To remove or not to remove? Knowing when to take a child out of a toxic environment is a fraught question.
Maggie* was just 13 when authorities removed her from her family and took her to a motel room.
She left with a single plastic bag containing a change of clothes.
She was scared, lonely and unsure about what would happen next.
Separated from her mother, grandmother and siblings for the first time, hugging a soft pillow was the only thing that brought comfort.
Child protection authorities believed they were removing Maggie for her own good.
But over the next four years as a ward of the state, she spiralled into a world of alcohol, drugs and sexual abuse in a system that was meant to protect her.
‘The days went forever’
Maggie, who is now 17, still cries when she recounts the day she was taken.
She said she knew she was living in a “broken home” at the time — her mum was addicted to drugs, her siblings had already been removed by child protection authorities.
However, when Maggie was eventually taken away, she didn’t go to live with her siblings.
Instead, she was taken to stay in a motel room.
“The weekend, it felt like years, the days went forever, the nights went longer,” she said.
“I used to put the two single beds together and put pillows around me and cuddle up.”
As a ward of the state, she never ended up in a permanent home with a loving foster family.
Instead, she was moved from motel to motel and eventually into one of Adelaide’s biggest residential care facilities where she lived with eight other children.
She was reunited with her siblings briefly, but then separated again and moved to another residential care facility because workers told her she was too disruptive.
“You can tell it’s a welfare home, the government cars … kids’ rooms with security screens on it and a big security door to get let in,” she said.
“It didn’t even look like home, it was ugly.
“The first couple of months it was hectic.
“I was innocent, I was still sweet me.”
‘It was easier … under the influence’
Life in residential care taught Maggie to appear tough, but inside she said she felt helpless and her mental health was suffering.
Staff would change regularly, and she said she was never really sure who she could trust.
Maggie started being teased at school and soon dropped out. She was in Year 8.
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Within months of moving to a residential care facility, she said she started using drugs and alcohol to cope.
That was made easier by the location of the group home — on a main road next to a pub.
“It was easier going through the world of welfare under the influence instead of being sober,” she said.
“The alcohol and drugs gave me freedom.
“[The workers] would take all the things that we could use to hurt ourselves out of the room and leave us in the room with a bucket.”
Maggie says staff knew she was taking drugs and one afternoon tipped her room upside down.
In the process, she said they broke several of her few possessions.
Another teenager living in the house walked into her room and ripped up the only photo she had of her family — a picture of them celebrating Christmas.
She cries as she retells that moment, and how staff tried to laminate the image back together.
Losing her innocence
With no school to attend and no other activities to keep her occupied, she started spending time with older men.
On weekends, she would go to what she called “trap houses” — drug and alcohol-fuelled parties of up to 80 people in abandoned houses.
“If you’ve got a man, you go hook-up with your man at that house, if you’re there for the drinks, go drink, if you’re there to smoke dope, smoke dope — it’s just a big party house,” she said.
“You’d go with a group so you know your friends have your back, if you go by yourself, then you’re not going to come back out of the trap.”
She would often miss the 9:00pm curfew at the group home and staff would not let her back in, so she said she would find somewhere else to sleep — generally with the men who were at the party.
She said one night, she was raped in a car park near her group home by a boy living in the same house.
Maggie said she had to live with her attacker for five days before the Department for Child Protection moved him to another home.
“When he got me on the ground, I was that whacked, I couldn’t move and he done that to me,” she said.
“I walked up to my room and I sat there, I just smoked the rest of the night away, tried to suppress the feeling.
“I was ashamed.”
SA Police confirmed Maggie did report a sexual assault and an investigation was launched, but would not give any further information as both children were wards of the state.
“What made my trust go down even more was when my worker said: ‘I don’t believe you, everybody knows that you lie, you’re just going to be the same for the rest of your life, nothing but a slut’,” Maggie said.
“The sad thing about it is it’s happened to some girls so much, it’s practically normal to them.”
Sexual assault allegations doubled
Department for Child Protection chief executive Cathy Taylor declined to provide data on the number of sexual assault allegations made by children in state care “to protect the identity and wellbeing of children and young people involved”.
However, the ABC understands the Guardian for Children and Young People investigated 50 serious allegations of sexual abuse last year, plus an additional 43 “moderate and minor” concerns.
That is twice as many as reported in 2016–17.
“All allegations of abuse or neglect, regardless of their severity, are assessed and receive a response from the department,” Ms Taylor said in a statement.
“Children and young people who report assault or harm while living in residential care are believed and taken seriously, and all reports are investigated thoroughly.
“Trauma-informed and therapeutic support is made available to all children and young people who report sexual assault.”
Maggie’s mother and grandmother — who cannot be identified for legal reasons — do not believe a thorough investigation was carried out.
They had several meetings with Department for Child Protection staff following the incident, but said many of their questions and concerns were not addressed.
They also said department staff had not made enough effort to place the children with relatives instead of in residential care.
“If you see some of the places, it’s really not good,” Maggie’s mother said.
“There is no safety and protection within those homes.
“I’ve given broken kids to DCP and I’ve got damaged kids back.”
One day, Maggie’s grandmother collected her other grandchildren from school and took them home, fearing their safety and wellbeing in residential care.
She knew she was breaking the law, but believed the safety of her grandchildren was worth the risk of punishment.
A few weeks later, she was arrested, spent some time remanded in custody and the children were returned to residential care.
Children running away and dropping out of school
Nearly three years on from the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission, Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright said she was still concerned about the high numbers of children in residential care and those under 10 who were being placed in group homes.
She said a “significant” number of those children were reporting incidents of sexual assault, running away and dropping out of school.
Her office has been trialling a visitor scheme which allows advocates to carry out both planned and random inspections of residential care facilities, meet with children and staff, and make recommendations around safety and care issues.
As part of the scheme, they are monitoring allegations and incidents of sexual abuse.
However, State Government funding only amounts to six part-time employees who are expected to regularly inspect the 130 residential care facilities throughout the state.
Funding for the trial finished in September, and the office is expected to hand a report to the Government.
Ms Wright said the scheme had lacked direction and resources and she had requested another year’s extension to the trial, but that request was refused by the State Government.
“We are needing to make sure we have opportunities to talk to children when we visit, privately, confidentially and in a safe way so if they have disclosures they want to make we can facilitate those,” she said.
“To have a meaningful visiting program, you need to be able to visit most facilities … if we’re going to visit a facility once a year … there’ll be very limited opportunities.
“It will require resources for it to be effective … if you look at the size of the system we have.”
‘We’re practically on top of the world now’
After four years in the child protection system, Maggie recently returned to live with her mother.
Her siblings are still living in residential care.
Maggie told the ABC she was no longer abusing drugs and alcohol and was better managing her depression.
“Kids can come from a broken home but love it — when you come from a not-so-perfect, but a good home,” she said.
“If you look at us from where we came, the first day I came back to Mum’s, we’re practically on top of the world now.”
Since Maggie has returned to live with her mother, the State Government has publicly pledged to scale back the use of large residential homes.
It shut down its 12-bed Queenstown residential care unit in May, but a spokesperson told ABC News it had no firm plans to close other facilities.
It has also introduced an Aboriginal-specific residential care service designed to help Indigenous children overcome trauma and stay connected to their culture.
It is designed to accommodate four Aboriginal children.
There are about 400 children living in residential and commercial care facilities in South Australia.
Last month, the South Australian Ombudsman found the department had “failed to respond appropriately” to a separate allegation of sexualised behaviour in residential care.
“The agency had failed to properly recognise the impact such events have on a young person,” Wayne Lines said.
“The agency failed to provide the level of care and protection that should be provided to any child … the agency’s response to sexualised behaviour between the young people at the residential care unit was unreasonable.”
Ms Wright said the use of residential care, over foster care, was on the rise and said a visitor scheme was desperately needed to protect young people.
She has called on the State Government to continue to fund the role.
“I would be especially disappointed if there is not a decision to go ahead and ultimately resource the role and fulfil the recommendation that came out of the Nyland Royal Commission,” she said.
“In my view, there’s no doubt a need for a visiting program.”
* Name has been changed for legal reasons.
- Reporter: Claire Campbell
- Illustrations: Sharon Gordon