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Community Affairs References Committee
17/04/2015
Out-of-home care

Adina, Private capacity

Brooke, Private capacity

HUDSON, Ms Noelle, National Policy and Advocacy Manager, CREATE Foundation

Julia, Private capacity

Xena, Private capacity

[09:57]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the CREATE Foundation. Thank you for coming today. I understand you have asked for the session not to be broadcast. Is that correct? Yes. So we are not broadcasting. We will obviously still take the Hansard, so we collect everything that you have said. That will be sent to you. If you then decide that you want bits of your evidence to be in confidence or in camera, you can let us know. Besides that, we will then publish what you say. Everyone will still get to see what you have said, but you will get a second chance to have a look at it and double-check it. Is that fine with everybody? Okay.

I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you all. We have your very comprehensive submission—thank you. I would like to ask whoever wants to make an opening statement to do so and then we will ask you lots of questions, if that is okay with you.

Ms Hudson : We will be starting with Xena.

Xena : Good morning. My name is Xena. I am 20 years old and I am a young consultant with the CREATE Foundation. Like the other young people here today, I am an advocate for children in care. I am a Young Consultant at CREATE and my role at CREATE is to give feedback, views and the expertise of someone who has lived in the child protection system. I have participated in many discussions that relate to important issues for children and young people in the child protection system. I have also heard the stories and experiences of many young people who share their experiences to help change the care system to make it better.

I am here today in the hope that my experience might bring about change for others. In the words of Iyanla Vanzant:

It's important that we share our experiences with other people. Your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else. When you tell your story, you free yourself and give other people permission to acknowledge their own story.

I first had contact with the Department of Child Safety when I was eight months old, but I did not go into care full time until I was 18 months old. I stayed with around four carers until I went into my grandma's care when I was nearly two. Grandma advocated passionately to become my carer after some concerns were raised about my other carers when I was very young. I have been with her ever since and I still live with her now. I am grateful to have gone into kinship care because it meant that my sister and I got to grow up together and, because of this, we are still close to this day.

I have a good relationship with my grandma and I love her very much. It is more like a mother-daughter type relationship. She created a really great environment for me to grow up in and always tried her hardest to get me involved in things that are important to me, like team sports and choir. My grandma made sure we kept in regular contact with my mum while I was growing up and I talk to her most days now. Whilst in care I lived in Gladstone, Townsville, Childers and Cairns. This also meant that, with each move, I had to change caseworkers.

There are three main issues that are really important to me when it comes to the care system. Permissions and approvals for children and young people in care is too bureaucratic—the process takes too long and it means kids miss out on opportunities; access and ability to maintain relationships with family, such as parents and siblings; and transitioning from care. A lot of it seems to be about funding and grants to buy stuff instead of focusing on long-term planning like housing.

I go to my first issue. I had a number of experiences during my time in care where I found the departmental approval process really challenging—sometimes because it took so long and other times because it seemed so stupid that the department would need to approve me taking part in something like horse-riding. I have lots of examples of this, but because of time I will mention just two. In year 6 I had an opportunity to go on a special camp for kids in care. It included horse-riding, team bonding and learning about who you are as a person. Because some of the kids, including me, did not have permission from the department, no-one could go horse-riding. We were only allowed to sit on the horses.

CHAIR: You were allowed to sit on the horses but not ride them?

Xena : Yes, even though it was the main part of camp. The department did not give permission because they said that the activity was too high-risk and too dangerous. This experience was a big blow to my confidence. I loved horses and the fact that I could not take part in the activity just did not make sense to me and made me really angry at the time. In year 10 I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand on a ski trip, which unfortunately I could not attend due to the fact that I needed signatures from both parents for my passport application. I am not sure whether this is a departmental requirement or a requirement from the Passport Office. The requirement for signatures from both parents for me to get a passport was impossible. I knew and had contact with my mum, but still have not met my dad. I feel the major issue is that the rules are black and white and CSOs are not empowered to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. This creates a situation where children and young adults are unable to fully integrate or participate and do things that other young people who are not in care can do.

I feel that, to improve the situation, workers need to be given more freedom to make choices on a case-by-case basis about each individual child or young person. I have been told by CREATE that the regional director for child safety needs to sign off on any domestic air travel within Australia. This seems ridiculous and definitely has an impact on life opportunities for young people in care. For me personally, I live with my maternal grandma, but struggle to understand how she could not make decisions and give permission for me to do things.

My second point is about young people's access and ability to maintain relationships with family, such as parents and siblings. From what I have heard from other young people in care, many do not have the opportunity to have regular contact with family members as often as they would like. I have also heard from young people angry that a lot of siblings are split up when they either come into care or change placements. Some young people have expressed that a lack of connectedness they feel from their siblings and family can often place strain on their relationship—and not just now, but in the future, if they were to attempt to reconnect with their family members. I believe it is important to maintain relationships with family, as there may be a time when you need to ask medical questions or find out about family history. It can also help young people with their identity and knowing who they are and where they come from.

During my time in care I was lucky enough to have my grandma. She helped keep us together. This meant that we were not split up and we were able to remain with family. If my sister and I had been placed separately, we could have potentially found ourselves in a situation where I was placed in Gladstone and my sister placed in Townsville. My grandmother was a critical person in linking both my sister and I to our family history and knowing who our family members were. If we were placed separately, contact with my sister would have been harder to manage, and it would have been harder to know my history and where I came from. As my sister is older and left care before me, I was able to add to my case plan that I would see my sister at least twice a year after she left care and moved from Cairns to Brisbane. The department paid for my flights and helped coordinate the logistics and approval process. I believe that more should be done to ensure that siblings are placed together, or at the very least in close proximity to each other. It should also be prioritised that regular family contact, if the young person wishes, should happen and be monitored to ensure it happens.

My last point is the topic of transition from care and the large focus that workers have on giving young people information about grants and funding to buy things. But there is not so much focus on ensuring young people can live independently successfully through long-term housing. When I was transitioning from care all I remember is the different grants that were offered to buy furniture and appliances. As much as they are great, helpful and appreciated, I believe there needs to be some funding towards housing, or at least further training for CSOs on how to help young people find housing. It is also really important for young people to be given and shown life skills in the area of how to keep housing and general things such as budgeting, cooking and cleaning.

I think it is also important for young people to be provided with information about where and who can provide support and information after they have transitioned, if they need help. I feel housing is a very important issue that needs to be covered in a young person's transition. Research shows that young people who have a care experience are more likely to become homeless due to lack of support once they have left care. A solution to this issue could be better transitioning from the care system that also includes housing options, or discussing it with your CSO before you leave care, which would be a good idea to hopefully reduce the risk of homelessness, or having the chance to stay with your carer after leaving care. Thank you for taking the time to listen.

Julia : My name is Julia and I am 17 years old. I came into care at the age of two. I have lived in 36 different homes. These homes included residential care, foster care, kinship care and self placement. There was a failed reunification when I was 12. I was then returned into care. I have been to eight schools, two tertiary colleges and two behaviour management programs. Up until I was 12, I was with one foster family for nine years. This home was meant to be a two week, short-term placement. I went to the same school from grades 1 to 6. I joined the Girls' Brigade, a religious youth girls program at age five and am still currently attending. When I was three, we had a non-supervised contact with our mum. She kidnapped us and took us to Melbourne for a week with her boyfriend at the time. This is one of my earliest memories of life and being in care. During primary school I had lots of problems with bullying and stealing. I was bullied for being a foster child and had very few friends. I stole food from other kids because I did not like my lunch. I did not know it was wrong. When I was younger and had unsupervised visits with my dad, we would have competitions on who could steal the most expensive things from the shopping centre and be rewarded with whoever won.

When I was 12, I had a new CSO come to meet me at my school. She said that my dad had a house and that they would try to get me home. I was quite happy, but the process only took six weeks, and I felt like the issues and the reasons for going into care were not addressed when we were reunified. He was still using drugs and getting me to deal for him. At the time, I did not know what I was doing. All I had to do was drop a silver package off at the neighbours and I would get sweets when I came home. He started to get abusive. He was using a lot. He would not wake up until 1 pm and then he would watch news. If we woke him early we would get punished, beaten or verbally abused. I had to look after myself, cook and clean. I found this hard because I had previously lived with foster parents who sheltered me. I was not even allowed in the kitchen when I was in care.

About six weeks in, my dad had a heart attack and I had to call an ambulance at one in the morning. Due to my foster parents not letting me use or have a phone, I had no idea what to do. I finally figured it out and called the ambulance. I was so scared. I hung up on them and I had to call them back. They arrived a bit later. There was not enough room in the ambulance and my brother and I got told to go back inside to mum. I tried to tell them that we did not have one, but the doors closed and they drove off. I knew a foster carer that lived around the corner, so I got one of the ladies in the street to drive me there. We spent the night and they called the department and we got sent back to our foster home. A few days later, we went to visit my dad in hospital and the only thing said to me was that it was my fault.

I then told this nice lady that I wanted to go back into care. I could not go back to the foster carers I had been with for nine years because they had taken an exchange student and they were over 18 and did not have a blue card. I went to this family that had two children. From nine people down to four, it was really nice. I had my own room for the first time. They took me clothes shopping and I got to pick whatever I wanted. This was the first time I had brand-new clothes. Before, all my clothes were from op shops or other foster kids. One afternoon we got into an argument. I cannot really remember what it was about, but I ducked and they asked me why. I told them that my previous foster carers would hit me. We had a very long and serious talk about all the things that they did and that they would have to tell the department about all the stuff because it was wrong. I then told them about the abuse that my dad had inflicted on me during the failed reunification.

This placement broke down because of another foster child. She bullied me and was verbally abusive. It was at this point I started to have signs of depression and anxiety and then suddenly I was not sleeping. I had all these bad thoughts about harming myself. I did not know how to tell them how I felt because I did not even understand it myself. So I ran away. After a few more placement breakdowns due to mental illness, I ended up in my first residential. I lacked the freedom of being allowed to watch TV and stay up past 7.30 and being able to eat whatever I liked. These pleasures washed away quickly. I then moved into my second residential home. I was badly bullied verbally and physically because of my religion and other things. I started to skip school because home life was too hard. I found it extremely hard to deal with changes of youth workers leaving on an ongoing basis. I got into trouble with the cops for doing silly little crimes.

It was at this time that people started to notice that my mental health was not good. I went to counselling and to see a psychiatrist on a weekly basis. I was then diagnosed with anxiety and insomnia and was put on medication. I was then moved into another residential and started going to school again, but this resi was no different to the last one. I was being bullied and I was sent to a behaviour management program through the high school. I started to enjoy high school. I had many good friends and a best friend that I still have today. I realised school was not for me, so in 2014 I went to TAFE and studied education support and finish my course two weeks early. After completion of my course, my depression was getting out of hand. With multiple attempts to my life, I was hospitalised in the child and youth mental health ward. I lived in and out of hospital for three months. I then told someone about the abuse that I endured at TAFE. It affected my mental health more when some people said that they did not believe me.

After that, I moved into another residential, but it was only meant to be temporary. I really wanted to stay there, but the department did not think it was a good idea and they said it cost too much. I had a really rocky transition into my brother's foster home, but it lasted no more than three months. I had a relapse and ended back up in hospital. The department was trying to figure out other ways to support me, so they got me an external youth worker for six months. During that time, I moved out of my brother's foster home. I went to live with my sister for six months. But due to circumstances, all parties agreed that it was not in my best interests to stay there, so I went back into another residential. I stayed there for eight weeks. Then they moved me into a semi-independent living program.

At the start of the year, I started another TAFE course in the community services. I finished a few weeks ago. I would like to continue to study. It is the only way to get out of the situation. I still struggle with depression and have relapses every once in a while. I still currently live in a SILS program and will be ageing out of care in November. Overall, my care experience has been more bad than good. I understand why I came into care and I have so many opportunities I would not have got if I was with my parents. That is why I like being part of CREATE. I get to give my opinion on what needs to be done better. This helps train CSOs to give them a better perspective.

This is only an overview of my time in care; it in no way shows the hardships I endured in foster care or residential care, but it gives you an outlook on what can happen to a kid in the system who is meant to be protected. There are so many problems in the care system. Not all of them can be fixed, but today I have chosen two things that can easily be accomplished. The first one is getting your driver's licence and the second one is education. So why is getting a licence so important? Some people think it is just about fun and freedom, but there are many more facts that contribute to why young people in care need support and funding to get their licence. Take me for example. I live in a SILS placement and have to catch public transport everywhere. It used to take me two hours to get to TAFE. I am aware that the department does fund 10 hours of driver training, which is equal to 30 hours, but what about the other 90 hours? Some young people in residential care do not have anyone to take them out to complete their hours. One of the residential programs I was in had a driving program but, due to a change in staff, it got cancelled. Having your licence is part of being independent—and the only thing I ever heard from my CSO and other services around me was that they were preparing me for independence. There are two options or ways we could fix this. Option 1 is that young people be funded by the department for the full 100 hours of driver training. The money is not to be taken out of a young person's TFC funding. Option 2 is to change policies and procedures to make it easier to create driving programs for kids in residential care and use work cars or the youth worker's own car if they are willing.

The next issue I would like to raise is education. Note that I said 'education', not 'school'. Yes, school is important, especially for primary school students. But for older kids there are many alternative programs and for young people who excel there are tertiary programs. Education can get you anywhere in life. It makes your dreams come true. Young people in care deal with many different things. Sometimes they are not able to deal with mainstream school. Other factors might include teenage pregnancy, mental health, disability or they just do not see the reason why school is so important. The department should be supporting young people to help them decide what they want to do and where they want to be if not in school. At the other end of the scale, for young people who excel and want to go onto tertiary study because they finish school before they leave care or find school not the right fit for them and want to pursue other options, the department should be encouraging this and supporting the young person's choices. This funding also should not come out of TFC. I think there is a need for there to be a separate funding pool. Education is about a young person's future. It structures the person's whole life, whether they are in care or not.

Brooke : My name is Brooke. I am 18 and I am from the Gold Coast. My care experience started when I was nine and finished just before I turned 17. During that time I went through 50 placements in total. These were mostly supported residential care with 24-hour youth worker support but at the start there were a couple of foster placements as well. I have nine siblings all up, but only four of us, including me, came into care. I am unsure of the reason why, but I was separated from my two brothers. However, they did leave my sister and I together for the duration of my first five placements and, on that fifth placement, my younger brother was added to that house. This was short-lived, as my next placement was just my younger brother and me. I think siblings should be placed together as soon as they get removed from their parents so it gives them some sort of stability and sense of belonging.

My first few foster placements, which were with families, did not work. This was due to many factors, including pushing their religious beliefs onto you and making you go to church. And if we did not eat our dinner it was served cold to us for breakfast and all sorts of other things. After all this, I was placed with one other family and I truly believe that if I had been allowed to move with them I would have been with them until the day I left care. This placement was my longest and most stable placement. Because I was on a custody order, not a guardianship order, my parents had the final decision. They made the decision for me to stay on the Gold Coast rather than move with the family to Toowoomba. I ended up being with this family for a year and a half.

I believe that, for a family based placement to work, the foster parents need to take the young person in as one of their own and treat them exactly equal to their own children. Do not judge them on where they came from or who they are, because everyone can learn and change their habits. From the age of 12, the rest of my placements were residentials and they varied between good and not so good. The placements I liked were more lenient and set up like a home would be. They would take the kids out on weekends or on the holidays to do activities instead of just sitting around doing nothing. I was placed in placements where there was a 6 pm curfew and no-one was allowed in or out. However, the youth workers would not finish their shift until 10 pm. There were placements where they would not drive the young people anywhere at all after school or to do any activities on the weekends. They would not even pick the young people up. There are also placements out there that have very limited food. One situation was so bad that my dad had to go and buy groceries for the placement that I was in at the time. One placement I was in made me feel like I was institutionalised due to the physical appearance of the property. The bedroom doors were metal. All the doors had locks on them and even the beds were bolted to the floor.

All of these things should not happen if you are trying to make a child feel safe, comfortable and nurtured. On one occasion when the department could not find me a placement, they actually admitted me to hospital. I had nothing physically wrong with me; there was just a shortage of placements. I stayed there overnight and a placement was found for me the next day. There are many things that could be done differently to improve the out-of-home care system, but I think the main issues that need to be addressed are the removal process, visits from the workers, the number of young people in a placement and listening to a young person when an issue of abuse is raised.

If I could change one thing within child safety, it would be the removal process. This generally happens at school for most kids but I think it should be done at home. The department may want to avoid the messy situation of taking the kids in the company of the parents, but who do they benefit by doing it at school? Most kids I have known during my time in care have not finished school. Maybe it is because they are too embarrassed to go back to school because everyone now knows them as a foster child or the kid in foster care. No-one wants to be their friend and they usually get bullied every day whereas if it were to happen at home they could still go to school and be a normal kid and only tell the people they wanted to tell and when they are ready. I do not know if this is the experience for every kid in care, but it was the experience for my brothers and sisters.

Secondly, I think an assessment should be made before the children are removed from the parents. If the issue is something small, such as that the parents are having difficulty in disciplining their children, then why can't the department supply some funding to send in a professional to assist the parents in the home and teach them everything they need to know in order to keep the children with them? To me, this seems like a more realistic solution to a small problem and it keeps the family together rather than putting the children into care and splitting the family up. I think a worker from the department should show up unannounced at every placement at least every three months to make sure everything is travelling the way it is meant to be. This would help minimise the issue of foster carers or youth workers doing things that they should not be doing. When a young person raises an issue they have about a carer or a youth worker with the department, normally a visit is arranged. When this happens a carer or youth worker has time to clean up their mistakes whereas if it is unannounced they cannot hide anything. When a child raises an issue of alleged abuse, more investigation needs to be done. In my experience, both the police and the department listen to and believe what the carer says rather than what the child says and the case just gets brushed off. Maybe there needs to be an investigation team set up separately from the department to look into such issues. After all, it is about protecting the child and safety of the child, and that should be the most important concern because it is all about the children.

I truly believe that there should be a maximum of two or three young people per placement, unless they are siblings, for the placement to work well. When you put more than that together, things just get messy and uncontrollable, especially if the co-tenants are not matched properly together. The matching of co-tenants is a very important process when it comes to a placement that works well. You cannot put a young person who has just come out of juvenile detention—a young person who is on probation and has a strong criminal history—with someone who has not had any involvement with the law before. In my experience, the young person on probation ends up reoffending and the young person without a criminal history has ends up having a criminal history due to peer pressure. I thank you for the opportunity to speak at this inquiry. I hope that you take into account the issues I have raised, because it is all about giving the children a better chance in life.

Adina : My name is Adina. I was in foster care until very recently when I turned 18. I believe I am one of the Department of Child Safety's success stories. I am studying a dual degree in law and arts, majoring in journalism, at USQ in Toowoomba, and I am hoping that this will lead to a career helping other children and young people in foster care. When I first came into foster care I had no idea what was going on. I did not know where I was, where I was heading or what I had done wrong. All I knew was that I was scared and did not belong there. I thought the life I had been leading up until that point was normal. However, when I was placed into kinship care with a teacher aide at my school I soon realised that routine, structure, eating lots of food and feeling safe was what every child should have and what I had not been receiving. I continued to visit my biological parents regularly, but after a while the visits got fewer, and further apart, until eventually they just stopped, which was a decision made by me. I now have no contact with them all and I feel so much happier and carefree for it.

In high school I began to grow more confident in myself, make more friends and be a happier person. I was school captain of my pre-school to grade 10 school and was also awarded dux in the same year. The next year I travelled to the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland for a two-month exchange program and had an absolutely amazing time. I have now moved up to Toowoomba. I live on campus at one of the university colleges and study for my degree there. These are all things I could never have dreamed of doing with my life without the help of my beautiful foster family and the Department of Child Safety.

I believe that we can use what made my foster care experience such a positive one to help improve the system for others. One of the main reasons the foster care system worked for me was that I had a stable, loving foster family who treated me no differently from their own biological children. I also had someone I had a strong relationship with, my community visitor, who could help my foster family and me along the way. I looked forward to the monthly visits and was able to discuss with her any issues that I did not feel comfortable sharing with anybody else. Along with this, I had support from my school and was able to receive funding for various extracurricular activities to help me grow as a person. In my opinion, the biggest reason that I strived in foster care is simple: I had—and still have, even though I have turned 18—a stable, loving family. I was not shifted from family to family, I never moved schools and I have only just moved out of the town I grew up in.

My family and I forget that I am not their biological child. This is what every foster child deserves. This is an issue for so many children and young people in care. They do not ever get a chance to build up stable relationships with the adults around them, there is no chance to make friends and they cannot trust anyone. I met a girl a couple of years ago. She had just turned 16 and had moved to her 16th placement. She told me that some placements lasted a couple of weeks, while some could last up to a year. She said there was no point in making friends or getting to know anyone around you because, when you move a lot unexpectedly, it just adds to the pain of being shifted. This has to change. It is hard enough being a foster kid without the added grief of constantly being moved from one strange house to another. Stable foster families need to be better selected and matched to the child.

The community visitor program was perfect for me. The whole time I was in care, I had the same CV. I even still keep in contact with her now that I have left the foster care system. I had become comfortable enough with my CV to be able to talk to her about any concerns, complaints and requests that I may have had. I could ask her to explain departmental things to me, and she always made sure that my rights were being met. I understand that one of the changes that has come from the Tim Carmody Queensland inquiry is that the role of CV has changed. CVs no longer visit children in stable homes and only visit other children in care quarterly, half-yearly or yearly, which is nowhere near regularly enough to create and maintain a relationship between the child or young person and the CV. If my CV had only visited me every few months, there is no way I would have made such a strong bond with her and have felt comfortable enough to talk about personal matters. I would have felt almost completely abandoned by the department. For these reasons, I think that the old CV program should not have been changed, only further improved.

I was also supported at school with my education support plan. This is another issue with the department. There are all these great funding programs that nobody knows about. There is so much research that says kids in care do not do very well at school, yet we are not being told about the funding and plans that are available to support us. Once my carer had found out that I was supposed to be a part of an education support plan, which was around grade 9, two years since I had come into care, she did not stop pushing until my school obliged. I always achieved good marks at school and did not need any support for learning, so my ESP funding went towards the music program, school camps, learning Italian and purchasing equipment ready for university, which many more children who do not have learning difficulties are entitled to but are not informed about. Carers and educators need to know what is out there to assist these children.

Even though it has its obvious flaws, if it was not for the department of child safety removing me from my situation, I would not be the person I am today. I would not be studying law at university, I would not have gone on an exchange program in year 11 and I would not be speaking here today. I know that many people have had bad experiences in foster care and feel like the whole world is against them, but in my life so far I would not have it any other way. There are a lot of issues with the current way the department of child safety works, but there is no right answer. We are never going to have a perfect system and there is no rule that is going to apply to everybody. My success has been a combination of an amazing foster family, an active community visitor, a caring school environment and the department all working together for my benefit. I am one of the lucky ones. Being put into foster care has been the best thing, believe it or not, that has ever happened to me, and I would never change anything about my particular experience if I had the chance. Thank you.

Ms Hudson : I would like to thank the committee for coming to Brisbane and hearing us and hosting CREATE today. I would also like to acknowledge the absolutely wonderful presentations. From these presentations, you can see the highlights and lowlights of the care system. You can see home based care seems to be a preferred choice. Residential care, from what we hear from our young people, has a lot more negative comments coming forward and a lot more proactive reports. Julia wrote a proactive report on how to treat kids better in residential care, which was brilliant, a really good success story for stability, investment and love.

CREATE Foundation is the peak consumer body representing voices of all children and young people in out-of-home care. We are unique. There are only a few in the world and we are the only one in Australia that does this. Our mission is to create a better life for children and young people in care, including those who have been or are on care and protection orders. We achieve this mission by connecting children and young people to each other and their community, to empower them to develop and to reach their potential, to change the care system for the better.

To inform our submission, we drew upon our extensive catalogue of research and consultations. Because we do a lot of work with young people, we believe that their voice is the best one to inform your experience. Our 2013 report card surveyed over 1,000 children around Australia from all states and territories except for Western Australia, which chose not to participate in this process. The Senate committee inquiry's terms of reference were comprehensive; however, we noted a few key challenges to the Australian care protection system that were not addressed so we would like to address them today.

CREATE believes that listening and responding to the views of children and young people in the care system should be the cornerstone of best practice. Communication is meant to be a two-way process; however, communication with children and young people is often unbalanced. CREATE continues to hear from children and young people that they want to have a say in the important decisions about their lives and that when case workers or others agree to do something, it is followed through.

Researchers have noted a lack of children and young people's voices in legal decisions, including those before they even into care. Evidence to the Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry in 2012 noted that although the principle of children being able to have a say about their decisions, about coming into care and about their lives is more recognised in Australian policy and practice, in reality, children's voices are often not heard in court and decisions are generally made for them without their input. Our research supports these views and also notes the need for a child-friendly or inclusive approach to encourage young people to participate and be aware of these decisions. Young people in care find it difficult to trust and they need to be given the opportunity to build a relationship with their representative so that they can have their views accurately represented.

Independent oversight is almost a mantra to CREATE. CREATE believes independent complaint mechanisms are important for children and young people in care to air their concerns, complain or seek redress without fear of repercussions and potentially harming their relationship with their care provider. All states and territories have a commissioner or guardian for children and young people whose responsibilities include the oversight of services provided to children and young people in out-of-home care. We believe the ability of all children's commissioners and guardians to listen to children in young people is important, but just as important is the ability to act on individual complaints. There is inconsistency across jurisdictions because the legislated powers to investigate individual complaints is a serious limitation. In jurisdictions where children and young people are not able to have individual complaints acted upon, they are left without an independent representative to hear their voice and stand up for them when they are at their most vulnerable.

Our 2013 report card identified that knowledge of complaints processes was variable across jurisdictions. Overall, only 52 per cent of respondents indicated they knew how to make a complaint. As might be predicted, the strongest effect was age—the older you are, the more you know about the system. And with that, we found that people in residential care knew the system most about complaints but they were also the least likely to complain because they worried about repercussions. Most concerning was that 11 per cent of these did not know what to do and that 54 per cent of respondents chose not to raise the issue because of concerns about possible negative outcomes. For example, when we asked people why they had a complaint but did not go through with it, one young woman, aged 16, said, 'My caseworker made me feel guilty by crying.' Another girl, aged 11, said, 'I was worried I might get in trouble.'

A key concern for Australia's child protection system is the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care. According to the AIHW, in 2013 the overall increase the number of children in the care system was largely driven by the increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children coming into care. This is really concerning considering they only make up five per cent of all children in Australia aged zero to 17 yet they make up a third of kids in care—and this can be far higher in other states. In the Northern Territory it is huge as it is in WA as well. According to our report card, our Indigenous respondents reported having more placements and greater instability than those in other cultural groups. They also said they had a greater number of attempts to return them to their family than children from Anglo Australian groups. However, with regard to culture, 30 per cent of Indigenous participants felt that they were not at all or only a little connected to their culture or their cultural community, and just over 10 per cent claimed they knew the existence of their personal cultural support plan. These findings are at odds with the national framework and the National Standards for Out of Home Care, particularly standard 10.

We support SNAICC in its calls for the government to strengthen Indigenous services and decision making in the child protection systems to reduce the number of Indigenous children and young people entering care. As you heard from these wonderful young women, transition to independence is key and it was missing from the terms of reference for this committee. Ensuring young people's transition to independence from out-of-home care is well planned and resourced is paramount to achieving a positive outcome for when they exit care.

CREATE's research in 2009 found that 64 per cent of young people did not have a leaving care plan, and after leaving care 35 per cent were homeless in their first year. Only 35 per cent completed year 12 and 29 per cent were unemployed compared to a national average at that point in time of 9.7 per cent, and 70 per cent were dependent on Centrelink for some form of income support. We believe investment in good planning and support for young people exiting care has the potential to save the government and the community time, money and resources and, most importantly, offer young people greater opportunities to have a better life.

The Commonwealth's Transition to Independent Living Allowance, TILA, is an important financial arrangement for young people leaving care. CREATE believe that the administrative arrangements for the state and territory child protection agencies must ensure TILA is uniformly available to all eligible young people. This is not the case around Australia. I am very aware of the time, so I will finish there.

CHAIR: Thank you. We particularly want to ask questions of the young women who have come here today.

Ms Hudson : The only other thing we would like to highlight is the importance of sibling and family connection. Our research has found that less than one-third of children in care live with all of their siblings in care. That means everyone else may be completely split, which was, yet again, jurisdictional. Some states, in particular South Australia, had a huge amount of split placements. We had 35.4 per cent of siblings living with only a few of their brothers and sisters.

We would also say support for consistency and best practice around Australia can be achieved by the continuation of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children and the National Standards for Out of Home Care to deliver better quality outcomes for children in out-of-home care.

CHAIR: Thank you all for presenting your evidence today. It is really appreciated. It is only by hearing your voices that we get a true picture of what is going on.

Senator SESELJA: Thank you for all of your presentations. They were excellent and they gave us a great insight into some of the diversity of your experience, so thank you very much for sharing. Xena, I was interested in your comments about the restrictions that you faced. It sounds like your grandma was doing a very good job and she was empowered to look after you but not 100 per cent. It sounds like she was not given the full ability to make decisions. I thought that was interesting. I am not sure whether that has changed now. Are we aware that those kinds of restrictions still exist on kinship carers as a general rule?

Ms Hudson : Yet again, this is a jurisdictional, patchy framework here.

Senator SESELJA: It seems extraordinary. It sounds like your grandma was doing a good job. She should have been able to make decisions like whether you can ride a horse or get a passport and those sorts of things. It is obviously an important issue for us to work on.

Adina, well done for choosing arts law. That is what I studied at ANU.

CHAIR: No bias there!

Senator SESELJA: You talked about stability. How old were you when you went to live with your foster family? I did not quite catch that.

Adina : I was 11. So it has been seven years now.

Senator SESELJA: I was interested in your comments. You talked about how, once you went to your foster family, it was almost like there were things that were normal in that family which you had not even realised you were missing out on before. Is that right?

Adina : That is right, yes.

Senator SESELJA: I thought that was fascinating. I guess it was the stability and the fact that you were one of the family that was most important.

Adina : Yes, definitely.

Senator SESELJA: Fantastic. When I read your submission, there have been these ongoing themes and two that struck me—and Julia, Brooke, Adina or Xena might want to comment on one, and Noelle might comment on the other. We have heard mixed views but generally not very positive about this issue around residential care, and we heard some very scathing views yesterday in Canberra. There are probably some examples of some very good residential care, but is it fair to say that that is rare, in your experience?

Julia : I lived in residential care and there was bullying and stuff, but the set-up was really good. I think it all has to do with—like Brooke said—the matching of the children. The residential that I went into was the third residential in this one organisation, and they only put girls in there who were going to school, who were doing well and who were on their way to do stuff. I know that in some cases there are emergency residentials and you cannot choose who you put in there, but they are short-term so there is not such a big effect. But for long-term residential I think the matching process of the kids needs to be done better—not just the surroundings, where they are going to school and stuff.

Senator SESELJA: What about the quality of the facility? We were shown pictures yesterday of some residential care facilities which looked pretty ordinary. You would not call them a slum but they were not very good. It was not the sort of accommodation we would expect. What has been your experience?

Julia : I have been in about six residentials. It really depends on the building and the budget that people have and who has lived there. Usually the buildings that they get are not too bad. One of my old buildings was an old orphanage. It is also about the amount of people that you need to fit in there. As you know, in residential you all get your own rooms, so finding a six-bedroom house is really hard with the budget that they are on. Also, it depends but I do not think locks are necessary for some parts of the house but it depends on what kids you have in the house. Usually those precautions are taken because of the kids that they have in the house and then they do not get changed when new kids arrive.

Senator SESELJA: I think you mentioned, Julia, that one of your experiences was where they would not drive you anywhere. Sorry, it was Brooke. In some residential care they would not even drive you to school. Just describe that for me. What was happening? You were just stuck in the building most of the time?

Brooke : Yes. You would have to get your own way everywhere.

Senator SESELJA: What was your own way? To find public transport?

Brooke : Yes.

Senator SESELJA: And public transport was iffy? Or was it okay? How was it?

Brooke : In some parts it is, but it depends where the residential is. Sometimes you are placed out in the middle of nowhere and there is nothing.

Senator SESELJA: If you are out in the outer suburbs the public transport tends to be pretty ordinary, doesn't it?

Brooke : Yes.

Senator SESELJA: I think that is true right around Australia. Noelle, this issue around stability: it says in your submission that the research shows better outcomes—and I think we have heard some of that in terms of some of the stories that have been shared. You say:

The small number of respondents to CREATE’s Report Card 2013 who were living in permanent placements (4.2%) reported as good or better outcomes

It is not surprising that they report better outcomes. What is a little bit surprising, perhaps, is that it is only 4.2 per cent. If we all agree that stability is important, and we have had all sorts of models of care, why is it that we are still at this point where only 4.2 per cent of your respondents are actually in some sort of permanent care arrangement?

Ms Hudson : This is definitely an area where we see a lot of policy change and direction across Australia going towards permanency and guardianship. We have received mixed responses from our young people and our CREATE members when we have asked people about this. There are strong feelings. Some people say that, yes, they want permanency in care and that those efforts have been frustrated when they have had willing foster parents want to do it and then they have been crushed by the system, and the systemic forces have worked against them rather than for them. Yet we have also had young people express a very strong desire to not have that happen, because they are worried about that dilution of family connection. They have already been split apart and they do not want to lose that history and culture, especially in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Stability can be achieved. As Adina has shown, it does not necessarily have to be a permanent order. She has been in the same place her whole time, stable—an excellent investment in this beautiful young person. It shows that stability can be achieved by having a minimisation of placements, and it can be achieved by looking at better matching and involving young people in that decision making up-front rather than placing someone very quickly and then discovering afterwards that it is not working out and quickly repeating that cycle over and over again.

Senator SESELJA: That is what strikes me. You use Adina's example, which is a really good one, but it seems not to be the norm.

Ms Hudson : No, it is not.

Senator SESELJA: So why is that? Also, the point you make about looking at different circumstances is critically important. You say that some would not want the permanent order, because they do want to retain that link back to the family, but then you have another person who has said, 'I have been with my foster family for 16½ years and have wanted to be adopted for 12 years,' yet that was not able to happen in that circumstance, but clearly there was that desire. We must be able to create something better where there is a bit of flexibility and where those kinds of wishes are respected, surely.

Ms Hudson : Absolutely. This is where we are very clear. Obviously the law is a very blunt instrument, to use an oft rolled out term, but when we are doing policy we need to allow that flexibility to meet the wishes and desires of children and young people in care. So, if someone is very willing and has a family arrangement and a care arrangement that is working out really well, then, yes, that should happen. But it should always involve the young person's decision.

CHAIR: In that particular case, you may not know further details, but what would have been the systemic problems—

Ms Hudson : Quite often it is the parent. The biological parent might not give—

CHAIR: So the biological parent would not give permission?

Ms Hudson : Yes, quite often it can be that.

Senator SESELJA: Yet, in that case, presumably a permanent order has been made, or an order to 18 is often made, is it not?

Ms Hudson : That can be made, absolutely.

Senator SESELJA: So you will see a two-to-18 or a three-to-18 or a five-to-18 order made, but then there is still this bureaucratic problem. Even where both the foster parent and the child or young person wants to take that step, they are still prevented.

Ms Hudson : Yes. We have structural issues there as well. Then there is also the symbolic issue of being accepted into the family and having the family name. I was recently dealing with someone internationally who had been a foster child in America for a long time. She was adopted by her foster family when she was 26, and 'Better late than never' was her quote. To her it was so important, because it meant that, officially, she was theirs. But it took a long time to get there.

CHAIR: I have heard of another similar case. Senator Lines?

Senator LINES: Thank you very much for sharing your stories and being brave in coming before a Senate committee. It must be a bit of a daunting experience. I will just tell you about my dad. My dad was sent out to Australia as one of the kids sent from England. He came out here on his own, on a boat, when he was 11. He was a bit fortunate—his brother was sent out two years later and they lived in a big home in Western Australia. So I have some experience, knowing about what happened with my father.

What struck me about all of you this morning is your resilience—particularly you, Julia, given the horrendous experiences you have had and the number of placements you have had. What comes out from listening to you is this determination and resilience. That is obvious in all of you, despite whatever setbacks you have had. I would like you to comment on where you think that comes from.

Another thing that came out very clearly from you all is that you believe very strongly that children should have a say in their placement. I just wonder when you think that should happen, because I know that as adults we do not listen to two-year-olds and we probably do not really listen to four-year-olds, but we would clearly listen to you because you are old enough in our kinds of adult minds to have a view. But I just wonder when you think that should happen. I would like to hear where that resilience you have all got comes from.

Adina, you made the point that you have had an amazing foster experience. You are very happy in that family, but you also felt that your contact person—the departmental person—was critical of you. I wonder why you felt that. Those are basically my three questions.

Adina : My CV was different to my CSO. I had a lot of CSOs and they were all different in the way that they worked. They always said they were going to come out and they never did. They were really dodgy. I felt like I could not rely on them. I never made a strong relationship with them, whereas my CV came once a month always when she said she would. She knew everything about the department and she was able to always tell me what my rights were and what I was entitled to. She was always there for support. She was so reliable. She was just lovely.

Senator LINES: So it was really a case of her being that information resource for you in the way that probably your foster parents could not have been because they did not know the system?

Adina : And she was always able to explain everything to my foster carers and me and give us all the information. We relied on her rather than on our CSOs.

Senator LINES: In your view, and in the view of each one of you—and if you want to comment on your resilience, you can; you do not have to—when do you think consultation with children should occur and how?

Adina : When I first went into foster care, which was when I was age 11, I really wanted to go back to my parents, because I thought that was what was normal and I was comfortable there. I was never allowed to. Now, thinking back, I am just glad that I never did. So it just shows that it is a hard thing. I think you should sometimes listen to the kids, but sometimes it is not always in their best interests.

Senator LINES: Did someone sit down and have a discussion with you at age 11 and say, 'This is why we are doing this?'

Adina : No, I had no idea why I was being taken out of the—

Senator LINES: Do you think it would have been better if someone had done that?

Adina : Yes, if it had been explained to me. But then how do you explain to an 11-year-old—

Senator LINES: I suppose you can start the conversation.

Adina : Yes.

Julia : I kind of agree with Adina. They tried to reunify me with my dad when I was 12. Obviously, when you have visits once a week and he brings you chocolate, everything is all good and it is different. But I also think that children should be listened to from three years old. I know that sounds really young, but there are different ways you can engage with children. You can have them draw a picture of what they want. You can have a casual conversation with them. Obviously, what they are saying will not be taken on as much, but everyone should be listened to no matter what. I think that, as they get older, their opinion should weigh a lot more but when they are younger they should still be listened to, even if it is not as much.

I did not even know I had a CSO until I was 12, until I reunified, and I did not have a CV. If I had either one of those I could have told them that I was being abused in the foster home that I was in for nine years. Obviously, I would have been able to tell them if I was getting hit. Without anyone there to listen to me and talk to me about that, I could not tell anyone. So I think everyone should be listened to, no matter what age. It is just a different level of engagement and also a different level of how much information you take on from them.

Senator LINES: Xena or Brooke.

Xena : It depends on what level of maturity they are at. I have always known my story and I have always understood why I was in kinship care and foster care. I have always been told everything. I have had part decisions in it, not full choices. My grandma or my CSO would make the final choice, but they would always mainly listen to what I would say. I just believe it depends on the maturity or the way you talk to them.

Brooke : I think if they are old enough to understand what is really going on, they are old enough to make decisions.

Senator LINES: But definitely you think consultation should occur with children?

Julia : To comment on your question about resilience, and kind of backing up Adina's, I don't know, stable family, I have not really had anything stable but I have been to church since I was five. I think that I have not always had positive role models around me, but in the Girls' Brigade I have always had someone with good morals. Some places broke down because I could not go to church, but I knew that I would rather be in a residential than be in a family that would not take me to somewhere that was my family. I think that having them there has really supported me, so it is a stability thing. Even if I did not live there I was still there one hour a week. I went on camps. I went to church on Sundays sometimes with them. I leaned on them when I did not have anywhere to go. It is stability: it might be in a different way, but it just shows up through an extracurricular activity that—

Senator LINES: That can be provided.

Julia : Yes.

CHAIR: In terms of the CVs, you were all in care—in the system—around the same time. Adina, you had a really good experience with your CV. How often did you see your CV?

Adina : Roughly once a month.

CHAIR: During that same time, Brooke, Julia and Xena, you do not seem to have had contact regularly with a CV.

Xena : I had quite regular contact with mine. I lived in Childers for 10 years. My CV was a person I would go to. She was bubbly and happy to see us every time that she came around. I had one in Cairns who was quite good.

CHAIR: So you had semi-regular contact with a CV, but Julia you—

Julia : I did not know CVs existed till I was told, but when I went into ressie we had one who was for the whole house, and I found him quite helpful. Even if he could not do anything for me it was still nice to talk to someone outside my CSO and outside the residential to see what could be improved.

Brooke : It is hard, because once you get a good CV you get not attached but you get that relationship going. Once you move—I had so many placements—you get a new one every time you move, so you do not really—

CHAIR: You do not get that trust, which is what you, Adina, were talking about: having trust in somebody who can be that constant contact. If you change placements you change CV, by the sound of it.

Brooke : Unless you are in the same suburb.

CHAIR: But then you are also losing contact with your CSOs, because they change fairly regularly by the sound of it.

Adina : Yes.

CHAIR: One of the things that we talked about at our hearing in Canberra, yesterday, was lack of supports for trauma support and therapeutic responses. Have any of you ever had any contacts or off-ROV specialised supports? Julia, it sounds like you have.

Julia : Yes. It was a bit late, though. You do not get it until it is too late, until they recognise that you need it. Every kid comes into care for a reason, and it is obviously not a good reason. I think that if the kid is willing they get some kind of counselling. Especially for the younger ones it is really important, because they cannot express how they feel, but I know that they express it through how they play and how they act. I think that sometimes the foster carers misjudge that for being naughty. When I was about 10 I still could not express myself that well. They thought that I was just being naughty, so I got sent to behaviour management, but I was really just acting out some of the traumas that I had had in the past.

CHAIR: So you were seen as being naughty and behaving badly, rather than people actually trying to understand what was causing that or why you were like that.

Julia : Yes.

CHAIR: Would that be the same experience for you, Xena, Adina and Brooke? Were you offered any sorts of supports?

Adina : I was. I had quite a few visits to a psychologist funded for me. They were really good but I did not continue with them for very long, because I did not feel like I needed them. I actually work at a psychologist's office now, as reception there, and I was speaking on the phone to a carer who had a child for most of her life. She felt like she needed to provide counselling—psychological support—for this child, just in case. She was telling me that the department would not fund her to see a private psychologist. They would only fund her to see one at a public hospital. I think that the carers or the child should be able to choose where they would like to see the psychologist.

Julia : I definitely agree with that. Being in hospital for so long last year, it was actually more traumatic to go into a hospital and talk to someone than go into a nice—I don't know if you guys have heard of headspace or been there—it is very kid friendly.

CHAIR: It is specifically designed for that, yes.

Julia : I have been to a lot of different organisations for counselling and support. I found headspace one of the most welcoming and one of the most supportive of them. It was not just the person I had to talk to, it was the environment I was in—I felt like I was safe. Whereas in hospital you do not really feel like you are safe, especially because of other things that have happened.

CHAIR: I have run us a little bit over time. I would love to sit here and talk to you for a very long time. Thank you, very much, again. I will express our thanks because I know it takes a lot to sit on the other side of the table, having in a past life sat on that side of the table, but it is even more difficult when you are sharing your own experiences. Thank you, we very much appreciate it. Ms Hudson, thank you, very much, for your substantive submission. We do have your whole survey that you provided to us.

Ms Hudson : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, very much. It is extremely helpful for us, and it will be as we complete our inquiry. Thank you, very much, for your time today. It is much appreciated.

Proceedings suspended from 11:06 to 11:15