Improving data collection to better support children in out-of-home care at risk of offending

Improving data collection to better support children in out-of-home care at risk of offending

18 October 2017

We need to collect better data to improve our understanding of how vulnerable children in need become offenders, writes Dr Kath McFarlane.

This is the final in a series of short articles exploring why children and young people in out-of-home care or who have a history of maltreatment are over-represented in the youth justice system. This article focuses on the need for better data collection to inform how to best support children and young people in out-of-home care at risk of offending.

Out-of-home care

Children who are unable to live with their family for a period of time may, through an order of the Children’s Court, be placed in out-of-home care (OOHC) for periods ranging from a few weeks through to adulthood at age 18. This can be for a range of reasons, including abuse, neglect, parental drug and alcohol use, illness, domestic violence or poverty.

In order to better respond to the needs of children in OOHC, we need accurate and publically available disaggregated data to provide an in-depth understanding of their background, demographics, experiences and outcomes. This is particularly the case when considering the intersection between the OOHC and criminal justice systems.

Lack of data on the OOHC cohort

Research has identified a correlation between placement in OOHC—as opposed to children ‘at risk’ or those involved with the child protection system—and involvement in the criminal justice system.

In New South Wales, for example, the OOHC cohort is over-represented:

  • in the criminal jurisdiction of the NSW Children’s Court;1
  • on community orders;2 and
  • in juvenile detention centres.3

The overlap between the OOHC and justice systems has also been shown to extend into early adulthood, with young Victorian care-leavers likely to have regular and negative contact with police.4 A number of recent government inquiries and reports have similarly identified the significance of criminalising practices undertaken by OOHC residential care agencies5 that exacerbate children’s involvement in the justice system. For example, police may be called to intervene when children exhibit challenging behaviour where this would not warrant a police response in a family home environment. Criminalisation can also occur when police are used to locate and return children missing from care, which can escalate tensions and result in criminal charges being laid.

While there are many standards and policies relating to the OOHC system,i none specifically address:

  • the processes by which children are cautioned, warned or charged by police;
  • the outcomes or effectiveness of youth justice interventions relating to OOHC status; or
  • the involvement of those leaving care with the police or adult justice system.6

The invisibility of the issues affecting children in OOHC extend to the criminal justice organisations. Police services do not routinely record OOHC status at the time of arrest, nor have justice departments conducted research or implemented crime prevention programs that specifically target the OOHC population. Only the NSW corrections system has incorporated OOHC status into intake procedures at detention, however the data is yet to be analysed or publicly reported upon.

Improving data collection can help protect vulnerable children

The collection of information on OOHC status represents an opportunity to understand how vulnerable children in need become offenders. This, in turn, would allow for strategies and programs to be put in place to break the care-crime nexus. Accurate and wide-sweeping demographic data is important in order to determine the criminogenic risks posed to children by OOHC systems designed to protect and provide for them.

While the Australian Government has focused attention on child protection and OOHC policy through the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (2009–2020)7 and the National Standards for Out of Home Care8 to ‘deliver consistency and drive improvements in the quality of care’ provided to children in OOHC, there is scope for greater analysis of the intersection between OOHC and crime.

For example, the collection and collation of jurisdictional custodial data would permit national analysis that would, with the input of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Criminology, inform national standards, policies and programs.9 Data collection should also include information regarding those involved in the OOHC and protection system in order to inform program development and policy, to alert authorities to their over-representation, and to understand their particular needs in custody.

Comprehending the factors that lead to children in OOHC becoming caught up in the justice system will assist agencies to adapt their practices to respond to children’s needs. A better understanding of their experiences of arrest, bail and sentencing will assist to identify effective programs, build community support, and ensure children’s and communities’ safety.

Footnote

i. Standards and policies include the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (2009–2020); the National Standards for Out of Home Care; various accreditation requirements; contractual benchmarks, guidelines and directions, as well as internal OOHC agency policies.

References

  1. McFarlane, K. (2016). Care-criminalisation: The involvement of children in out of home care in the NSW criminal justice system. Thesis/dissertation UNSW. Sydney, Australia;
    Fernandez, E., Bolitho, J., and Hansen, P. (2014). ‘Children’s Court challenges and possibilities: a study of the Children’s Court of New South Wales’ Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) Best Practice Forum 23 July 2014. Sydney Australia;
    Richards, K., & Renshaw, L. (2013). Bail and remand for young people in Australia: A national research project. Australian Institute of Criminology Research and Public Policy Series Report No: 125. Canberra Australia;
  2. Kenny, D., Nelson, P., Butler, T., Lennings, C., Allerton, M., and Champion, U. (2008). Young People on Community Orders: Health, Welfare and Criminogenic Needs, The University of Sydney. Sydney Australia.
  3. Indig, D., Vecchiato, C., Haysom, L., Beilby, R., Carter, J., Champion, U., Gaskin, C., Heller, E., Kumar, S., Mamone, N., Muir, P., van den Dolder, P. & Whitton, G. (2011).  2009 NSW Young People in Custody Health Survey: Full Report. Justice Health and Juvenile Justice. Sydney Australia.
  4. Mendes, P., Baidawi, S., and Snow, P. (2014). Good Practice in Reducing the Over-Representation of Care Leavers in the Youth Justice System. Leaving Care and Justice: Phase Three Report. Monash University. Melbourne Australia.
  5. Victoria Legal Aid. (2017). Care not Custody: A new approach to keep kids in residential care out of the criminal justice system. Melbourne, Australia: Victoria Legal Aid.
  6. Mendes et al., 2014
  7. Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020.
  8. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. (2011). National Standards for Outofhome Care: A Priority Project under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009 – 2020.
  9. Australian Law Reform Commission and Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. (1997). Seen and Heard: Priority for Children in the Legal Process: Report of the National Inquiry into Children and the Legal Process, Report No 84. Sydney Australia;
    Australian Senate Community Affairs References Committee. (2004). Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. Canberra Australia.

Feature image by Andrew NeelCC0 1.0.

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Authors

Kath McFarlane

Dr Kath McFarlane is Deputy Director of the Centre for Law and Justice, and Senior Lecturer in Law at Charles Sturt University.

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