How your organisation can empower children who have experienced being in OOHC
15 October 2020 at 7:00 am
Safe environments within our organisations can make all the difference to a child who has experienced Out of Home Care, writes Trish Reck, Child Wise state manager for Victoria and Tasmania.
Most people will respond to the theme of National Child Protection week with “oh yes I always put children first”. But if we look around us, how many discussions about what’s best for kids are still adult conversations, instead of putting children and young people at the centre of those decisions?
Currently up to 10,300 children and young people are in Out of Home Care (OoHC) in Victoria at any one time because they cannot live safely with their families due to issues such as child abuse, trauma and neglect.
In my experience working in the family and community services sector, many children and young people have multiple placements over several years, often moving between their primary carers to extended family (kinship care), various forms of foster care and/or residential care.
Children are vulnerable due to their minority status and dependency on adults
The traumatic experiences leading to their removal, coupled with the disruption, instability and loss from constant moving can have significant adverse effects on their educational, social and psychological outcomes.
It is great to see that today’s policies and legislation relating to children in Australia are underpinned by the understanding that children are vulnerable due to their minority status, developmental ages and dependency on adults who have decision-making power over them. The additional vulnerabilities of Aboriginal children, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and children with disabilities are also acknowledged.
I wonder however whether the vulnerabilities of children who have experienced the disruptions of OOHC are as recognised as they need to be in many of the community organisations and spaces where they might spend time (eg: schools, sports and recreation facilities etc)? After all, internal traumas are not easy to detect, and most children and young people will not want to talk about them.
The impacts of trauma can be mistaken or misunderstood
Sadly, too often the impacts of trauma can be mistaken or misunderstood for bad behaviour, disinterest, or a lack of capacity. This in turn compounds the trauma and resultant behaviours and potentially isolates and shames the child even further.
Over the years when attending special events at NGO’s I have worked at, I have seen the evidence first-hand that given the right opportunities and an equitable chance, children who have come through the OOHC system have every capability of fulfilling their full potential as is their right. I have been deeply touched and moved to tears every time a child, young person or entire family have had the courage to share their difficult and challenging journeys with us – and their ultimate triumph of obtaining that certificate, getting into a course they thought they would never achieve or simply being able to regulate their emotions and responses enough to be included in activities they enjoy and gain confidence doing.
In my eight months at Child Wise as the state manager for Victoria and Tasmania, I have been struck by the passion and expertise of my colleagues who specialise in assisting organisations to put the child’s voice and rights at the front and centre of what they do. Child Wise staff walk with organisations through the journey of embedding a mindset of child protection and building child safe environments in line with relevant state and national legislation.
Some things that make a difference:
Below are some simple ideas that can assist organisations and agencies providing a service to children who have experienced OOHC make some vital differences:
- Staff education and training
Ensure staff at all levels across the organisation have access to regular, effective training and education on a trauma-informed approach. This involves having a good understanding of neurological, biological, psychological and social impacts of trauma on children. For me that has translated to looking for what lies behind the behaviour rather than trying to respond to or stop the “bad” or disruptive behaviour. It acknowledges that a child has experienced adverse events, is reacting to those, and may need specific supports for some time so as not to be triggered or re-traumatised again.
- Child-friendly versions of documents
Ensuring that child-friendly versions of relevant documents are available to children – such as information about a program, what the rules are, what their rights are, who to talk to if they have a complaint etc – allows them to understand what is happening and what is expected of them. Ideally, these would be created with input and feedback from children themselves. Often in the OOHC system, they have no real say, and matters are decided for them (of necessity and for their safety). This could mean a split from their siblings, living with someone they don’t want to be with or don’t feel safe with, having to leave behind schools and friends they may have made without really understanding why. Being able to understand information that is about them, knowing what rights they have and having avenues to provide feedback or tell someone if they are not happy or not feeling safe and being taken seriously goes a long way to putting a sense of their own agency back in their hands.
- Find ways to listen to what they have to say and take them seriously
Depending on the child’s age and experiences, they may not have the words to articulate what is happening for them or what they want and need. However, given the right tools and opportunities, I have found children are often able to give excellent information on their needs and experiences. Younger children generally express themselves through play, drawing or other imaginative ways. Patience, time, pencils, paper, some toys and an openness to sitting on the floor and letting the child lead are vital ingredients.
These are just a few thoughts on some of the ways your organisation can empower and support children who have experienced being in OOHC and may have additional vulnerabilities as a result.
Become child safe with Child Wise
Child Wise is available for support and consultation around ensuring the voices of children are heard, and their rights are upheld.
We offer a wide range of services including Child Wise Consulting, which contains a number of modules such as the Child Safety Review, Child Wise Coaching and online child protection training sessions.
It’s never too late to start your journey toward becoming child safe, and we’re here to help guide you on your path to being child wise.