It’s on us: We must prevent the criminalisation of children in care

The Sentencing Advisory Council Crossover Kids report provides clear evidence of our ongoing failure to properly respond to the needs of vulnerable children for stability, healing and compassion. The over-representation of highly vulnerable children with histories of neglect, trauma and abuse in the youth justice system is symptomatic of a lack of coordinated, holistic, well evidenced and ongoing service delivery that keeps families together, protects children and enables children to thrive now and into the future

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare is calling on government, the community services sector and the legal system to act on the findings of the report. We must ensure that children from care and protection backgrounds are properly supported and are not unnecessarily involved in the youth justice system. 

Our Key Takeaways from the Crossover Kids Report

#1: We are missing opportunities for earlier and swifter intervention to support families who are experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage

Of the 5063 children in the Crossover Kids report study group, almost 40% who had been sentenced or diverted over the study period, had been the subject of at least one report to child protection.

We must make sure that targeted support is provided to families at the point of first contact with Child Protection to give families the help they need to keep children safe. We know that exposure to ongoing trauma, disengagement from education and undiagnosed disability and mental health conditions are risk factors for children entering the youth justice system.

We need government to ensure that there is adequate investment into prevention and early intervention support services – so that families who are struggling with multiple and complex challenges can be helped to stabilise, so children can remain with their families wherever possible and supported to reach their full potential.

#2: We must address placement instability

The Crossover Kids report provides damning evidence that we are setting up vulnerable and disadvantaged children for instability and insecurity. 15% of the 5063 children sentenced or diverted over the study period had at least one recorded out of home care placement in their lifetime. Of those living in out of home care, 1 in 2 had more than 5 placements. We must urgently stop the churn of children in the out of home care system through better placement matching and investment in evidence based programs and services that can help to keep children settled  and prevent placement breakdown.

#3: We must work together to prevent criminalising children and young people in residential care

10% of the Crossover Kids study group have experienced living in residential care – meaning that on any given day, more than half of all children in residential care will have had some interaction with youth justice.

This is irrefutable evidence that children in residential care environments are highly susceptible to being criminalised.

To address this we must:

  • Continue to invest in the professional development of the residential care workforce
  • Work towards reducing the over-reliance of casual and agency workers in residential care
  • Commit to placement matching principles that take into account the best interests of the child
  • Increase investment in high quality, evidence informed programs that aim to support children to return to their families or to live in a home based care environment

#4: We must provide therapeutic and rehabilitative support to children in care before they have serious contact with the justice system

The Crossover kids report provides concerning evidence that the most vulnerable children in Victoria – those who are living in out of home care, aged 10 to 13 often with complex intersecting challenges in their early lives – are most likely to become entrenched in the criminal justice system.

Instead of providing therapeutic and rehabilitative responses, we are locking away vulnerable children, setting them up for a trajectory of disenfranchisement and poor life outcomes.

To prevent this, we want the Victorian Government to act as a good parent would and ensure that there are holistic, individualised, ongoing supports to help young children in state care that have been sentenced or diverted.  One way of achieving this is through a dedicated key worker model that can advocate for children in youth justice.

#5:  We must implement clear legislative targets to keep governments accountable for reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in youth justice and child protection.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented at the acute ends of both the youth justice system and the child protection system. Simply put, we are still not closing the gap when it comes to equity and life outcomes between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Australians.

There is more that we can all do to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We believe one way that we can help is by ensuring that Government Ministers are held to account – through legislated targets – on their commitments to address over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection and youth justice.

#6: We must implement an agreement to reduce the criminalisation of young people in residential care in Victoria

The Victorian Government must urgently finalise and implement the ‘Working Together to Reduce the Criminalisation of Young People in Residential Care’ (Care not Custody) agreement. This agreement is needed now more than ever. The agreement must be have strong implementation support from Government, and it must also be complimented by ongoing investment into the professional development of the residential care workforce.  

 We now have clear and compelling evidence that children in residential care are more likely to be criminalised. We also know that this has a devastating long term impact for children – we are calling on the Victoria Government to sign and implement Care not Custody as a matter of urgent priority.

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