Care Not Custody – children in residential care deserve a better future

Care Not Custody – children in residential care deserve a better future

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

This Youth Week we considered the many contributions young people make to their communities. It was timely to reflect on our role as lawyers for young people in the child protection system and how we can help them to overcome their past experiences and systemic barriers to a better future.

Numerous studies have shown that young people in the child protection system and particularly those in out of home care, are more likely to have long-term involvement with the welfare and criminal justice systems.

The Victorian Government has said they will address this issue, but we are yet to see a firm proposal take shape. We need more voices sharing the impact of this disturbing trend, and we are seeking involvement of the private profession and community legal centre lawyers in our Care Not Custody campaign.

What we know

Recent research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that young people who have been involved in child protection processes are nine times as likely as the general population to be under supervision by youth justice authorities. For young people in out of home care, this rate increases.

Victoria Legal Aid’s own data shows that this trend is worse for children and young people in residential care. More than half of the Victorian children who are placed in residential care face criminal charges within a year.

New approach needed in Victoria

Since the release of our Care Not Custody report in 2016, we have been calling for a new approach in Victoria to reduce the contact young people in residential care have with the criminal justice system.

‘Although removed from their home environments for their own protection and safety, too many young people in out of home care end up unnecessarily and disproportionately involved in our criminal justice system,’ said Olivia Greenwell, our Manager of Strategy for Family, Youth and Children’s Law.

We want to see a public commitment from the Victorian Government, residential care providers and Victoria Police to bring in policies and procedures explicitly designed to reduce the likelihood of children and young people in residential care being charged for minor offending.

Jess’ story

This was the case for one of our clients, Jess (not her real name). Jess grew up living with emotional and physical abuse. Government agencies took Jess away from her parents and after being moved through multiple foster homes, she was put in a residential care unit with paid workers who supervised her. She says she was a 'scared little kid' and 'didn’t talk to anyone'. She was surprised to find cupboards were locked and she usually wasn’t allowed to use the phone.

One night, Jess came home late and was told by workers that she was grounded for a month. This meant she could no longer see her Mum, despite parental contact being ordered by a court. Jess missed her mother and was trying to improve their relationship. She regularly called her during the month of being grounded, but the unit had a policy limiting phone calls to 10 minutes.

On one occasion, after 10 minutes, Jess wanted to keep talking to her Mum and walked away with the cordless phone. In response, a worker disconnected it. Angry that she could neither see or even talk to her Mum on the phone, Jess threw the phone at the wall. It broke and the worker called the police. Despite offering to pay to replace the phone Jess was charged with criminal damage and discharging a missile. At 13 years old, Jess got a criminal record.

‘Young people removed from their families for their protection do not deserve to end up in a cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system. We have a duty of care to support young people to overcome negative past experiences and have the best chance at a positive future. Reducing their contact with police is an important first step’, said Olivia.

More information

Please contact Olivia Greenwell by emailing if you have client stories or insights to contribute to the campaign or want to be kept informed of progress.

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