for Children and Young People in Care, Penny Wright, told InDaily she has found it “distressing” to uncover reports of some children under guardianship being left at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre for hours or days after their release because the Department for Child Protection had no ready placement for them.
She said her office was also investigating reports that some children and young people in care who commit crimes are being held at the Adelaide City Watch House – a facility for holding adults.
Almost 50 children and young people in care have been detained at the Kurlana Tapa centre at Cavan since February, when Wright’s office launched its “South Australian Dual Involved” project.
The ongoing project aims to give a voice to the growing number of children under guardianship who end up in the youth justice system – otherwise known as “dual involved” children.
According to Wright’s office, since data collection started in 2017, the number of dual involved children in South Australia has grown by more than 20 per cent.
“The phenomenon of young people in care ending up in youth justice is heartbreakingly common across Australia, but this is the first time this type of intensive, targeted advocacy work has taken place in South Australia, and probably, nationally,” Wright said.
“It has been distressing to uncover through this work that DCP can’t always offer a suitable placement to the children and young people in their care.”
A report published on Wright’s website states that “significant resourcing pressures” are hindering the ability of the Child Protection Department to support children in state care who end up in the youth justice system.
Dual involved children have told Wright’s staff that the Department for Child Protection offered them no support when they went to court and there was a time delay between them being granted release and being picked up from Kurlana Tapa.
Wright said she was also “very concerned” by claims the department sometimes advocates for children to remain at Kurlana Tapa rather than them being granted bail.
“In Australia, detention of children and young people is supposed to be a last resort, so this is actually a breach of their human rights and indicates that DCP is struggling to achieve one of its most basic functions – to provide children and young people in care with a safe placement,” she said.
“We know of cases, and we have also heard from other worried stakeholders, where DCP has had to admit they cannot keep a particular child or young person safe in the community, and detention is therefore preferable.
“This reflects the significant challenges DCP faces in supporting these children and the urgent need for better community options to keep kids safe.”
Wright said the community expected that in times of stress, a parent would be present to support their child and the same principle should be applied to social workers who act as the “parent” for children in care.
“During a stressful court process, it is critical that a young person has an active advocate so they know that someone is in their corner,” she said.
“Some young people have certainly told us their DCP worker was present in court but others were disappointed that they were not in attendance, or where there was a DCP representative who had no connection with them.”
Wright has previously reported that children in state care were voluntarily choosing to stay at Kurlana Tapa because they felt “fearful and unsafe” in residential care facilities.
Some children have also expressed frustration that they are arrested for “relatively minor” matters, such as verbal aggression or property damage, after police are called by residential care facility staff.
In a statement, a State Government spokesperson conceded that some young people had been kept in SA Police lock-ups after they were arrested, but “only in rare circumstances”.
“In the majority of cases in South Australia, if a young person (under 18 years of age) is arrested and refused bail, they will be transferred to Kurlana Tapa,” the spokesperson said.
The Department rejected the allegations that young people weren’t supported in court saying: “The department also ensures all children have legal representation during court proceedings and ongoing support from case managers.”
However, the Government did not address questions about whether it would sometimes advocate for children to be kept in detention rather than being granted bail.
Nor did the Government address the central allegation from Wright that some dual involved children were being detained after their release date.
Instead, the Department argued it had improved youth justice services, including updating Kurlana Tapa, where the average daily population had declined over the past few years.
“In November 2020, research from the University of Adelaide examined the intersection between the child protection and youth justice systems in South Australia,” the government statement said. “It found that only 1.6% of all children and young people in SA, born between 1991 and 1998, had contact with both systems.
“We know that many children and young people who enter state care have suffered complex trauma and addressing this trauma is a key priority.
“The Department of Human Services and the Department for Child Protection work closely together to identify appropriate services, and enhance the level of support and coordination provided to young people who come into contact with both systems.
“DCP undertakes transition planning before a young person’s remand or detention order is complete, to ensure they find the best placement option to meet their specific needs.”
Wright said her office plans to release a final report on its dual involved project in the first half of next year.
“I hope that it will initiate real, bold changes to both policy and practice by truly acknowledging the ways these children and young people are falling through the gaps,” she said.
“By facing up to this issue honestly we can identify improvements that will change life outcomes for these kids.”
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