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Sophie Meixner

Youth residential care funding welcomed, but advocates say more is needed to provide young people with a stable home

Paige Birkett aspires to be a voice for children in care.(

ABC Heywire: Karen Brookes


All Paige Birkett ever wanted was a loving family home, but it took her 16 years to find one.

After she was born in prison, Paige spent most of her childhood shuffled between the care of different family members.

"We never had food and our house was always disgustingly messy," she said.

"We never had money for school photos, we didn't get new shoes until they were falling apart.

If it wasn't for her older brother Cody, Paige says life would have been a lot worse.

"Cody went without everything for us. He wouldn't eat, just so we would have something to eat for dinner," she said.

"He would walk to the supermarket, back to the house, then to our primary school.

"That's an hour-and-a-half walk, just to bring us a Vegemite sandwich."

When she was 12, Paige entered foster care, but the placements never stuck.

"I was never very good at being in foster care houses," she said.

"No foster carer wants a teenager. They want the young, cute ones that are easy to handle, easy to control."

A placement in residential care

At 14, Paige became one of the hundreds of young people per year in Victoria to be placed in youth residential care.

Placement in residential facilities is reserved for children at significant risk of harm in their own homes, with complex support needs, or who are otherwise unable to live in foster or kinship care.

Indigenous young people like Paige are disproportionately represented in the system.

Victoria's youth residential care system has been subject to repeated criticism and inquiries over what youth advocates say are systemic failures to provide already traumatised young people with a safe and stable environment.

Last year, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass called for "major reform" after investigating allegations children were physically and sexually assaulted while in state care.

The ABC has reported more than 600 children are running away from residential homes each year and Victoria Legal Aid says children in residential care are at least three times as likely to require help for criminal charges as children in all other placement types.

18 years old with 15 past addresses

Paige says her experience in what she calls "resi" exacerbated the trauma she had already been through and led her further down a dangerous path.

She said she was frequently moved between facilities and estimates she had 15 addresses in the last three years, and attended eight high schools.

Without notice she would be told she would be moving units, leaving behind friends and familiar staff members, sometimes given no more than one hour to pack.

There would be repeated violations of her privacy, independence and personal space, she said.

"You have no independence at all. Your rooms will get searched every night, even by male workers, even if that makes you uncomfortable.

"You don't have one ounce of privacy."

Paige said the conditions in residential care eventually led her to run away, abuse drugs, skip school, and have frequent run-ins with the police.

"I was so lost and so broken," she said. "I ended up becoming heavily addicted to ice, getting arrested almost every day, drinking and smoking every day.

"I did not want to be there. I hated it there. But it didn't matter what I said."

At one point, she said, she locked herself in her room and attempted suicide, requiring treatment in hospital.

'You don't have anyone to be a parent'

Throughout Paige's time in residential care she dealt with an overwhelming feeling there was nobody in authority who genuinely cared about her.

"You don't have anyone to literally be a parent," she said.

"Kids don't know what to do, they're so confused and scared because they don't have that ground level to tell them what to do.

"We never asked for this to happen. There's always been something our parents did to make us come here, and no-one ever looks at that bit."

She said the residential care staff were not willing or able to take on a more nurturing role in her life.

"The system is broken. The people who get employed at resi to look after you have to go through less training than what a teacher would have to go through," she said.

"So if anything happens in the unit, they're not stepping into save that kid from being hurt, they're going to lock themselves in the office and call the police."

Overcriminalisation of residential care children

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) staff work regularly with children in residential care who get into trouble with the police.

They say the institutional nature of residential care means children are far more likely to be charged with a crime than if the behaviour happened in a family home.

Ms Greenwell said more trauma-informed training was required for staff.(

Supplied: Olivia Greenwell


"We were seeing things like young people being charged [for property damage] for smashing a mug, or throwing a remote control in a fit of anger," strategy manager for family, youth and children's law Olivia Greenwell said.

"We were concerned that young people were essentially going into residential care, and that was putting them on a trajectory to go into the youth justice system."

The most recent data from the 2018/2019 financial year on children placed in residential care assisted by VLA, shows 51 per cent required legal help for criminal charges within 12 months of their placement, and 12 per cent required legal help for criminal charges and identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Government injects funds into system

In February 2020, the Victorian Government released a framework for reducing criminalisation among children in care.

The framework includes a decision-making guide for residential care workers to determine whether to call the police over a child's behaviour, and a standard approach police should take when responding to non-crisis events in those units.

Late last year, the 2020-21 Victorian budget included a $322.7 million investment in youth residential care.

This included $90.2 million in targeted care packages to prevent entry into residential care, $82.5 million to ensure four-bedroom residential homes have overnight staff and an overnight safety plan, nearly $16 million for the continued rollout of the KEYS trauma-informed model of therapeutic care, and $9 million to establish "care hubs" for young people entering residential care for the first time.

The Victorian Government said youth residential care workers were required to complete mandatory trauma-informed training.(

ABC News


"Every young Victorian deserves a safe place to call home if they need to live away from their parents," a spokesperson from the Department of Family, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) said.

The spokesperson said every effort was made to minimise the frequency of placement changes for young people in residential care, and when one did occur, the young person was consulted wherever possible.

"Residential care workers care for some of the state's most vulnerable young people and are required and supported to provide trauma-informed support and care," the spokesperson said.

They said DFFH was unable to comment on individual cases.

Concerns framework delayed by coronavirus

A year after the framework's introduction, VLA remains dealing with cases where youth clients have been charged for incidents in their residential care units.

Ms Greenwell said the effect of COVID-19 in Victoria may have delayed the framework's rollout, but it was hard to measure because the pandemic had similarly delayed court dates and slowed down the system as a whole.

"We hope that when courts resume to full capacity we will see there has been a reduction in charges against young people in residential care since the launch of the framework," she said.

Paige says everything in the world makes more sense through the lens of her Aboriginal heritage.(

ABC Heywire: Karen Brookes


"But the implementation of concrete targets and measures to reduce these trends is urgently needed.

"Every day that it's not implemented is a day that there's a young person being further exposed to the police and the justice system, and that's a bad thing for any young person."

The DFFH spokesperson said the framework was operational and was referred to when responding to young people’s behaviour during COVID-19 restrictions.

'More needs to be done'

Michael Perusco is the CEO of Berry Street, a not-for-profit child and family organisation contracted by the Victorian Government to provide 30 units of residential care — about 20 per cent of the state's total.

Mr Perusco said the additional investment in the budget was a "really good start" but "more needs to be done".

"We're certainly encouraged, and we were pleased to see the move towards more two and three bedroom units.

"But we think it needs to go further. If you look at all the reports into residential care, they are shocking in terms of the outcomes for young people, so it's hard to dispute that the system needs to be reformed."

Michael Perusco said government funding needed to go further.(

Supplied: Michael Perusco


Mr Perusco called on funding to allow more care homes to adopt a therapeutic model of care called the Teaching Family Model used in a number of Berry Street units.

"It really is luck as to whether young people go into a general residential unit or a therapeutic residential unit," he said.

He said the therapeutic approach was to "teach the young people how to live within their community and how to relate to others, and that's necessary because of the trauma that they've experienced".

Throughout all his interactions with young people in residential care, Mr Perusco said the one constant was the need for stability and love.

"Children who have been removed from their families have the trauma associated with why they were removed, the trauma of the removal itself, and then often the trauma of multiple placements within the system," he said.

"That all adds up to a very challenging and isolating experience.

"What young people crave is love and stability, and when the system can't offer that, it's devastating, and and it does have long-term consequences."

'Copper Jo' says police culture is changing

Police youth liaison officer Jo Parissis is known as "Copper Jo" among the kids she encounters across Melbourne's northern suburbs.

It's her job to check up on kids in youth residential care who might be struggling — for a chat, not a charge.

"When a kid goes missing, or if there's some issues going on, we often visit and engage with them," she said.

"They're generally pretty open to having us come to visit in that way.

'Copper Jo' Parissis tries to be a positive and supportive presence in kids' lives.(

774 ABC Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown


She acknowledged there were cultural issues within the police toward children in residential care, but said those were improving.

"We've got a lot of new police members, they're learning," she said.

"It's a really difficult thing — especially for younger members who haven't been exposed to that kind of trauma — to not be aware of what these kids have gone through.

"Often, you talk to the member about what the kids have gone through, and they go: 'Oh, wow, I didn't know that'."

She said junior members would often come to her for advice over charging a young person in care with a crime.

"We're getting better on giving out more cautions for minor offences, rather than taking them straight to court," Leading Constable Parissis said.

"We want to try and keep them out of the criminal justice system for as long as we possibly can."

Leading Constable Parissis said family was the foundation all the children she met were searching for.

"Working with all different kids, you hear some stories that can stay with you forever," she said.

"I had a kid in custody one day and I sat with him and I said: 'What is it that you want in your life?'

"He burst into tears and said: 'I want a family'.

"So I cried with him."

A family at last

At age 16, Paige's dream of a family of her own was realised.

The deputy principal at her high school arranged for Paige to start a part-time job as a teaching assistant and travel to work with her in the morning.

"It was planned that I'd go there one day a week and stay at her house to go to work," Paige said.

"One day turned into two days, turned into three days, a month. All she ever cared about was helping me pass school.

"She called me every day. She just never left, no matter what I did to push her away, she just didn't go."

The teacher ultimately signed up to be Paige's foster carer.

"She showed me sternness but care at the same time," Paige said.

"They always said, 'We expect of you what we do of our own children'.

"They saw in me what is in so many other kids as well, which was the potential I had."

After years without a stable home, haphazard school attendance, regular drug use and frequent run-ins with police, Paige has now graduated from year 12.

Now 18, she is clean and sober, lives independently with her pet dog, bird, and mice, and wants to study to be a Koorie education support officer.

Her older brother Cody did not escape the cycle. Last year, at 19 years old, he took his own life.

Paige wants to work with Aboriginal students in the Victorian education system.(

ABC News: Karen Brookes


"I wish I could have thanked him for everything he did for us," Paige said.

"He was going to uni. He was so smart, such an intelligent boy.

"He made me want to go back to school, to achieve everything, graduate."

Paige wants to dedicate her life to becoming a voice for kids like her — the children in care who grow up feeling unloved, forgotten and worthless.

"No-one's speaking for kids in care, no-one's trying to help them," she said.

"I want to be able to talk to police forces and go to Parliament and have laws changed and spread the word so much further, so that people will know that it's not a bad kid, it's a bad situation.

She wants to send a message to other residential care kids to find something within themselves to keep holding on.

"It might take a very, very long time, but there really is a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

"There's hope in life that someone does care about you."

The ABC’s Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find out more about the next Takeover Melbourne intake, which will open in late March, go to the Takeover website.

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