High Risk Adolescents, Residential Care

Guess what? Yet another official report ‘bags’ residential care

Victorian Legal Aid (VLA) recently released a report titled Care Not Custody: A new approach to keep kids in residential care out of the criminal justice system. In reviewing this report my aim was not to say ‘Kafkaesque’ or ‘Catch 22’ or make any reference to the TV shows ‘Yes Minister’ (for you older Practitioners) or ‘Utopia’ (for  younger Practitioners).

But sadly, dear Practitioners, I have failed you!

Sir Humphrey Appleby: He would approve. More public servants to do more auditing!


The report makes two important points. Firstly, the well-known assertion that YP in resi-care are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system (juvenile or adult). Secondly, it provides documentary evidence that the police are increasingly being called to resi-care units to deal with behaviour that should be managed by staff themselves.

Rob Sitch: The Report could provide him with ideas for next seasons ‘Utopia’


The problem is that resi-care are calling for police intervention to manage incidents which either do not required police intervention or, if managed correctly, would not escalate to the degree where police intervention is required. As a result, YP are at a heightened risk of being charged with criminal offences, thus further entrenching their level of disadvantage.


My personal view is that calling the police makes logical sense from the perspective of the three principal actors/organisations involved:

  1. The government funding body (typically the state-based child protection department)
  2. The agency delivering residential care – typically called Community Service Organisations (CSOs)
  3. The staff, i.e. the residential workers



Residential care services are outsourced to CSOs in most Australian states. The government is rarely involved in direct service delivery.  The concern of the governmental department is not so much that potential abuse occurs in residential care; rather, that they fail to detect it because of  a deficit in appropriate monitoring system. As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse makes clear, organisations are culpable if they do not have systems for monitoring and reporting abuse. Therefore, the government agency employs an army of public servants to monitor and review the CSOs. If abuse is detected, they can hold the CSOs accountable and demand plans to improve the situation. Therefore, no blame or accountability can be attributed to them.


CSOs are very concerned about abuse in care incidents. In the short term, such abuse results in stern warnings from the aforementioned army of public servants, but in the longer term may place their funding at risk.  CSOs know that their staff are not well trained and that when untrained staff attempt to intervene in escalating incidents there is an increased chance of allegations of abuse in care. Therefore, they forbid some types of interventions (e.g. applying consequences for anti-social behaviour).

Franz Kafka: would not be at all surprised by the Report!


The residential workers are aware they are at the bottom of the food chain. Like the CSO that employs them, they realise that any intervention risks an accusation of abuse in care and, in the worst-case scenario, being stood down pending an inquiry. Therefore, resi- workers behave perfectly rationally: they monitor the aggressive behaviour, dutifully write up the relevant Incident Reports and call the police when the situation gets out control.

This is perfectly ‘Kafkaesque’. Calling the police makes perfect sense from the perspective of all the actors involved – the child protection departments, the CSOs and the residential staff themselves. It is just unfortunate that the very system that is supposed to protect vulnerable YP increases their risk of harm in the form of a criminal record.

I am not suggesting that staff involved, whether they work for the governmental department or a CSO, or are residential workers themselves, don’t care for the YP in their charge. They most definitely do! It is just unfortunate that the system works against them.

The report correctly identifies the need for more training for resi-workers. I will review those recommendations in my next post.

About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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