Young People Feel Unsafe in Residential Care

By Wendy Williams
Pro Bono Australia
December 19, 2016

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released the findings of a study on Monday exploring the experiences of children and young people in residential care.

The report, the first of its kind in Australia to explore the issue from the perspective of young people, found most young people in residential care felt they were at risk of physical violence, sexual threats from their peers and from outsiders, and of ongoing bullying and harassment.

The study also found that children’s experiences of harm were often under-reported, and that children and young people could provide unique observations on the experience of abuse in residential care as well as how best to support children and young people in care.

Lead researcher Dr Tim Moore from the Institute of Child Protection Studies (ICPS) said the study highlighted that adult’s views about children’s safety, did not always “match up” with what children and young people felt they needed to be safe.  

“It was really important for us to spend that time with children and young people and really glean from them what they needed in regards to safety within residential care and for us to be able to respond to that,” Moore told Pro Bono Australia News.

“We knew that residential care was problematic, but I suppose what has been understated in the past is that feeling of being unsafe.

“So even if kids aren’t the victims of bullying or violence or what have you, if they are exposed to that and see their peers being abused or assaulted or reflecting some of that abuse via self harm or suicide or something then it takes a significant toll on kids’ mental health.”

The report, Safe and Sound: Exploring the Safety of Young People in Residential Care, forms part of a larger project commissioned by the Royal Commission to develop an understanding of how children perceive safety and consider it within institutional contexts.

Researchers from the ICPS at Australian Catholic University, with partners from Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology, spoke to 27 young people aged 10 to 21 years living in residential care in Australia.

They asked them to identify their key safety concerns and discuss the ways they believed residential care units were preventing and responding to abuse-related issues.

Moore said the key takeaway was that most children and young people said they did not feel safe, with a lack of stability, concerns about their peers and limited connections to trustworthy adults all highlighted as concerns.

“They advocated for safe residential units: those that were home-like, that functioned as they believed a normal home and family functioned, and where life was better than it was when they lived with their biological families or in foster care,” Moore said.

“They also identified a range of issues that compromised their safety within residential care.

“Many young people discussed bullying, physical and sexual harassment and violence, and felt ambivalent about staff members’ capacity to effectively prevent or deal with these types of issues, often feeling that they had to be responsible for preventing these issues themselves.”

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

In 2015 there were 2,394 children in residential care in Australia, almost 5 per cent of the 43,400 children living in OOHC.

Moore said the participants “had a whole long list of ideas” about what could be done to improve their experience in residential care, including better matching of peers, involving young people in decision-making about placements, and limiting the number of moves from one unit to another.

“I think a few things came through quite strongly,” he said.

“Children and young people wanted to have a say about their placements, they wanted for residential care to be a port of last call but they were also aware that when… every other possibility of care had to be exhausted first, that often kids were left in limbo for long periods of time, so they felt that if kids couldn’t be placed in other out of home care placements that really non-government organisations and child protection systems needed to commit for them to be in a home-like environment for a long period of time.

“They also felt that staff should develop a better appreciation of the risks of sexual abuse and other harms, and inform and educate young people about threats, how they are being protected and how they can protect themselves.

“I think also the study pointed to that fact that adults aren’t always in the best position to know what kids need and that when we are designing child-safe residential care, we really have to start with understanding what children and young people feel they need and to respond to that.”

Moore said they would be keen to do further research into the issues.

“International studies have shown that staff attitudes and behaviours really influence the extent to which kids are safe living in residential care. So we would be really keen to explore that further,” he said.

“What training and support and supervision do workers in residential care need to be able to respond to kids safety concerns, how can they better understand appropriate sexual development and the like, and how do they set up relationships with kids so that if a young person is worried they are going to be abused or exploited that they have someone to turn to for advice and for protection.”

Royal commission CEO Philip Reed said the research would directly contribute to the Royal Commission’s final report and may inform recommendations in relation to residential care or OOHC.

Moore said he hoped the report would show the commission there was a crucial part to play in facilitating children and young people’s participation.

“I think that to an extent I agree with other commentators saying that most residential care isn’t safe and kids and we really need to change the way that we offer residential care,” he said.

“But that for a small group of kids it is the safest place and the place where they feel most safe and with some investment in staff and resourcing, residential care can have good outcomes for children and young people.”


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