IMPROVING THE ODDS for WA's vulnerable children and young people - April 2019 - Commissioner for Children and Young People

IMPROVING THE ODDS for WA's vulnerable children and young people - April 2019 - Commissioner for Children and Young People
for WA’s vulnerable children and young people

April 2019
Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People
    The Commissioner for Children and Young People WA acknowledges the unique culture and
    heritage of our Aboriginal peoples and the contributions Aboriginal peoples have made and
    continue to make to Western Australian society. For the purposes of this publication, the term
    ‘Aboriginal’ is intended to encompass Western Australia’s diverse cultures and identities of the
    First Peoples of Western Australia and also recognises those of Torres Strait Islander descent
    who call Western Australia home.

    Suggested citation
    Commissioner for Children and Young People 2019, Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable
    children and young people, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Perth.

    The Commissioner for Children and Young People’s Vulnerability Speaker Series was proudly
    supported by Rio Tinto.

    Alternative formats
    On request, large print or alternative format copies of this report can be obtained from:
    Commissioner for Children and Young People WA
    Ground Floor, 1 Alvan Street, Subiaco WA 6008

    Telephone: 08 6213 2297

    ISBN: 978-0-9876376-1-1

    About the Commissioner
    The Commissioner for Children and Young People is the independent advocate for all children
    and young people in WA aged under 18 years.

    The role of the Commissioner is described in the Commissioner for Children and Young People
    Act 2006. The Act requires the Commissioner to give priority to, and have special regard for,
    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, and children and young people
    who are vulnerable or disadvantaged for any reason.

    The Commissioner talks to children and young people and others in the community about what
    children and young people need to be healthy and reach their potential, and considers research
    and evidence about children’s wellbeing.

    From this information the Commissioner works with children and young people, their families
    and government to improve policies, legislation and services that support children and young
    people’s wellbeing.

Message from the Commissioner............................................................................ 4

The Commissioner’s focus on vulnerability............................................................. 6

Overview of the research on vulnerability............................................................... 8

The views of children and young people............................................................... 12

Key learnings from the Vulnerability Speaker Series ........................................... 16

Discussion themes ............................................................................................... 19

Recommendations ............................................................................................... 28

Actions the Commissioner will undertake ............................................................. 30

Conclusion ............................................................................................................ 31

Appendices............................................................................................................ 32

Appendix One: Vulnerability Speaker Series attendees........................................ 33

Appendix Two: High level summary report - Aboriginal forum .............................. 34

References............................................................................................................ 36

                                    Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people                         3
Message from the
    It is a stark reality that despite the intentions   My predecessors and I have consulted
    and actions of governments and the                  thousands of children and young people on a
    community, too many Western Australian              range of issues and through this work many
    children and young people continue to               have highlighted their own experiences of
    experience significant adversity and                vulnerability.
                                                        The voices of the children and young people
    This is particularly the case for some              gathered by my office show us that there are
    Aboriginal children and young people, who           common underlying factors that contribute
    as a group experience significantly poorer          to vulnerability. These include poverty,
    health and wellbeing than the general               family violence, physical, emotional and
    population.                                         sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, disability,
                                                        discrimination and disadvantage.
    Western Australia has rising numbers
    of children and young people entering               Over the last year I have taken what young
    out-of-home care and seven per cent of              people have told us about their experiences
    our children and young people are living            and used these views to shape discussion
    in poverty. There are various statistics,           on what real change we are achieving.
    including suicide rates, disengagement from
    school and the number of young people in            My Vulnerability Speaker Series brought
    contact with the youth justice system, that         together government, service providers,
    show too many of our young people are               practitioners and researchers over the
    continuing to fall through the cracks.              last year to share information and devise
                                                        improved strategies for the WA community.
    The recent State Coroner’s Inquest into
    the deaths of thirteen children and young           What I found encouraging throughout
    persons in the Kimberley Region, Western            this Series was the strong interest from
    Australia and the Royal Commission into             government and non-government leaders
    Institutional Responses to Child Sexual             to hearing the views of children and young
    Abuse both add compelling reasons for a             people and a commitment to working
    renewed approach to our most vulnerable             towards reducing vulnerability.
    children and young people.
                                                        In roundtable discussions, leaders were both
    Vulnerability is complex, there is no quick         open and honest in outlining the challenges
    fix and no short-term response will achieve         their organisations face in best meeting the
    change on its own.                                  needs of vulnerable children and there was a
                                                        general acceptance that we need to improve
    We also know that without addressing                how we work together.
    the home, school and wider community
    environments in which children and young
    people live, programs and services are
    unlikely to be effective or sustainable.

This report is the culmination of the            I will be monitoring and reporting annually
Vulnerability Speaker Series and it contains     the progress towards reducing the number of
five key recommendations to government on        WA children and young people experiencing
a way forward to more sustainably address        vulnerability.
vulnerability in WA.
                                                 I urge government and the community to act
My key recommendation in this report is          upon this report and its recommendations
to establish a statewide Child Wellbeing         – our vulnerable children and young people
Strategy, with a priority on targeted, early     urgently need an improved approach.
intervention for vulnerable children, young
people and their families.

This strategy should set clear outcomes and
targets that can be measured to ensure we
                                                 COLIN PETTIT
are making progress.
                                                 Commissioner for Children and Young People
I have made a further four recommendations
for government on strengthening oversight,
enabling Aboriginal-led solutions and
building community capacity.

   “I do think I was vulnerable. And in a certain sense I do think I’m still
   vulnerable…I was out there by myself and I was naked to the world. I was
   desperately searching for things to grapple on to and slipping. I just needed
   someone to scoop me up and be like ‘I’m going this way, down here, this is
   where you’re supposed to go’.”
                                                                          Young person

                            Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people   5
The Commissioner’s focus
    on vulnerability
    Since its inception 12 years ago, the             Commissioner’s website. Four executive
    Commissioner for Children and Young               roundtables were held with guests including
    People’s office has advocated for the rights      government ministers and leaders from the
    and wellbeing of WA children and young            government, not for profit and business
    people, with particular priority for Aboriginal   sectors.
    children and young people and those who
    experience disadvantage for any reason.           As part of the Series, a one-day forum
                                                      was held and attended by 72 Aboriginal
    While many children and young people              leaders in WA to seek the views of Elders
    fare well and live in nurturing households        and Aboriginal people whose work involves
    and communities, some children and                supporting the wellbeing of Aboriginal
    young people who have participated in the         communities, children and young people.
    Commissioner’s consultations have shared          The forum included facilitated discussion on
    their insights and experiences of issues such     creating Aboriginal-led solutions to address
    as violence, abuse and neglect in the home,       the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children
    challenges with mental health, disability or      and young people in vulnerability measures.
    chronic health issues, disengagement from         Senior Aboriginal leaders who attended
    education, involvement in criminal activity       the forum made clear statements on what
    and alcohol and drug use.                         needs to change to improve outcomes for
                                                      Aboriginal children and young people.
    The persistent disadvantage and poorer
    outcomes experienced by vulnerable                This report on the Commissioner’s focus on
    children and young people in WA prompted          vulnerability draws together the learnings
    the Commissioner to focus on vulnerability        from the expert speaker presentations,
    by exploring current evidence and bringing        Aboriginal forum and executive roundtable
    government, service providers, practitioners      discussions. It concludes with the
    and researchers together to generate ideas        Commissioner’s recommendations to build
    and discussion aimed at developing more           on the current efforts to improve outcomes
    effective responses.                              for vulnerable children and young people in
                                                      WA. The Commissioner will monitor progress
    The Vulnerability Speaker Series involved         on these recommendations and continue to
    three public seminars with seven expert           work with agencies to advance solutions and
    guest speakers. Videos and slides from            advocate on behalf of vulnerable children
    the presentations and other resources             and young people.
    relating to the Series are available on the

Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people   7
Overview of the research
    on vulnerability
       “…it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies. My mum and my dad were both
       drug addicts, my dad was in and out of jail my whole life, there was a lot of
       domestic violence and mental health issues in the home. So at the age of 14
       my Mum took her life and then within that same week my Dad went back to
       jail so it was me and my brother just living together. He was 16 at the time so
       we were both going to school and working to try to pay off the mortgage.”
                                                                                Young person

    Risks                                             Drivers
    No single risk factor on its own causes           In order to reach their potential, children
    vulnerability and poorer outcomes for             and young people need to grow up in
    children and young people. Research shows         healthy, safe and nurturing environments,
    that risks are cumulative and their impact on     with positive and supportive relationships,
    children and young people vary depending          and opportunities to learn and participate
    on the child’s age, type of risk and length of    in their communities. Research indicates
    exposure.1,2                                      the key drivers of children’s development
                                                      and wellbeing are biology, the expectations
    Children and young people’s probability of        others hold and they have of themselves,
    experiencing vulnerability is often understood    and the opportunities available to them.3
    as the interplay between risk factors
    (circumstances or events that increase the
    likelihood of poor outcomes) and protective        Biology
    factors (attributes or conditions that moderate    Children’s physical, cognitive, social
    risk and promote healthy development               and emotional development is prompted
    and wellbeing). Protective factors include         by their biology. While the genes a
    growing up in a loving and safe environment        child inherits from their parents play a
    with positive family relationships, living in      significant role, they do not determine the
    adequate and stable housing, and having            child’s development and future pathways.
    access to quality education and to services        Children’s experiences in utero and
    that support their healthy development.            their environments, and experiences
                                                       and relationships in their early years of
    Therefore, strategies to address vulnerability
                                                       life are built into the architecture of the
    must respond to the multiple risks and
                                                       developing brain which influences their
    exposures to harm, as well as build the
                                                       physical and mental health, learning
    protective factors that positively influence
                                                       capacity and behaviour throughout life.4
    children and young people’s development
    and wellbeing.

drug use, violence, mental health issues,
 Expectations                                   harsh parenting or bullying is present.
 Children’s development is prompted by          Social and economic disadvantage can
 carers’ expectations about the capability      also significantly constrain children’s
 of their children to undertake tasks,          development and wellbeing and may be due
 achieve well and assume responsibility.        to family unemployment, lack of suitable
 Expectations of children also arise from       and affordable housing, illness or disability,
 other members of the child’s community         racism and other forms of discrimination.5,6
 such as teachers, peers and extended           This can then manifest in social exclusion
 family. This includes connection to culture    and inequality, which in turn limits access to
 and expectations set in a cultural context.    high quality child care, health care, schooling
 When the environments in which children        and employment opportunities.7,8
 grow up set high expectations of them,
                                                Furthermore, families who experience
 they are encouraged and enabled to
                                                poverty and other disadvantage are less
 achieve development milestones. This
                                                likely to have the capacity and resources to
 in turn influences self-expectations and
                                                provide a safe and enriching home learning
 confidence. On the other hand, low
                                                environment for their children.9 For example,
 expectations of individual children or
                                                low family income status, among other
 particular groups of children can constrain
                                                factors, has been identified as a barrier to
 their ability to grow, learn and achieve.
                                                parent-child reading that is crucial for young
                                                children’s literacy development and lifelong
 Opportunities                                  learning.10

 The opportunities young children have
 to engage with responsive caregivers
 and participate in stimulating activities      Children and young people who experience
 prompts their socio-emotional and brain        significant disadvantage and adversity in
 development. Opportunities to live in a        their early years can be set on a pathway
 safe and loving environment and have           of cumulative harm. If home, school and
 access to education, health care and           community environments do not offer the
 employment are also fundamental in             stability, safety and support these children
 shaping the wellbeing of children and          and young people need to overcome such
 young people. Experiences children and         challenges, they often seek a means of
 young people are exposed to such as            escape that can lead to drug and alcohol
 sport and recreational activities, meeting     use, mental health problems, school
 new people, and travel to new places are       exclusion, homelessness and criminal
 also influential.                              behaviour.11 As they accumulate new
                                                traumatic experiences along this trajectory,
                                                opportunities diminish, they become further
Constraints                                     marginalised and their disadvantage
There are a number of factors that can          deepens.
constrain the development of children
and young people and have longer-               In the absence of appropriate resources
term impacts on their wellbeing and life        and opportunities at the right time to
outcomes. These include poverty, stress,        support vulnerable children and young
trauma (from physical, emotional and            people, the outcomes of these trajectories
sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to          can include disengagement from learning,
family violence) and family dysfunction         unemployment and mental health issues,
including environments where alcohol and        as well as more extreme outcomes.

                          Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people        9
These include sustained homelessness,               •• in-reach family support services that are
     multiple placements in out-of-home care,               strengths-based and non-judgemental
     repeat involvement with youth justice,
                                                         •• tailored, flexible support that meets the
     suicide or permanent injury following risky
                                                            needs of each family.
     behaviour, entrenched vulnerability to
     abuse and neglect, and early parenthood           The role of the broader community as
     without adequate parenting capacity or            well as families in supporting children
     preparedness for adult life.12                    and young people is also significant.
                                                       Emerging international research highlights
     However, it is the unique and complex mix         a mismatch of resources to need whereby
     of biology, expectations, opportunities, and      an estimated one in five (20 per cent) of the
     the families and environments children and        most vulnerable children and young people
     young people grow up in that shapes their         in a community do not receive help from
     long-term wellbeing and life outcomes.            intensive support services.14
     Furthermore, vulnerable children and young
     people often demonstrate great resilience         Rather, the majority of children and young
     in the face of adversity and remain active        people who do receive intensive support
     agents in how their life experiences play out.    services are not those in greatest need.15
     This largely depends on the support and           Some children and young people identified
     care they receive to persevere in the face        as being most vulnerable receive help
     of adversity and the opportunities they are       from society (including family, neighbours,
     given to make meaningful choices about            mentors) however, an estimated one in 20
     their lives and reach their potential.            receive no support from services or society.16
                                                       Furthermore, if vulnerability is not identified
                                                       early enough, there are missed opportunities
     Community                                         for prevention or mitigation of risks and
     Families are one of the most influential          service responses may be less effective
     factors on the wellbeing of children and          later.
     young people. Strong family relationships
                                                       In addition to targeted services and
     are associated with positive outcomes
                                                       programs, the broader community, including
     for children as they tend to provide an
                                                       families, neighbours, school staff and other
     environment which fosters the development
                                                       local community members, also play a
     of high self-esteem, provides positive role
                                                       significant role in supporting vulnerable
     models and assists children to cope with
                                                       children and young people, both to mitigate
     adverse life experiences and stress.13
                                                       the need for service intervention early on
     Therefore it is essential to build the capacity
                                                       and later if children and young people fall
     of parents, caregivers and families so they
                                                       through gaps in the service system.
     are supported to provide environments in
     which their children can be healthy, safe,
     engaged in learning and have opportunities        Relationships
     to thrive.
                                                       There is growing recognition of the
     Features of the support important for families    importance of human connection and
     and caregivers include:                           relationships for individual and societal
       •• proactive early intervention support         wellbeing.17,18

       •• approaches that break the cycle of           The Commissioner’s School and Learning
          family intergenerational involvement         consultation with almost 2,000 WA school
          with statutory services                      students identified quality interpersonal

relationships, with friends, other students,       These include having:
teachers and other school staff, as well
                                                     •• structure and limits and reasonable
as with their families, as the foundation
                                                        consequences for their actions
for students’ engagement with school and
learning.19 These relationships foster a             •• a powerful identity
sense of belonging and of feeling valued,            •• a sense of control over their lives
and enable students to develop patterns                 and believing in their own capacity to
of persistence and motivation and have                  overcome hardship
access to a support network. This is
important in the context of vulnerability as         •• fair and just treatment in their
strong engagement with school can provide               communities
an important source of early intervention            •• physical and psychological safety
and support for vulnerable children and
                                                     •• a sense of belonging, life purpose and
young people and prevent escalating
poor outcomes associated with school
disengagement.                                     Building respectful, trusting relationships
                                                   with vulnerable children and young people
The research of Dr Michael Ungar, the              has a powerful impact and can be the
Commissioner’s 2014 Thinker in Residence,          circuit breaker that disrupts their trajectory
highlighted the crucial role of relationships to   of vulnerability and creates a pathway for
mitigate the negative impact of experiences        positive change.23 The characteristics of
of harm and adversity.20 His research              families, community members and workers
on resilience found children who have a            who engage with vulnerable children and
positive, adaptive response in the face of         young people are therefore pivotal.
significant adversity had at least one stable,
caring and supportive relationship with a          Emerging research into ‘relational capability’
parent, caregiver or other adult.21 These          identifies some of the core characteristics
relationships provide the personalised             among workers who excel in relationships.
responsiveness, support and protection that        These include optimism (a belief that almost
buffer children from developmental disruption      everyone is capable of change and that
due to adversity.                                  those facing huge challenges are ‘victims
                                                   of circumstance’ rather than bad people),
Dr Ungar’s research also identified other          empathy, emotional maturity, tenacity, and
important factors that support children’s          passion.24 Fostering the development and
positive, adaptive responses when exposed          application of these skills and qualities
to adversity, which is strongly influenced         among workers and the broader community
through the relationships with adults in their     is important to enable people to build
lives.                                             relationships with, and effectively support,
                                                   vulnerable children and young people.

                            Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people        11
The views of children and
     young people
     Since 2007, the Commissioner has                 Safe and supported
     consulted children and young people across
     WA on a variety of issues and themes. Many       Children and young people clearly articulate
     of these consultations have focused on           the importance of feeling safe in their home,
     children and young people who experience         school and community environments, having
     adversity or disadvantage, including those       stability in their home life, and their desire for
     who:                                             strong boundaries and lots of support.
       •• have disability
       •• are culturally and linguistically diverse      “A stable environment to go to. They’ll
                                                         allow you to say what you want to
       •• identify as LGBTI                              say and not tell you to quiet down;
       •• have experience in out-of-home care            a positive place. Sometimes home
                                                         isn’t the best place to talk about your
       •• have been involved in the youth justice
                                                         problems. A physically and mentally
                                                         safe environment.”
       •• have experience of homelessness.
                                                      Children and young people overwhelmingly
     This includes priority attention to              identify family and strong family relationships
     Aboriginal children and young people             as central and formative in their lives. They
     who are overrepresented in measures              commonly discuss the importance of loving,
     of disadvantage and vulnerability. From          supportive families, being loved and cared
     these consultations, children and young          for and having respectful and trusting long-
     people’s views on the underlying causes          term relationships with family.
     of vulnerability and what they need to build
     their resilience and reach their potential
     became clear. Their views are presented             “Family things are important as they
     within the domains of the Commissioner’s            give you good memories, role models,
     Wellbeing Monitoring Framework:                     a safe home and support.”
       •• Safe and supported
       •• Healthy and connected                          “My Mum and my Nan have really
                                                         been the rocks of my life and they’ve
       •• Learning and participating.25
                                                         always stuck like glue and stuck
                                                         everyone together. Without them I
                                                         don’t think I would have gotten as
                                                         far, without their encouragement and

                                                      For young people who lack a stable,
                                                      nurturing family, sources of support may
                                                      come from building a relationship with
                                                      another adult in their lives, such as a teacher

or support worker. Young people have said it     Healthy and connected
is important these adults are able to support
them in a way that respects their autonomy.      Children and young people express a holistic
                                                 view of health and wellbeing that includes
                                                 physical, mental, emotional and social
  “I was sent to a leaving care service
  and I was speaking with a youth
  worker who really made me believe
  in myself, in who I was as a person               “For me to be healthy I have to be
  and showed me that I could be what I              happy, feel safe, feel comfortable,
  wanted. I wasn’t this kid in care, I was          enjoy the people that I’m around, and
  just [name]. And she’s been in my life            to be healthy is not only not to be sick.”
  for four years now and it’s the closest
  attachment I’ve ever had to having a
                                                    “[To have a healthy and happy life,
  parental figure or a mother/daughter
                                                    I need] acceptance, inclusion, to be
                                                    seen as a person with potential and for
                                                    help to reach that potential.”
Children and young people commonly
describe the value of people who provide
sources of support and role modelling               “…in hindsight I now see that there
in their lives, particularly those who set          were also things that were missing in
high expectations of them and give them             my life…until I was maybe 14, I felt
opportunities to achieve. People who spend          like I had to be there for my parents
time and connect with young people, and             instead of my parents being there
independent people and supports outside             for me... having that lack of healthy
of the young person’s immediate network of          attachment, led to some significant
family or peers are also highly valued.             mental health issues for me.”

                                                 Children and young people often talk about
  “[I] need help from teachers, homework
                                                 the importance of feeling connected to
  centres, mentors, family and most of all
                                                 their community and to support networks,
  a lot of role models that are showing a
                                                 and feeling a sense of belonging and how
  lot of young kids like me that they can
                                                 this positively influences their wellbeing. In
  be somebody.”
                                                 particular, they describe the value of having
                                                 someone in their lives they trust and feel
  “A bit more positive role models…just          connected to, whether that be a parent,
  to help the younger kids get back on           carer, teacher, Elder, service worker or
  track, tell ‘em, sorta like, tell ‘em what     friend.
  the consequences are really. And they
  need to do stuff with ‘em a lot more –            “I reckon everyone needs one good
  instead of being out on the streets. I            friend, one person that you can just tell
  think that could take their mind off of           everything.”
  stealing, drinking, smoking, and that
  sort of stuff.”                                Aboriginal children and young people say
                                                 Aboriginal culture and traditional values,
                                                 such as respect for Elders, sharing and
                                                 being close to family, and connection to
                                                 country, is of great importance to their
                                                 identity and wellbeing.

                           Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people       13
“[Culture] tells me who I am and makes         “For me, a person with a disability,
        me feel good. It makes me feel like I          [school] was a terrible, discriminatory
        belong somewhere.”                             experience for me. They did not accept
                                                       me… People still treat me like I’m
                                                       worthless. People don’t respect me.
        “For me [what’s important is] learning         People don’t believe in me.”
        about my culture and knowing how
        I relate to it and being able to spend
        time learning about my culture with my         “At school I’ve been kind of getting
        grandmother and family and [to] be             bullied. So it’s hard for me cos my
        shown the different types of things and        grades aren’t that good because I’m
        responsibilities.”                             worrying about myself being hurt or
                                                       something, so it’s hard for me. I like
                                                       school but sometimes I don’t even
     Learning and participating                        want to go to school because of it.”
     Schooling has a strong influence on a child’s
     future pathway into employment and further      What works for children and
     education and success at school is an
     important pathway out of intergenerational      young people
     disadvantage. Children and young people
                                                     Children and young people who participated
     strongly identify the need and value in going
                                                     in the Commissioner’s School and Learning
     to school to get a good education, a good
                                                     consultation shared a range of ideas on the
     job and a better life. They express a very
                                                     support they need in challenging times and
     clear understanding about the connections
                                                     how this support can be most effectively
     between a good education and a good
     quality of life.
                                                     Improving education and training for
        “Every kid in the state (should) go          workers
        to school so they can get a better
        education and life so when they grow           “I think we need more education for
        up they can understand themselves              the teachers and the principals and the
        and people will respect them.”                 EAs and all the staff. More PDs, more
                                                       training, more workshops, hands-on
                                                       workshops about disability just to make
        “Education [gives you a] better chance         sure that people with disability enjoy
        in life. Because without it, you won’t         school and not hate it, and not have a
        get a job.”                                    bad experience. I think for me the most
                                                       important thing is for people to have an
     Children and young people commonly                open-mindedness, an open attitude,
     described disengagement from school as            and be very positive, not negative
     significantly contributing to poor outcomes.      against disability.”
     Feeling out of place and unwelcome
     at school, experiencing bullying and
     discrimination, finding school boring, a lack     “I think if my mental health was taken
     of support educationally and financially,         more seriously rather than put down
     and suspension or expulsion have all been         to behavioural problems and that I
     discussed by young people as leading to           was just acting out, I think I wouldn’t
     disengagement from school and learning.           have ended up so unwell or so lost in

myself, and wondering what was going               “Well first of all they should build
  on in my head. I felt like a lost little girl      relationships, bonding with the kids.
  that missed out on that childhood of               They should take an interest in what
  growing up and being happy. I think I              the kids like and want to do and stuff
  needed to be taken more seriously.”                like that. But after that they should
                                                     help the kids you know, become
Building relationships with young people             independent people.”

  “I think supporting young people when           Providing more support for families
  you are working for the department,
  under your policies and procedures                 “Supporting families, making sure
  can be really difficult but that’s when            the families know how to give [young
  a lot of them stand back and be really,            people] the life that they deserve.”
  really professional and it’s just…I like
  to know the person I’m working with
  a little bit. I don’t want to know if like,        “To support Aboriginal children
  you’re married or your personal life, but          and their families, I think that there
  I want to know something about you                 should be a more clear focus on our
  like your favourite colour, your favourite         culture and togetherness because in
  food, or something that makes me                   Aboriginal culture it’s a real big thing
  think you’re another human being, not              that everyone’s together and everyone
  just someone behind an office chair.”              is family, that’s our mob.”

                                                  Having expectations of young people and
  “Not always by the books and big                creating opportunities so they can build a
  words in counselling, like across a             sense of hope for their future
  desk from each other. A lot of kids find
  that really intimidating. Go take them             “…to not give up on us as people
  down the beach and kick a footy or                 even when you might think that there’s
  play some basketball or do some yoga.              no hope. There’s always hope for
  Do some stuff that they get into, that             someone to change. If people give
  they can get something from as well,               up hope, why should we have hope
  instead of making it so clinical.”                 in ourselves? I struggled on my own,
                                                     like believing in myself and to have
Building young people’s autonomy                     someone else believe in me was what
                                                     made me think that I could believe in
  “I believe that people who want to work            myself.”
  with young children, they need to be
  understanding and empathetic and
  they have to know that not every child             “Since I have been in high school,
  is the same so don’t treat them like               a lot of programs have been like
  they are the same and they all have                Follow the Dream, tutoring for
  different problems and, you know, don’t            Indigenous students, it’s like a real
  try to enforce your decisions on them.             family there and it is really nice to be
  Let them make up a decision on their               able to be around people who also
  own.”                                              celebrate good grades and academic

                            Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people    15
Key learnings from the
     Vulnerability Speaker Series
     The Commissioner’s focus on vulnerability       Winthrop Professor Donna Cross
     in 2018 generated learnings, ideas and          ‘The lived experience of poverty
     strategies to inform the development            among children’
     of more effective responses to improve
                                                      •• Poverty can have immediate and
     outcomes for vulnerable children and
                                                         long-term impacts on children’s brain
     young people in WA. The information was
                                                         development and health.
     gathered from the contributions of expert
     guest speakers, government ministers and         •• Children who grow up in poverty may
     MPs, and senior representatives from ten            have difficulty learning and at school.
     government agencies, two peak bodies,               They may find it difficult to adapt,
     three universities, multiple non-government         concentrate, manage their behaviour
     organisations, and senior Aboriginal leaders        and emotions, and work with others.
     in WA (Appendix One).                               This can create an educational
                                                         achievement gap between poor children
                                                         and their more advantaged peers.
     Evidence and ideas from
                                                      •• Poverty can limit parents’ ability to
     guest speakers                                      provide consistent and responsive care,
                                                         and a stimulating learning environment
     Winthrop Professor Stephen Zubrick
                                                         for their child.
     ‘Vulnerability: risks, predictions,
     outcomes’                                        •• It is important to understand the
                                                         lived experience of poverty from the
       •• The key drivers of children’s
                                                         perspective of the child – children often
          development are their biology, the
                                                         describe how poverty impacts their
          expectations others hold and they have
                                                         sense of security, friendships, leisure
          of themselves, and the opportunities
                                                         activities, social participation, schooling
          available to them.
                                                         and aspirations for the future.
       •• Children develop in place, in context
          and in time and are impacted by            Professor Alan Duncan ‘Exploring the
          national and global policies and events.   economic impact of vulnerability to
       •• Avoid focusing too heavily on individual
          risks of children becoming vulnerable       •• Approximately 7.2 per cent of all
          as it places too much responsibility on        children and young people in WA under
          individuals and does not recognise the         the age of 15 years are living below
          systemic and structural influences that        the 50 per cent poverty line (standard
          contribute to vulnerability.                   poverty measure), while approximately
                                                         3 per cent are living below 30 per cent
       •• Place-based policies and practices
                                                         of median income (severe poverty
          are important because initiatives
          can be tailored to the developmental
          circumstances of the local child
          population to address the actual need.

•• Children in single parent families face a       •• a Child Impact Assessment Tool that
     far higher risk of poverty. They are more          every government department has to
     likely to experience financial hardship            use in constructing any law or policy to
     and material deprivation.                          assess it against how it affects children
  •• In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait      •• a Child Poverty Reduction Bill,
     Islanders have median household                    introduced in 2018, requiring the
     incomes 20 per cent lower than other               government to set and report on three-
     households.                                        year and 10-year targets on child
                                                        poverty levels
  •• Markers of emotional vulnerability,
     exclusion and financial hardship has            •• a Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy to
     increased for families with children and           drive outcome-based policy and action
     young people across the last decade.               on children’s wellbeing with a particular
  •• There is strong evidence poverty has               focus on vulnerable children.
     a scarring effect on young adults who
                                                   Professor Leah Bromfield
     leave a family home that is under
                                                   ‘Effective strategies to prevent and
     financial distress and adversely impacts
                                                   address child abuse and neglect’
     their future economic and social
     outcomes.                                     Some of the implications from the Australian
                                                   Centre for Children Protection’s research into
Judge Andrew Becroft                               the child protection system in South Australia
‘Better outcomes for NZ’s most needy               are the need to:
under 18 year olds: what’s hot and                   •• build robust mechanisms for oversight
what’s not?’                                            of the child protection system
New Zealand has implemented a number                 •• focus on key prevention strategies
of strategies that are seeking to improve               including: reducing the pregnancy
outcomes for all children and young people,             rates for teens with maltreatment/
but particularly those who experience                   trauma history; interventions for young
vulnerability. These include:                           parents with trauma histories which are
                                                        designed to respond to family violence,
  •• the Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for
                                                        alcohol and drug use and mental health
     Children; most of the children and
                                                        issues; and delaying future pregnancies
     young people referred to the Ministry
                                                        for first-time adolescent parents
     are living in families with multiple and
     complex needs                                   •• provide families who have multiple
                                                        children chronically involved in child
  •• the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989
                                                        protection with high quality, intensive,
     (Children’s and Young People’s
                                                        culturally competent interventions
     Wellbeing Act) which now requires any
     written decisions to include the child’s or     •• address intergenerational trauma and
     young person’s views                               abuse among children of the families
                                                        involved in child protection
  •• the Vulnerable Children Act 2014
     that sets priorities for improving the          •• reform child protection triage and
     wellbeing of vulnerable children and               assessment to move away from an
     young people                                       incident-based system to a system that
                                                        is child and family centred so they can
                                                        be provided with the right support at the
                                                        right time.

                           Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people         17
Winthrop Professor Helen Milroy                   Mr Mick Gooda
     ‘Intergenerational trauma and                     ‘Re-setting relations and place-based
     vulnerability’                                    approaches’
      •• Australia is yet to understand and
                                                        •• There is a need to reset relationships
         acknowledge the magnitude of the
                                                           between Aboriginal people and non-
         historical and contemporary trauma
                                                           Aboriginal people in order to move
         experienced by Aboriginal people.
                                                           forward and create change.
      •• Anyone whose work involves Aboriginal
                                                        •• Service delivery in Aboriginal
         children and young people (including
                                                           communities is severely fragmented.
         teachers, workers in child protection,
                                                           Responses must be place-based,
         mental health and youth justice) must
                                                           designed by people in that community
         be trauma competent – better training is
                                                           so it is tailored to local circumstances
         needed for all these workers.
                                                           and the community’s needs.
      •• We cannot address the vulnerability of
                                                        •• Government needs to decentralise
         Aboriginal children in isolation from their
                                                           power and delegate decision-making
         family, community and culture.
                                                           authority to local and regional levels,
      •• Pathways to healing that address                  and not only fund the delivery of
         trauma, grief, powerlessness and                  services but fund and resource the
         incorporate Aboriginal knowledge                  process of governance for Aboriginal
         systems and healing practices are                 organisations.
         essential to move forward.
                                                        •• The Bourke community in NSW is an
      •• Aboriginal children need strong, safe,            example of good practice. Partnerships
         enduring relationships with carers and            between the community and services
         early, comprehensive and collaborative            are based on mutual trust, respect
         intervention services that build on the           and commitment, and the community
         strengths of Aboriginal people and                requires services to be culturally
         culture.                                          competent, build the capacity of
                                                           local Aboriginal people and have an
                                                           Aboriginal employment strategy.

Discussion themes
The following is a summary of the ideas and      the developing brain whereby significant
evidence from the presentations and the          stress from ongoing hardship disrupts the
discussions at the executive roundtables and     biological foundations of learning, behaviour
Aboriginal forum in the Vulnerability Speaker    and health, which can have lifelong
Series.                                          damaging consequences.28

Prioritising children                            Families in poverty are more likely to
                                                 have limited capacity and resources
A core theme throughout all the discussions      to provide a safe and enriching home
in the Series was the need for children          learning environment for their children.29
to be prioritised at the forefront of all        ‘Working poor’ families (employed, cash-
considerations and decision-making to            poor time-poor families who tend to live
ensure their rights and best interests are       in disadvantaged areas) are a group
upheld at all times. The importance of           recognised as having less time for the
building greater understanding that children’s   care of their children, being less likely
wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the    to be eligible for, or receive a lower
entire community was also highlighted.           level of, income support, and having
                                                 less disposable income to divert to child
 Suggested actions                               care and developmental resources and
 All government departments and service
 providers need to assess the impact of          In WA, children in the ‘working poor’ group
 proposed laws and policies and their            show no improvement in their development
 programs on the rights and wellbeing of         from four to eight years, consistently
 children and young people. WA should            remaining six months behind their
 develop Child Impact Assessments to             developmentally enabled peers.31 This has
 ensure the best interests of children           important policy implications as it suggests
 are upheld in every policy, program and         a need to change policies and programs
 service.                                        that determine threshold barriers to access
                                                 support and services in order to redress
Poverty                                          inequities in family income, enable a more
                                                 equitable distribution of opportunities for
Poverty was consistently raised throughout       parental education and training, and improve
the Series as one of the most significant        access to high quality early childhood
contributors to vulnerability among children,    education and care in disadvantaged areas.
young people and families.
                                                 The work undertaken in New Zealand to
There is a strong link between family poverty    prepare a Child Poverty Reduction Bill was
and a range of poorer outcomes in life,          discussed by stakeholders at the Series and
including limited school achievement and         suggested as an approach Australia could
lifetime income, lifelong impairments in         explore.
physical and mental health, and premature
death.26 Early childhood is a particularly        Suggested actions
sensitive period in which economic
deprivation may compromise children’s             A whole-of-government response to
outcomes in later life.27 Poverty can affect      reducing childhood poverty should be
                                                  considered at a national level.

                          Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people       19
                                                     Suggested actions
     A number of presenters and stakeholders at
     the Series described how trauma underpins       All services and organisations that
     the poor long-term outcomes for many            support vulnerable children and young
     vulnerable children and young people.           people must be trauma-competent.
                                                     This means the workforce must be
     Trauma can include physical, emotional          appropriately trained and skilled in
     and sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to          trauma-informed practice.
     family violence, random violence and
     abandonment, as well as experiences such
     as severe illness and bullying, poverty and
     homelessness. If young people do not
                                                    Aboriginal disadvantage
     have adequate opportunities to receive         The range of evidence and discussion on
     support and manage their trauma, they may      vulnerability through the Series highlighted
     internalise their experiences and create       that Aboriginal children and young people
     their own means of coping.32 This can          are disproportionately affected across all
     result in destructive behaviours such as       areas of disadvantage.
     high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, self-
     harm, suicide attempts, criminal behaviour     Despite significant investment and policy
     and interaction with the justice system,       commitments, including the Council
     detachment from culture and family support,    of Australian Governments’ (COAG)
     and disengagement from school.33,34            commitment to close the gap in Indigenous
                                                    disadvantage in 2007, there has been little
     The findings from the Royal Commission         progress in improving wellbeing among
     into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual   Aboriginal children and young people.37
     Abuse highlight the profound and lasting       They continue to be overrepresented in
     impact of trauma on the lives of victims, in   vulnerability measures including poverty,
     their childhood and throughout their adult     out-of-home care, youth justice involvement,
     lives. This includes the detrimental impacts   homelessness and mental health issues.
     child sexual abuse can have on a person’s
     mental and physical health, interpersonal      Addressing the underlying causes of the
     relationships, connection to culture,          poor health and wellbeing in Aboriginal
     sexual and gender identity, education and      communities is essential to most effectively
     employment.35 These interconnected impacts     bring about change, and trauma is an
     can be experienced at the same time or         important component of this. Trauma is a
     consecutively as a cascade of effects over     pervasive and complex aspect of the lives of
     a lifetime. For example, many survivors who    Aboriginal people, operating at an individual,
     spoke to the Royal Commission described        collective and community level, with
     how they developed addictions after using      historical and contemporary manifestations.38
     alcohol or other drugs to manage the           Aboriginal people have been exposed to
     psychological trauma of abuse, which in turn   generations of trauma through colonisation,
     affected their physical and mental health,     dispossession, assimilation, child removal
     sometimes leading to criminal behaviour and    policies and marginalisation.39 The
     relationship difficulties.36                   magnitude and compounding nature of
                                                    intergenerational trauma experienced by
                                                    Aboriginal people is still not adequately
                                                    recognised in Australia. Acknowledging and
                                                    understanding intergenerational trauma is an
                                                    essential step in the healing process that is

needed to improve outcomes for Aboriginal            to lead the solutions to improve the
children and young people and their                  wellbeing of Aboriginal children, young
families. This requires increased community          people and families.
recognition of the impact of trauma and
                                                  •• Resource Aboriginal community-
greater investment in the delivery of trauma-
                                                     controlled organisations to deliver
informed care and development of a trauma-
                                                     services and build community capacity.
competent workforce. Healing processes
in communities, which include a focus on          •• Build policies to drive Aboriginal
addressing intergenerational trauma, are an          economic participation and
essential first step.                                development.
                                                  •• Advocate for an Aboriginal
All support services and approaches to
                                                     Commissioner for Children and Young
address trauma must embed opportunities to
strengthen Aboriginal culture and identity,40
and harness the knowledge and practices           •• Programs and services working in
of Aboriginal communities to provide safe,           the Aboriginal community must be
nurturing environments and holistic care             Aboriginal-led, rights-based, client
to their vulnerable children and families.41         (child) centred, place-based, evaluated
The Commissioner has consulted many                  and appropriately resourced.
Aboriginal children and young people in WA        •• Mainstream services must build their
and they have consistently described the             cultural competence, including trauma-
importance of strong culture and identity to         informed practices, to ensure Aboriginal
their wellbeing.                                     people always have access to culturally
                                                     safe support.
 Suggested actions                              The statements from the senior Aboriginal
                                                leaders at the forum clearly call for new ways
 Acknowledging and understanding the
                                                of working with Aboriginal communities.
 intergenerational trauma experienced by
                                                This means rather than Aboriginal people
 Aboriginal people is an essential first step
                                                being ‘engaged’ or ‘consulted’ as ‘advisors’
 of the healing process that is necessary
                                                or ‘co-designers’ of services and policies,
 to improve outcomes for Aboriginal
                                                they are authorised and empowered to own,
 children, young people and families.
                                                direct and make strategic decisions about
 All services and programs must build           policies, funding and allocation of resources,
 their cultural competency and ensure           program/service design, implementation and
 Aboriginal children and young people’s         evaluation.42
 needs are addressed in the context of
                                                The two-page high level summary of issues
 their family, community and culture.
                                                and solutions raised by Aboriginal people is
                                                available in Appendix Two. The full summary
Aboriginal-led solutions                        report on the Aboriginal forum is available on
                                                the Commissioner’s website.
Senior Aboriginal leaders who attended
the forum made clear statements on what         The recommendations put forward by
needs to change to improve outcomes for         Aboriginal leaders align with the WA Service
Aboriginal children and young people in WA.     Priority Review’s recommendation that
Key messages from the leaders:                  government considers the establishment
                                                of a formal, upgraded representative
  •• Transfer power and responsibility to       voice for Aboriginal people in the State,
     Aboriginal people and communities          possibly at regional levels, and to negotiate

                          Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people       21
agreements with regional Aboriginal              •• invest in each community’s social
     groups to progress the economic and                 and physical capital, such as
     social aspirations of Aboriginal people.43          physical infrastructure, and activities
     The Review acknowledges that in order to            that enhance social cohesion and
     effectively address Aboriginal aspirations          community safety and encourage young
     and disadvantage there will need to be              people to establish connections with
     an adjustment to the internal systems and           their local community47
     processes with which the public sector
                                                      •• long-term, consultative and tailored
                                                         in response to the strengths, needs
      Suggested actions                                  and aspirations of children and young
                                                         people and their community.48
      Begin a process of decentralising             Importantly, place‐based approaches can
      power and transferring responsibility to      operate in conjunction with traditional
      Aboriginal people and communities to          models of service delivery to develop
      lead the solutions and build local capacity   innovative local solutions and facilitate
      to improve the wellbeing of Aboriginal        multiagency collaboration.49 This can enable
      children, young people and families.          service systems and communities to work
      Aboriginal leadership is needed at            together to address disadvantage through
      the very top of government as well            coordinated and collaborative policies and
      as recognised representative groups           programs that are responsive to local needs
      working across WA to influence decision       and conditions in each community. The
      makers.                                       commissioning, design and implementation
                                                    of integrated place-based service systems
                                                    requires significant government commitment
     Place-based initiatives                        and resource investment, supported by
                                                    public and community sector leadership to
     Participants in the Series emphasised the      achieve sustainable improvements.
     positive outcomes that can be achieved
     for vulnerable and disadvantaged families
     and communities through place-based             Suggested actions
     responses, and provided some best practice
                                                     Greater investment in place-based
     examples of these.
                                                     approaches is needed to enable
     Place-based approaches involve                  communities to design and deliver
     “…stakeholders engaging in a collaborative      interventions at a local level to address
     process to address issues as they are           the needs of vulnerable children and
     experienced within a geographic space,          young people and families.
     be it a neighbourhood, a region or an
     ecosystem.”45 Features of effective place-
     based approaches to address vulnerability      Child-centred approaches
     and disadvantage among children and
     families include:                              Child-centred approaches to supporting
                                                    children and young people’s wellbeing
       •• coordinated provision of evidence-        and addressing underlying causes of
          based prevention and early intervention   vulnerability were consistently emphasised
          services to work with young people and    by stakeholders at the Series. Child-centred
          families previously disengaged from       approaches involve an understanding of the
          support services and those from groups    child as a whole and all the different factors
          considered ‘hard to reach’46              that influence their wellbeing. This means

approaches that incorporate their individual    Early intervention
needs, views, strengths and capacity, as well
as their families and the environments they     It was discussed regularly throughout the
grow up in.                                     Series that the most effective approaches
                                                to optimise children and young people’s
Ensuring children and young people’s            development and wellbeing are prevention
environments, in particular the institutions    (preventing problems and identifying needs
they attend, are child safe is essential.       through universal services) and early
The Royal Commission into Institutional         intervention (targeted, intensive support for
Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made            those in need).52
important recommendations on making
communities and institutions child safe         Early identification of vulnerability among
through prevention strategies and proposed      children, young people and families is critical
a set of ten Child Safe Standards.50            in order to target strategies that prevent
The Commissioner’s work on child safe           risks from escalating and accumulating. This
organisations provides a foundation to          requires proactive models of engagement
support the implementation of child safe        that focus on the very young within families
principles and practices in organisations in    and define risk groupings based on multiple
WA.51 Child safe organisations value and        factors to help target strategies that provide
protect children and proactively implement      timely, cost-effective intervention services
strategies to enhance the overall experiences   to children and families who are most
of children they engage with, balancing the     vulnerable.53
focus on child safety with continued positive
interactions and environments that contribute   Well-evidenced prevention and early
to healthy development.                         intervention services must be better
                                                resourced to ensure they are appropriately
An important component of child safe            targeted and most effectively delivered
organisations is ensuring children are          to vulnerable children, young people and
empowered to participate and share their        families. High quality early childhood
views. This requires organisations to embed     programs that focus on maternal and child
processes that incorporate a commitment         health, early learning and positive parenting
to listening to children and young people’s     are particularly important as they can build
voices and factoring their views into           strong foundations for children’s wellbeing
their decision-making. This includes            early on and prevent or mitigate the need for
understanding children and young people’s       more intensive support services later in their
experience of service delivery in order to      lives.54
provide support in the right way to achieve
positive outcomes.                              Encouraging government investment
                                                in early intervention can be supported
                                                by collaborative research across the
 Suggested actions
                                                public, community and academic sectors
 Continue to invest in building child safe      to demonstrate the fiscal cost of late
 organisations. This requires organisations     intervention.55 Such research can identify
 to embed processes that incorporate a          preventable costs incurred by the public
 commitment to listening to children and        sector for children and young people who
 young people’s voices, factoring their         go on to become involved with statutory
 views into their decision-making and           services and provide a platform to advocate
 empowering their participation.                for evidence-informed early intervention

                         Improving the odds for WA’s vulnerable children and young people         23
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