The Uniting Church of NSW and ACT will shut down its youth residential care facilities in about six months and introduce new types of care to improve its protection of at-risk children.

The closures were announced after an independent review by former Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon recommended the Uniting Church replace its residential care system with a better model.

“…we’re not going to continue the current programme after 30 June next year.” – Bob Mulcahy

The review was sparked by a coronial inquest into the death of Girl X, a 15-year-old who fatally overdosed on heroin and ice in 2014 while living at a Uniting house in Sydney’s north.

That home is now closed but Uniting still has four homes with 19 young people while Wesley Mission has one home housing five children.

“We’re communicating with government that we’re not going to continue the current programme after 30 June next year, so we’ve got six months to plan the transition,” Uniting’s director of Resilient Families Bob Mulcahy told Eternity today.

He said having four or five troubled kids in a house together made it very difficult to meet each child’s needs.

Under the new model, there will be only one child looked after in each location.

“One kid could be just about to make a positive change when suddenly one of other kids distracts them and you don’t have a good result,” he said.

Under the new model, there will be only one child looked after in each location, allowing professional support such as drug and alcohol or psychiatric counselling to be provided when the child is ready to make a change.

However, residential care will be provided only as a last resort when efforts to find alternatives, such as returning the child to a parent, guardian or relative, have failed.

“We also work with parents who have lost their kids and give them the skills to take their kids back after out-of-home care.” – Bob Mulcahy

Mulcahy said Uniting would expand its NEWPIN (Uniting New Parent and Infant Network) programme which aims to strengthen vulnerable families by helping parents be good parents so that their children are not taken away.

“We also work with parents who have lost their kids and give them the skills to take their kids back after out-of-home care,” Mulcahy said.

“We’ve been doing NEWPIN for about 15 years, so we have a lot of experience but we only have it in eight locations in NSW, and I think the report made it obvious that we should be providing this for more and more families and we should go to government and advocate for more money to be spent on that style of programme.”

“…kids aren’t aware of how complicated a lot of their peers were in the house and it’s for their own protection we’re doing it.” – Bob Mulcahy

He said 68 per cent of families who go through the programme were successful in either retaining their children at home or gaining them back.

Commenting on reports that some ex-residents of Uniting homes were not happy with the announced closures, he said: “It’s a nice thing to hear.

“But kids aren’t aware of how complicated a lot of their peers were in the house and it’s for their own protection we’re doing it.

“They could have been relatively good kids but if they’re mixing with kids for whom drugs are part of life, the good kids get impacted by the drug culture. And some of the more troubled kids can have an episode and harm or endanger other kids in the house.”

“We need more highly qualified staff.” – Bob Mulcahy

Mulcahy said Girl X was a “pretty isolated experience – we’ve got these 18-19 kids in residential care but we had not had another Girl X experience there, coming to a death, in living memory.

“Now, what we do have are a lot of Girl X-type people. She was removed from family before she was one year old, and ended up with kinship carers who were involved with drugs and she didn’t have a good experience. She had been with us less than 12 months when she passed away, and she’d been involved with drugs and her mental health issues were very advanced before got we involved.”

Two male youth workers also allegedly assaulted Girl X while she was at a different residential care home.

“The impact of neglect and abuse reaches beyond a single generation.” – Christine Nixon

Mulcahy said he hoped not to have to make any staff redundant, although the required qualifications for new staff would be increased.

“We need more highly qualified staff. In the past you could have a Certificate 3 or 4 qualification from TAFE. In the future, that will not be acceptable – it is more likely to have to be a university degree.”

In her report, Christine Nixon said it made economic as well as moral sense to implement early intervention programmes to keep families together and children out of residential care.

“The impact of neglect and abuse reaches beyond a single generation. Fifty per cent of children and young people in residential care go into the justice system,” she wrote.

“Early intervention … simply makes economic sense for a society to break the cycle of disadvantage.” – Christine Nixon

“Twenty per cent of children whose parents have been in OOHC (out-of-home care) go into care themselves. In addition, there are the life-long costs of poor mental and physical health and substance addiction. These health, educational, developmental and behavioural needs often require highly co-ordinated multi-agency specialist clinical interventions, psychological therapies and longitudinal monitoring.

“Early intervention, such as investing in intensive therapeutic support to children, young people and families is therefore not just morally and socially right, but it also simply makes economic sense for a society to break the cycle of disadvantage.”

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Please pray that children and young people with complex problems as a result of neglect or abuse will be loved, protected and restored to health through services provided by the Uniting Church and other agencies.

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