Urgent action needed as Victoria’s most vulnerable children and young people go absent or missing from residential care at alarming rates

News 24 June 2021

Thursday 24 June 2021 – for immediate release

Victoria is seeing its most vulnerable children and young people go absent or missing from residential care at alarming rates as they collide with the worst failings of a stretched system. Often stigmatised as ‘rotten’ or ‘streetwise’ rather than vulnerable, their exposure to sexual and criminal exploitation, and other serious harms, is poorly reported and meets with an inadequate and inconsistent response by child protection, residential care providers and Victoria Police.

These are among the distressing findings of the Out of sight report, tabled in the Parliament of Victoria by the Commission for Children and Young People today.

‘This report shows that we are simply not doing enough to prevent and respond to children and young people who go absent or missing, or to ensure the care they receive is as safe and home-like as it needs to be to encourage them to stay,’ said Liana Buchanan, Commissioner for Children and Young People, today.

‘As a result, our most vulnerable children and young people are suffering further trauma and some of the worst harms imaginable,’ Commissioner Buchanan said.

In the 18 months to 31 March 2020, 388 warrants were granted each month on average authorising police to take absent or missing children into ‘safe custody’ – equating to nearly one warrant per child or young person in residential care each month.

This was 75 times the rate of missing person reports for children and young people aged 13 to 17 as reported in a 2016 Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) study of missing person reports across Australia.

The inquiry found children and young people were exposed to a range of harms while away from care, including sexual and criminal exploitation, rape and assaults, including through organised rings of predators.

Over the inquiry period, 37 per cent of residential care absent client incident reports (870) referred to ‘sexual exploitation’.

Other harms included sexually transmitted illnesses, unwanted pregnancies, missed medication, injury in car and train accidents, self-harm and attempted suicide, and neglect of basic needs of food, water and shelter.

Commissioner Buchanan said the findings demonstrated the urgent need to create a new model of residential care, and to meet the immediate needs of children and young people in the existing system, building on recommendations in the Commission’s previous In our own words and Keep caring inquiries on the quality of out-of-home care.

‘The Victorian Government’s Roadmap to reform recognises the need to overhaul the residential care system and the government demonstrated its ongoing commitment to reform with some investment in the 2020–21 budget, but progress is slow – certainly too slow for children and young people who depend on that system today,’ Commissioner Buchanan said.

She said the inquiry also recommended consistent approaches to recording data to tackle clear under-reporting, a shared risk-based framework to underpin effective and consistent responses, the funding and statewide roll-out of the Child Sexual Exploitation Enhanced Response Model, a similar model to combat criminal exploitation, and the statewide provision of the Power to kids safety program to inform children and young people about the risks of sexual exploitation.

In total, the inquiry makes 41 findings and 18 recommendations across six areas of reform to prevent and respond to children and young people going absent or missing from residential care.

‘While the system’s failings lead to an unacceptable degree of harm, the children and young people in the residential care system number in the hundreds, with those at the highest risk an even smaller group.

‘In a progressive and relatively well-resourced state like Victoria, we ought to be able to put in place the effective solutions and supports we have spelt out in this report. Given the state has stepped in and removed these children from risk in their families, it is our moral obligation to do so,’ Commissioner Buchanan concluded.

In producing the report, the Commission consulted with children and young people who are frequently absent or missing from residential care and considered the views of another 200 children previously gathered through the In our own words inquiry. It also held consultations with 89 stakeholders across 55 individual and group sessions, reviewed client files, incident reports and warrant data.

The Out of sight summary and report can be downloaded from the Commission’s website.

Commissioner Buchanan is available for media comment.

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