“It wasn’t just listening to your ideas, it was following through”
In 2019 and 2020, a group of young people with firsthand experience in out-of-home care joined PhD candidate Meaghan Vosz to research the practices associated with ‘giving due weight’ to the views of children and young people in policy making in Australia. They observed over 100 people engaged in policy making across six state and national sites, and interviewed nine senior policy actors about their practices, as well as what enables or constrains giving due weight. In October 2020, they co-created an eBook for policy actors including the six practices found to be associated with ‘giving due weight’ in Through our eyes: Giving due weight to children and young people in policy making. In this blog, four co-researchers share their views about participation, and their advice for TRC and other OOHC workers about taking young people seriously.
Ben moved around a lot while in care, and felt this created a barrier to his participation. He has been studying at a regional university in 2020, and now lives with other students. He says his wishes were ignored when planning for leaving care.
“the biggest example of that would have been my case plan, just before I turned 18, so it was a leaving care plan. I was trying to express the stuff that I needed from the department to move forward. And unfortunately it kind of felt like, ‘well, we’re done with you now, off you go’. Which was quite upsetting, you know, and when I got the case plan, everything that I had asked for, and everything that I thought was needed, was left out.”
On leaving care at 17, Ben connected with the Premier’s Youth Initiative. He explains that he finally felt like he was being taken seriously:
“… then moving into the Premier’s Youth Initiative, there was almost a complete change of mentality. It wasn’t just listening to your ideas, but it was, you know, following through with it. And within a week of them knowing that I wanted to get into university, I had constant meetings with them to organise ways to do it”.
Bonnie now lives and works in Sydney, after many years advocating for herself and her sisters in care. She remembers keenly the barriers to participation that she faced on a daily basis. They include: not being heard on important matters, like contact with an abusive family member, and difficulty getting workers to take her seriously.
“Like honestly, getting a say would only, they would only hear you if it was convenient for them… I mean, like I was being listened to, but I didn’t feel like it was like, ‘wow, we need to act on this’. So it’s just kind of like, ‘wow, good say’, but not like ‘this needs to be addressed.’”
In our research, Bonnie stood up in front of more than 60 policy actors to advocate for the involvement of children and young people with care experiences. She says it was “scary… I was just really frustrated”. Bonnie talks about the difference she experienced being supported to make decisions and take steps towards her life goals when she joined the Premier’s Youth Initiative in NSW. Bonnie has firm advice for workers about young people’s participation:
“Make a plan, okay, this is what we have to do to show that we’ve heard you and show that we’re going to take action… Most young people who are in care have been dealt with rejection, disappointment, their whole lives – that’s what coming out of domestic abusive homes is – and going into a system …
It takes a lot for a kid who’s come out of a very tough home to even speak up in the first place. So when they do I think it should be treated as gold.”
Ben and Bonnie have both participated in recruitment panels for new staff at Premier’s Youth Initiative. They noted that one of the qualities they looked for passionate and respectful care and connection, and that this respect formed the basis of meaningful participation:
“But it was the way that when we were speaking, he didn’t change his tone or dumb it down from when he was speaking to the manager of the organisation, when he is talking to myself. There was that level of respect I suppose… which is what I admire, you know, for myself personally, respect is a big pillar in my ability to trust someone” (Ben).
Dylan has heaps of experience participating in case planning in residential care and also in policy making. He ran his own leaving care planning meetings with the support of case workers and therapeutic care staff. For people who want to increase participation, his advice is to listen and to take action. Dylan says that one-to-one support and respect help can young people to feel confident to have a say, not just about everyday decisions like meals and keys to their rooms, but also for bigger matters like mental health treatment and contact with siblings.
At 17, Dylan started running his own case planning meetings, and says that it made a huge difference to his confidence and capability to live independently. He now lives in his own flat in ACT.
“I had at the time my residential team, my Barnardos case team, as well as the children’s advocate and my psychologist there. And it was nice just to have everyone there, and be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what I want’.
I really needed to be there, to be involved, to portray my own emotions. It’s so hard to portray someone’s feelings and emotions from a third person.”
His advice to workers is to listen and support young people to contribute to shared agendas and debrief after meetings. When workers make promises like more regular contact with siblings, they should follow through. It means a lot to children and young people. Organisations need to give serious consideration to children and young people’s views, and be willing to re-examine the ‘rules’.
In our research, Dylan and Shelley participated in a roundtable discussion with five senior policy actors about how to amplify the voices of children and young people in policy making for over two hours. Dylan says he draws on the support and training he had through CREATE Foundation as a young consultant to affect change in the system:
“It kind of seems like you’re a puppet a lot of the time, everyone just kind of pulls the strings… So then, when you do get that chance, where you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m the one that made a decision… it’s like, there’s a big brick wall and you’ve finally been able to break through it.”
Shelley left care a few years ago, and now lives in her own place with her daughter while working and studying in the social services sector. She is an experienced advocate for change to the OOHC system, and, with the support of CREATE Foundation, has worked to train case workers, change the ‘Blue Book’ in ACT and has met with several government ministers to create a better system for children and families. A few years ago, Shelley helped to co-design the ‘Go Your Own Way’ kit for young people leaving care.
“When I left care, I didn’t actually get anything and no one told me my rights, no one checked with me to see if I, you know, had anything that’s actually in like checklist for ‘Go your own way’ kit… I was exiting when I was 17 [and] I had no idea about things that I might need…
I guess I didn’t have that opportunity [to participate in decisions] while I was still in care. So I guess now being able to participate and make changes for others is really validating for me.”
These days Shelley also supports other young people in care to speak up and have their views heard. She says that participation starts with showing care and respect for children and young people
“Some people like… I think there’s just there seems to be this massive wall in between, you know, workers understanding and saying that they understand. But putting it into professional practice is another thing… It just seems to be not part of the like, you know, daily routine in the office place or the workplace or whatever. Yes, I think to implement those changes is really, really difficult. To be honest [laughs]. Yeah”.
For Shelley and Dylan, stigma is a huge barrier to children and young people’s participation. Organisations can tackle stigma through connecting respectfully with children, young people and families in ways that benefit them, rather than just replicating a service system:
“So I guess I would say to people that to really keep in mind that we’re all human beings…We didn’t choose to be in care. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be a bad parent, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be abusive, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to follow the generational patterns”.
Meaghan Vosz, Shelley Keevers, Dylan Williams, Ben and Bonnie
Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University