Research finds that children in residential care feel unsafe

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
December 19, 2016

The Royal Commission has released a new research report exploring children and young people’s views about their safety in residential care. Most of the children and young people who participated in the research described feeling unsafe in residential care due to bullying, harassment and the threat of sexual assault.

In Australia, residential care is considered to be a placement of last resort for children and young people requiring out-of-home care and is used in circumstances where other types of out-of-home care are unsuccessful or unavailable. In 2015 there were 2394 children in residential care in Australia.

The Royal Commission contracted researchers from the Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University to examine what safety means to children and young people in residential care and how children can be best protected and supported if safety issues arise. 

The research report, Safe and Sound: Exploring the safety of young people in residential care, was informed by a literature review and interviews with 27 young people who were living in, or had experience of living in, residential care. Children and young people also reported that younger and more vulnerable children should ideally be kept out of residential care altogether, or alternatively placed in units with others of a similar age and background.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Children felt safest in residential care when it felt like home, for example when they were in a clean and welcoming environment, where they were able to celebrate events, and were well supervised by adults;

  • To be safe, participants needed their residential care to offer stability and predictability. Many of the young people interviewed described their time in residential care as chaotic, found it difficult to feel settled and spoke of the high turnover of staff;

  • Children were provided with a sense of safety when their residential care provided routine, fair rules and the ability to be heard during decision-making;

  • Residential care felt most safe when adults and institutions took children and young people’s safety seriously and had proactive strategies in place to protect children from harm.

Young people also reported that in order to feel safe in residential care, they needed workers to realise that it was their home and that it was the workers who were visiting their space, not vice-versa.

Royal Commission CEO, Philip Reed, said the research makes an important contribution to what is known about children and young people’s experiences of safety in contemporary residential care.

“The research adds to the growing consensus that children and young people need an opportunity to participate in decisions about their own safety, and to be taken seriously,” he said. 

“It also highlights the need for stable placements so that children and young people can develop trusting relationships.”

Mr Reed said the research will directly contribute to the Royal Commission’s final report and may inform any recommendations that may be made in relation to residential care or out-of-home care.


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