Care not Custody – new approach can lead to better outcomes for kids like Mia

Care not Custody – new approach can lead to better outcomes for kids like Mia

Monday, 14 September 2020

In February we brought you the story of 15-year-old Mia, who was facing several criminal charges while living in residential care. Mia’s charges were recently dismissed after all parties adhered to the new Framework to reduce criminalisation of young people in residential care. 

Mia is 15 and loves listening to Whitney Houston and playing video games with her friends. A few months ago, she appeared in the Children’s Court and explained why she used to get upset a lot living in residential care. ‘When I first lived in DHHS it was very hard. I got angry a lot and got in trouble,’ she said.

‘This year I have been trying very hard to stop getting angry. When I do get angry, I go for a walk or see my family,’ said Mia.

Mia moved into residential care after her father said he could no longer look after her. Despite a diagnosed intellectual disability and a history of trauma, including seeing her mum self-harm as a young child, Mia’s workers weren’t given training on how to manage and support these conditions. She said workers often called police for minor things. ‘I was going through a lot of stuff and I got in trouble for stupid things like breaking a plate. It’s like the workers thought they had to punish me.’

As a result of these police call-outs, Mia spent the last year going to court ten times for criminal damage and minor assault charges. Mia’s lawyer Jane (not her real name) said Mia’s charges related to behavior that wouldn’t usually attract the attention of police. ‘They were in circumstances where Mia was feeling really stressed and angry because something had happened like contact with a family manner had been cancelled, or she didn’t have things she needed for school or food,’ said Jane.

In recognition that too many children in the child protection system were being charged by police for behavior that might be informed by past trauma or neglect, a new framework between Government agencies, residential care providers and Victoria Police was launched in February.

Mia’s lawyer Jane said the framework was important to obtaining Mia’s outcome – ‘There's two guiding principles in the protocol that are useful: one that says the police must take into account the underlying causes of behaviors and we had a lot of evidence in Mia’s case and, two, charging should be the last resort. I used it in her negotiations with police and submissions to court about why diversion would be appropriate.’

‘The best outcome would have been that the charges were dropped, but after a long process we are pleased that at least diversion was used,’ said Jane.

Jane says representing young people in the child protection system is deeply rewarding. ‘I believe these are the most important cases because once you find out about a young person’s background you can see why they’re struggling. There’s always a very clear link.’

‘These kids often haven’t experienced consistency with anyone, especially service providers. I think what’s made all the difference; myself and others around her taking a gentle, consistent and compassionate approach. Myself and some of Mia’s experienced workers have really tried to understand where she’s coming from and to work with her to help her understand her own behaviours. It speaks volumes that since getting diversion she hasn’t had any other troubles,’ said Jane.

‘Mia’s story shows the importance of trauma-informed approaches to working with young people. It’s great to see an example where the framework’s guiding principles have been brought to life. Unfortunately, we are still seeing many children in residential care charged where we believe there are viable alternatives,’ said Olivia Greenwell, Manager of Strategy for Family Youth and Children’s Law.

‘The framework includes decision-making guidance for residential care workers to avoid calling police for low level incidents and principles for police officers when responding to non-crises incidents in residential care units. We urge a wider take-up of the framework into all signatories operating practices, so that young people like Mia have the same chances as their peers,’ said Olivia.

Mia says things have been better at home. 'Some of the workers are nicer and more understanding now. I don’t know exactly why but I think I’ve matured too. I don’t get so angry. Kids in resi just want love and understanding.'

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