Managing Uncertainty for Positive Change

A Message from the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly

These are certainly challenging times. It’s very difficult to take a ‘business as usual’ approach when it looks increasingly as though the long term impact of COVID19 will be profound. In times of uncertainty it’s how we choose to respond that makes all the difference.

Children and young people pick up on the fear that adults express around them regarding the possibility of shortages of food and essential items, alongside the need for self- isolation and restricted access to family and friends, school, work, recreation events and activities. They’re also being exposed to ‘big issue’ conversations about potential job losses, financial stress, and how best to care for those who are most vulnerable to infection.

Children themselves have their own fears about illness and death. They wonder what it will mean if they’re not going to school, missing out on learning and playing, seeing friend’s or being unable to attend parties, sport, dance, music and other recreational commitments and special events and activities that were part of their routine. They’re concerned about the impact extra stress will have on their parents and grandparents, their teachers and coaches, and they worry about what the changes will mean for other family members (including their pets), as well as for themselves.

At this time children and young people need their relationships with the significant adults in their lives to be loving, supportive and reassuring. They also need to be given information about what is happening in ways that they can understand and be involved in discussions about what can be done. They also need to be able to express their concerns and ideas without fear. These conversations need to be modified to suit younger children, who need simple ideas to be clearly explained and re-confirmed and it’s not ideal to have the news running 24/7 in the background while children are around.

Even in ordinary times, we know children and young people are rarely invited to share their ideas and opinions on issues that affect them, and that sometimes loving parents try and shield their children from matters they consider too adult. However, being supported to contribute ideas and opinions on what to do and how to behave now, will increase children and young people’s sense of importance and belonging, helping to allay their fears around the rapid change they’re experiencing during these uncertain times.

While our systems and behaviours re-calibrate, adjusting to the paternalism and control needed to minimise the impact of the coronavirus, we must also ensure that ‘voice and choice’ is not subsumed by safety and protection.

Children’s participation in society is a right enshrined in international covenants. They have an internationally agreed convention that gives them the right to express their views and be heard in relation to decision making on matters affecting them. This includes ensuring their views are given due weight. To not do so, means we fail to fulfil our international obligations to ‘act in the child’s best interests’.

In my role as Commissioner for South Australia’s children and young people, it is my responsibility to be vigilant to this. I am advocating for us to continue to bring the voices of children and young people into the conversations we’re having now. This involves considering their situations in relation to their rights, adopting strategies and planning decisions that reflect their best interests, and enabling them to have input into these solutions and strategies as they’re being devised. This is what making change at the systemic level involves. It requires us to listen to and speak up for South Australian children and young people, building a future that places their interests front and centre at all times.

To sideline this generation of children and young people at this time would be akin to abandoning them to our own interests – and we’ve already seen what that approach does to erode their trust and confidence in us, while forcing them to ‘grow up’ too quickly. This is a time when they need us to protect their childhood and their youth, while we involve them in shaping their futures – particularly given it is their generation who will be significantly impacted by whatever this new future holds.

Over the coming weeks I will be releasing several reports which summarise my most recent projects on youth justice, future skills development, careers education, work experience and barriers to learning. My team and I are also working on creating a platform for ongoing engagement, participation and information for children and young people.

I look forward to sharing this new online hub and my upcoming reports with you. I also look forward to working with you within this new environment, and with the broader community and government organisations you represent to bring about the changes needed. I hope together that we can find ways to implement the recommendations these reports contain, adjusting these as needs be to suit the new world we all find ourselves in. I am sure that together we can continue to bring about positive change for the benefit of children and young people during this uncertain time – it only requires us to have the will to do so.

A way forward to stop children falling off the cliff…

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People, commenting on the South Australian government’s new whole-of-government children protection strategy: ‘Safe and well: Supporting families, protecting children strategy‘.

I welcome the release of the State government’s new child protection strategy. This strategy outlines the across government actions being taken to support families at risk of entering the child protection system and aims to help protect children from harm when they come into care. It is also outlines how the government will be investing in young people to leave care with opportunities for a bright future.

I am pleased to see that the strategy recognises a number of systemic issues I have raised in my 2018-2019 Annual Report. Through case studies of South Australian children and young people who are doing it tough, I have raised a number of cross government issues and suggested solutions that go to the heart of keeping children safe and well.

Too many children are falling off the cliff, and too many departments are pointing their fingers across the table at others. It’s time for us to realise that as leaders and decision makers we are not fulfilling our side of the bargain to protect our children and our future. We all need to take responsibility for making the changes that are urgently required at both the individual and systemic levels.

If we are to have any impact on the numbers of children who are coming into South Australia’s Child Protection and Youth Justice systems we must provide connected services that catch children earlier. And we need to do this across multiple touch points – education, health, police and human services, and non-government services must all be included.

In addition, we must turn our attention to other groups of children who are also falling under the radar. They include:

  • young carers who need extra  support to complete their education, remain engaged with their friends and be offered some respite from carer duties;
  • Children between the ages of 8 and12 who have mental health issues and who are unable to access specialist services; and 
  • Children whose parents are incarcerated. These children are often forgotten. They could end up homeless and unable to attend school as they try to navigate a range of unsafe situations they face as a consequence of having a parent incarcerated.

More detail of all the above including real-life case studies can be read in my 2018-2019 Annual Report downloadable here.

Use of spit hoods deemed unacceptable

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People, responding to the Ombudsman’s Report on the use of spit hoods in South Australia’s youth justice system said: 

“The current use of spit hoods in South Australia’s youth justice system clearly breaches a number of international rights as well as current law.

Children in youth justice should not be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture, and should be treated with respect and dignity by youth justice staff at all times. The Ombudsman’s findings show that this is not occurring and that there needs to be a shift in culture in detention and training centres across South Australia so that responses to young people are trauma–responsive, resulting in a de-escalation of any incidents that might occur.

It is acknowledged that behaviour management and support in youth justice detention centres occurs in a complex environment where children and young people exhibit difficult and sometimes violent behaviour. There is, however, considerable evidence to show that punitive approaches are not effective in managing the behaviour of children and young people and can be counterproductive.

Research demonstrates the most effective means of addressing offending behaviour in children and young people is use of a therapeutic approach, which involves counselling and other services designed specifically to meet the needs of children and young people in youth justice detention. The time in detention should be a circuit breaker where wrap around services including health care, education and support are all provided, supporting young people to get and remain ‘on the right track’ when released.

Around the world we have seen countries manage offending behaviour in children and young people without resorting to the use of such restrictive practices. It is well and truly time we took a leaf out of their play book.”

A road map for the future

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People, responding to the South Australian Government’s strategy Connected – A Community Approach to Bullying Prevention Within the School Gates and Beyond” said:

“This comprehensive strategy represents a significant commitment across government, civil society, parents and community to prevent bullying.

With a shared vision of where we are leading and a shared roadmap we now have to ensure we start the journey together and put children and young people in the driving seat.  Their solutions and strategies to include more peer led interventions, positive role modelling by adults, and restorative approaches must be an essential part of the roll out of this framework.

Children and young people recognise that there are no easy solutions to bring about real change in the way communities present and respond to bullying but they have told the Commissioner that they are up to the challenge.  It is their right to health, wellbeing, safety and security that will be protected and promoted, it is therefore critical that their right to participate in how this is done is equally respected.

Congratulations to the Government in putting this into the prevention strategy.  It’s now up to all of us to do the heavy lifting and make it happen.”

The strategy was informed by the CCYP’s Bullying Project (2018). Read about the project here.
Read the final report here
Download the Bullying Prevention Guides for Schools, Parents and Sports Clubs here

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