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Shining the Light on Residential Care

by PeakCare Qld. on 14th June 2012

Home -> Articles -> 2012 -> June -> 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 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