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Shining the Light on Residential Care

In recent weeks, a bright light has been shone on residential care services in Queensland.  On 30th May, ABC Lateline aired a story questioning whether residential care is “serving as an incubator for a lifetime of crime, violence and prison”.

A particular concern highlighted within this story was a reported trend concerning the frequency with which Police are being called out by the staff of residential care services to deal with resident young people, the subsequent charging of these young people with offences and their unnecessary and damaging entry into the youth justice system.

Prominent Queensland advocate, Ms Debbie Kilroy from Sisters Inside stated to Lateline’s Margot O’Neil, “Calling the police has to stop, it absolutely has to stop. You can’t rely on the police to solve issues of trauma and abuse.”

In supporting Ms Kilroy’s argument that excessive and unwarranted number of Police call-outs was resulting in residential care services “criminalising” young people, Mr Damien Bartholomew from the Youth Advocacy Centre said to Lateline, “I’ve had young people being charged with offences as minor as flicking a tea towel at a worker, or a young person I’m representing at the moment has been charged with damaging a cup and a mug”.

As briefly noted within the Lateline story, a Queensland working party has been meeting for purposes of addressing factors that may be contributing to the large number of call-outs by residential care services to the Police.  Initiated by the Department, this working party comprises Ms Kilroy and Mr Bartholomew as well as other legal advocates and representatives from the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian, the Queensland Police Service, non-Government residential care service providers, Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak and the CREATE Foundation.  I also participate in this working party as a representative of PeakCare.

As has become increasingly apparent during the deliberations of this working party, the factors contributing to the high number of Police call-outs to some residential care services are many, varied and complex. It would, of course, be a foolhardy and dangerous approach to simplistically point a finger of blame towards any residential service provider or staff member of a residential care service without proper and comprehensive analysis of the factors that have led to the high rate of Police call-outs.  It would be similarly foolish to “lump together” all residential care services as “problematic” in relation to this issue when such wide variations exist in relation to the program design of these services, the profile and needs of the children and young people being referred to individual services, the level of funding they receive and resources available to them, and the purpose and functions that individual services are contracted to perform.

The contributing factors examined by the working party have ranged from mistaken understandings about requirements to report property damage to the Police Service in order to lodge an insurance claim through to conflicting interpretations of the Department’s “matter of concern” and “positive behaviour support” policies and the meaning attached to some of the service standards associated with licensing.

Amongst the range of complex factors that have seemingly led to the high rate of Police call-outs, there are some simple “truths” that stand out and must be upheld.  Quite simply, these “truths” are:

  • All children and young people should, wherever possible, be diverted from any unnecessary contact with the youth justice system and, in the event that this contact does occur, it should not be prolonged.
  • In relation to the reporting of certain behaviours to the Police Service, children and young people living in residential care should not be “penalised” simply due to their circumstances of being “in care”.  If, in accordance with generally accepted community standards, a parent would not call for Police intervention in response to certain behaviours of their child, neither should residential care workers be calling Police to deal with young people in their care who are displaying similar behaviours.  Clearly, it is a nonsense if, as stated by Damien Batholomew in the Lateline story, Police Officers are charging children with offences such as “flicking a tea towel” and courts are dealing with matters as trivial as this.  This would not happen in relation to children and young people who are not in care.  Neither should it be happening for children and young people who are.  Residential care workers should not be calling the Police in relation to these types of matters and the Police should not be charging these children and young people with offences.
  • Children and young people often act out the trauma of abuse and disrupted attachments through periodic demonstrations of “rage” and “anger”.   The behaviours of children and young people in these circumstances must never be simplistically defined and dealt with as “acts of defiance” or as a “criminal offence” when, at a much more significant level, they often represent young people’s reactions to grief about the trauma they have experienced, the loss of relationships with family members, their doubts about their ongoing safety and security, and fears about the potential for further loss or trauma.
  • Primitive behaviour management practices based on notions of reward and punishment must be seen, at best, hopelessly inadequate in providing care of children and young people who have experienced trauma and, at worst, likely to significantly exacerbate behaviours that are perceived as “difficult”.  Trauma-informed practice requires much more sophisticated approaches be taken to the therapeutic care of these children and young people.
  • In keeping with the need for well-informed and educated approaches to the therapeutic care of children and young people, there is no place within contemporary residential care practice for behaviour management practices that simply serve as an outlet for a residential care worker’s hurt, anger or outrage about a child or young person’s behaviour.  Whilst fully acknowledging the personal stress and demands that are often placed on residential care workers on a daily basis, these are feelings and reactions that must be dealt with elsewhere through appropriate de-briefing processes and professional supervision.

Whilst it may be seen that the above “truths”, when applied in practice, should work towards preventing unwarranted calls to the Police, there are also some “truths” that dictate circumstances when Police must always be called.  For example, when it is known or alleged that a young person has been sexually assaulted by another resident young person, the Police must be called.  This is not the kind of matter that can be dealt with “in-house” and to do so would be to deny certain rights held by the young person who was the victim of the assault and significantly undermine progress that has been made over many years in ensuring that sexual assaults are viewed by all of society as acts that are against the law.

Of course, between the extremes of not calling the Police for trivial matters and calling the Police at times when people’s safety is at a significant and imminent risk from extreme levels of violence, there is a considerable expanse of “grey”.   Guidelines being produced by the working party about circumstances when Police should and should not be called may assist, at least in part, in informing the decisions to be made by residential care workers and managers.

It should never be assumed however that the answers to issues of this kind can ever be totally found in the production of yet another set of guidelines and rules.  Inevitably, if the spirit and intentions of these guidelines and rules – the underpinning rationale for their existence – is not understood or accepted, “loopholes” will be found.  As clearly highlighted in the recent review of the United Kingdom’s child protection system led by Professor Eileen Munro, whilst guidelines, rules and regulatory controls may be useful to some extent, they will never be a match for sound professional judgement and practice wisdom in making well-educated and informed decisions.

From my perspective, the issue of excessive numbers and frequency of call-outs to the Police Services by some residential care services is symptomatic of some much larger issues of concern in relation to residential care and should be dealt with in that context.

Over recent years there has been rapid growth in the use of residential care without sufficient attention having been given to developing the ‘program logic’ for this type of care environment.  It should not be a surprise that there will massive differences in the outcomes being achieved for children and young people who reside in residential care services that have and those that don’t have a clearly defined program model where the integrity of the model is maintained through:

  • rigorous and disciplined attention being paid to the referral and matching of children and young people
  • the supported and case-managed transition of resident children and young people to independence, other alternative care arrangements or their own family’s care
  • a clearly articulated “fit” of the residential service with other types of out-of-home care and support services that exist locally where service providers engage in collaborative practice to ensure a continuity of service delivery to individual children and their families
  • the use of a consistent team of well-trained, qualified and professionally supervised residential care staff who are all well-known to the resident children and young people, and
  • an active commitment to a service philosophy that perceives a child or young person’s “placement” as providing an environment suitable for facilitating their healing and recovery, a safe haven in which children and young people are supported in learning and practising new ways in which they can self-regulate their behaviour, and a venue that provides them with the opportunity to engage in safe and meaningful relationships with caring adults.

Similar statements could also be made however in relation to the need for well-defined and rigorously maintained program models for kinship, foster and intensive foster care.

I have been around long enough to see the pendulum swinging between residential care and family-based care models as the preferred option for the care of children and young people.  Both have been improperly viewed from time to time as either holding “all of the answers” or “none of them”.  Of course, neither viewpoint is sensible and can lead to poor policy decisions and service planning.

The challenge is to continue to learn about the best possible means for delivering both residential care and family-based care options.  In particular, our thinking should not be confined by definitions of family-based care or residential care that have been around for way too long.  We must remain open to investigating, trialling and evaluating other options such as shared care arrangements that confront the dichotomies that have been created between residential and family-based care as well as between all forms of out-of-home care and in-home support that can be provided to children and their families.

Whilst a spot light has been shone on residential care, it could just as easily swing to family-based care as it has done in the past.  The question now seems to be whether we become blinded by the light that has been shone on residential care services in ways that polarise opinion or make use of this light to further illuminate the debates that need to occur in ways that are constructive and lead to service improvement.

Enter your thoughts and opinions about these matters as comments to this post – anonymously if you prefer – or email your comments to groberts@peakcare.org.au.  It is important that your voices are heard as we enter further into the discussions that we must have about all forms of out-of-home care and what shape they will take in the future. With a Child Protection Inquiry looming, it is important for these debates and discussions to start now.

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director 

PeakCare Queensland

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Murray #

    As the representative of organisations that have now apologised to ther Stolen Generations, Child Migrants, Forgotten Australians and probably the victims of forced adoptions, Mr. Wegener is very quick to call others foolhardy, dangerous, and simplistic.

    It is concerning that the peak organisation representing so many agencies known to abuse children, and in report after report going back decades to have conclusively failed children, should mount such spurious arguments against people who actually have an interest in childrens wellbeing.

    I cannot even see why these agencies are on any body looking into this issue, as they clearly have so little to bring to the table.

    Changing policy or programs rarely results in positive outcomes for children in care, due to the intransience of these agencies.

    In the mater of the criminalisation of children in care, these agencies should simply be proceeded against by police charge of waste police resources.

    Given your appalling representation of your agencies on Lateline, I think you might like to reconsider the slights you make against Ms McFarlanes research abilities.

    You might even research her standing in the community before making the public statements about her research.

    It is not hard to imagine, given the incompetence you have displayed in the above piece, that children in care perform so poorly in our community.

    You and your colleagues have no justification for the pride you flaunt, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

    Industrial bullies that you all are.

    June 15, 2012
    • Lindsay Wegener, Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland #

      Thank you for your comment.

      There is a matter that I would like to clarify. At no time during the ABC Lateline story (http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3514803.htm), or at any other time, have I commented on or criticised the New South Wales based research or research abilities of Kath McFarlane who was also interviewed for the Lateline story. As a matter of fact, PeakCare would welcome similar research being undertaken in Queensland.

      I think that you may be mistakenly attributing to PeakCare comments made by Jeremy Sammut, a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies within an ABC The Drum Opinion post that he authored in response to the Lateline story. (Refer to http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4051216.html.)

      I wish to be clear that PeakCare was in no way associated with the views expressed by Jeremy Sammut in relation to Kath McFarlane or her research. I am aware that Kath McFarlane has responded to the comments made by Jeremy Sammut within her own post (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4051216.html).

      June 18, 2012
  2. John Murray #

    I am really confused with your talk about “truths”.

    You say sexual abuse against children needs to be reported to police, and yet many of the agencies you represent are still actively covering up their staff members past sexual assault of children, or belong to agencies/churches that have actively assisted offenders leave the country to escape the hand of justice.

    On one hand the agencies you represent prosecute against minor behaviour, while protecting serious criminals.

    Contest that final statement please!

    June 16, 2012
    • Lindsay Wegener, Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland #

      Thank you for your comment.

      It highlights the need for vigilance in holding all persons and organisations who are responsible for the care of children and young people accountable for their actions.

      It is indeed fortunate that successive Queensland governments of both political persuasions have realised the need for a robustly independent peak body that is able to discuss and raise matters about child protection without fear or favour. Our member agencies similarly expect that PeakCare will speak out in an impartial and objective manner about issues of concern to child protection, even when they themselves may at times be challenged or confronted by the views we express.

      PeakCare would never condone or attempt to conceal any harmful practices by organisations providing care of children and young people, even if these organisations were our members. I wish to clarify that the point I was making in my post is that before pointing a finger of blame at any organisation or staff member, it is best to fully understand what has led to the use of practices that may be harmful to children and young people. Is it simply because people knew no better or was there a malicious intent? If we better understand how the harmful practice emerged, the better we will be at making sure that it is stopped.

      We all, of course, have a lot left to learn about ways in which we can improve the child protection system. It is one of the reasons why it is so important that research such as the study undertaken by Kath MacFarlane continues to be undertaken and that discussion and debate occurs around differing views and opinions. It is also important that voices such as yours continue to be raised so that we can all be held accountable for maintaining the safety and well-being of children and young people as central to our concerns.

      June 18, 2012
  3. SG #

    I did not see the Lateline story relating to this post, however as an employee with an organisation that provides residential care services, I wanted to make some comments. The organisation I work for has provided residential care services for a number of years, and in our early days we regularly called the police to assist us to manage acts of extreme violence on staff, other young people and property. Deciding to call police was never a decision that was made easily by staff however violence and assault on anyone is never acceptable. I have no recollection of us ever calling police for minor incidents like the tea towel flicking example. Police assistance at times of extreme violence was and is helpful.
    As our understanding of trauma and pain based behaviours developed, we have been able to train and resource our staff to intervene earlier and recognise potential escalations of behaviours and thus today we very rarely need to contact police to assist us to manage acts of violence. We have got much better at creating a therapeutic environment and training staff to work with children and young people with complex and extreme needs. It is about us having front and centre of our work that children and young people are often in pain.
    Lindsay speaks about the importance of staff training and practice models being an important component of residential care provision. I would agree with this position but also want to add that there are many other factors that in my opinion interplay to assist young people in residential care develop and grow. One of these is the design of the “house”, its furnishings and wall colour, creating a warm and soothing environment etc. A design that is less “hard to break” can result in less property damage, as well as being located in a neighbourhood that supports young people. Finding these types of houses is not without its challenges however. Another thing that we have found helpful is accessing and utilising therapeutic services (eg. Evolve), working with schools and other agencies and assisting young people maintain their relationships with family.
    I would appreciate hearing about what others (including children and young people’s views) are about what is helpful and less helpful in residential care, particularly in relation to police intervention.

    June 18, 2012
    • Lindsay Wegener, Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland #

      I think that the comments you have made about good “environmental design” are extremely important. In “another life”, I was involved in designing the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre and learned an enormous amount from the teams of architects and others who were involved in translating our staffing arrangements and operational procedures into a design that was conducive to achieving the practice philosophies we held about the purpose of youth detention.

      I am not suggesting in any way that facilities used to provide residential care services should in any way be modelled on or resemble a youth detention centre! Their purposes are not the same! What I am saying however is that residential care services should be very clear about their own purpose and philosophies, and their living environments should be designed in ways that match this purpose and help bring about the service’s philosophy.

      I often visit offices that have some of the worst possible security and safety features built into their design imaginable! Good safety and security design is invisible to the eye. It does not include building fixtures and fittings that are intended to serve as some kind of impenetrable barrier to control and contain people. In the language of youth detention centres, this is referred to as “static security”. Good security design does not rely on “static security”, rather it is about the use of environmental design that assists the effective use of “dynamic” security.

      “Dynamic secuirty” is about the ways in which people interact in responding to security and safety “threats” and, more importantly, ways in which the risk of these threats can be eliminated or, at the least, reduced in the first instance. The focus of “dynamic security” is placed on people, their relationships and interactions, rather than on a “bricks and mortar” approach alone.

      Often when I am stuck in the waiting rooms of offices that are equipped with all kinds of physical security barriers, I start to feel hostile and aggressive towards the person I’m waiting to see! Imagine living full-time within an environment where its design is continuously sending a message to someone that they are not to be trusted, that they are a danger to others, they are not welcomed really and do not belong here!

      We are fortunate these days to have availble to us the kinds of building materials and knowledge about architectural design that allows us to create reasonably robust living environments that do not appear spartan or “institutional”. In particular, we have knowledge available to us about environmental and architectural design that is suitable for people from different age groups and cultural backgrounds.

      Your comment serves as a very important reminder that the purpose of residential care services is not to simply “house” young people. It is about creating for them a safe haven, a place that they can call home and a venue for the establishment of meaningful relationships with caring adults.

      June 19, 2012
    • Vanessa #

      SG, fantastic response! I really appreciated your comments, these are the types of discussions the sector needs – what works, what does not work, what we can learn from each other. Your response also highlights the fact that while there are issues that need to be addressed, there is also fantastic practice occurring. Again, if as a sector we can unite, work collaboratively and share resources, including our strengths & knowledge, surely we can begin to break down systemic barriers & improve outcomes for children, young people & families.

      June 20, 2012
  4. Vanessa #

    Thank you for another thought provoking Blog! Whilst initially watching the Lateline show, I found myself reacting defensively to some generalised comments made about residential care and residential care staff. However, when I reflected on this further, I was relieved that finally the issues faced by young people in the child protection system (and those of staff) were finally being revealed and discussed. I wondered why? Why does it need to come to an extreme (the death of a young person), to receive media attention? At the end of the day, the message I heard was – the system often fails our most vulnerable young people. If in fact young people are being charged with offenses such as ‘flicking a tea towel’ (which can really sting!), we know that the strain on young people, staff and the system is further impacting on these young people. I appreciate the fact that you have identified the need to critically reflect on what is occurring, rather than an approach of ‘simplistically point a finger of blame’. Your Blog encourages people to reflect on as a sector what can be do better to support staff in responding to the needs of young people, how can we all ensure that our understanding of the impact of ‘trauma’ is responded to within residential models, organisational policy and procedures and underpins training for staff. Furthermore, supporting staff does not end at providing training, it requires a holistic approach including supervision and support to apply learning into practice. At the end of the day, these issues need to be highlighted and discussed. These are our most vulnerable young people, they have already been harmed and I am often frustrated that young people continue experience harm, within the system that is supposed to protect them. There is always going to be a need for residential care models, lets commit to ensuring that the young people that are placed in these programs and the staff that work within the programs are supported, let’s not wait for the next tragedy to debate this issue. With a Child Protection Inquiry just around the corner, let’s not personalise these discussions, let’s focus on children and young people, lets unite, speak loud, be clear that the system needs change!

    June 18, 2012
  5. Thank you Vanessa. Your final comment sums it all up really.

    “let’s focus on children and young people, lets unite, speak loud, be clear that the system needs change!”

    Let’s unite and focus on the right information being brought out into the open at the upcomiong enquiry and how we can do things better for these kids – our most precious resource for the future.

    June 19, 2012
  6. Gary Roberts #

    please continue this conversation over at our new blog site: http://blog.peakcare.org.au/article/shining-the-light-on-residential-care-1105.html

    August 9, 2012

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