A network of individual advocates


7.44 Systemic, broad based advocacy for children should be supplemented by advocates who intervene on behalf of individual children in a range of processes and decisions. Generally, the best advocates for children are parents and families but for children most in need of advocates parental support is very often either inappropriate or unavailable. Additional or alternative advocacy assistance is often needed. This is particularly so for vulnerable children, such as children with disabilities who

…require the skills of a specialist advocate in a range of situations where vital, life determining, decisions are made. For example, contentious matters such as sterilisation, termination of pregnancy, entering State Care and providing evidence in criminal proceedings.[61]

7.45 The ability of children to access an individual advocate to assist them with administrative difficulties and concerns is as important as the establishment of co-ordinating and accountability agencies. Without access to this assistance Australia’s obligation under Article 12 of CROC to allow children an appropriate degree of participation in decisions that affect them is not fully implemented. There is a pressing need for a network of individual advocates to assist children to access services and deal with government and non-government bodies.[62]

7.46 Community advocates could also assist children in non-legal processes, for example, negotiating on their behalf in disciplinary procedures in schools and assisting with income support applications.

7.47 There are a number of programs in Australia to support children involved in court proceedings.[63] Some of these programs have been criticised for not allowing a focus on the ‘whole person’ as their focus is often limited to court proceedings.[64]

7.48 The New South Wales Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues has recommended that a network of 20 community advocates be established in NSW based in non-government agencies and operating under the auspices of the Office of the Status of Children and Young People.[65] The Inquiry supports this proposal and recommends a more extensive national network of children’s advocates. We favour a broad-based scheme of child advocates affiliated with the network. The advocates would not be employed by OFC. Indeed many would be already employed in non-government organisations. OFC would play a co-ordinating role in accreditation, facilitating exchange of information and support for the network.

Who should act as children’s advocates?

7.49 Children are best supported by those with whom they have a relationship and in whom they trust. They relate with a person they know rather than with a person who has the requisite position or status. The formal ‘labels’ which adults consider important are often irrelevant or meaningless to children and young people. Children’s advocates should be the people to whom children relate and who are accessible to children. First, they are their parents. They are youth and community workers and school welfare officers. Many of these advocates are already there, in homes, in non-government organisations, community centres or legal centres. Many are providing informal advocacy for children. Often this is made more difficult by the lack of recognition and accreditation for these advocates. A network of advocates would provide support, recognition, contacts and information for them.

7.50 Professional advocates would have qualifications in the social sciences or experience in areas involving children’s issues. Membership of the network should not affect the current employment arrangements of the advocates with federal, State or community agencies.

7.51 The Inquiry is not proposing a scheme for the recruitment of child advocates into new, funded positions. It is proposing the formation of a network for existing advocates to enhance their effectiveness in providing individual advocacy for children through training, information exchange and other forms of support. The network will also help increase public awareness of the role of child advocates. The network will be co-ordinated by OFC.

7.52 Child advocates within this network will not provide specialist legal advice, although a certain number of them may have some expertise in this area. For the most part, they will be informal advocates, support people and contact points for young people, functions already being performed by many child advocates. Access to a network of child advocates will assist them with information and referral and access to and assistance from complaint handling authorities at government level.

7.53 The network of advocates should be accessible to all children, particularly those in rural areas for whom distance is a barrier in accessing services or obtaining redress. Publicity about the existence and role of the network will be needed.

7.54 The Inquiry is mindful of the problems of overwork and ‘burnout’ experienced by many youth advocates working under difficult circumstances and with limited resources. Consultations for this Inquiry highlighted the seriousness of these problems.[66] For that reason, the Inquiry is hesitant about any proposal that may add to the pressures currently faced by youth workers. This is reflected in the proposal for a network of grassroots advocates. It is not intended that accreditation will set additional onerous standards which must be met or further qualifications that must be obtained by people working in the areas of children’s and youth advocacy. Rather it is intended primarily as a means of giving greater recognition to their work. The mutual support, information exchange and training provided by the network will alleviate rather than add to the problem of burnout. It will facilitate the process of referral, enhance the development of skills and make it easier for advocates to keep up with legislative and policy changes in this area. The network will not in itself be a service. It will not attract clients or increase the caseloads of its members.

7.55 Peer advocacy will play a role in the network of grassroots advocates. Surveys of young people undertaken for this Inquiry indicated that a certain amount of informal peer advocacy already occurs. The survey asked

Who would you turn to if you got in trouble with police? If you were ripped off?

If you need more information about the law and rights?[67]

7.56 Significant numbers of respondents to these questions said they would turn to their friends for assistance.[68] There are also formal mechanisms for peer advocacy, such as AAYPIC.[69] Peer advocacy models should be included in the development of the network of grassroots advocates.

Recommendation 9 A network of grassroots, community or peer advocates for children, drawn from existing informal advocates in all cities and major regional centres of Australia, should be established and a system of accreditation for child advocates developed by OFC. OFC should ensure communication and liaison within this network at national, State and Territory levels. OFC should co-ordinate training programs on legal issues, communication with children and negotiation skills. OFC should provide advocates with information on the network and regularly updated regional contact lists.

Implementation. OFC should co-ordinate the development of this network, initially by inviting applications for accreditation as advocates and developing training programs and information.

Recommendation 10 The existence and role of the network of advocates should be publicised particularly to those who are most likely to need the assistance of an advocate, including children who have English language or literacy difficulties, those who are outside the education system and those who are in the juvenile justice or care and protection systems.

Implementation. OFC should co-ordinate this publicity.

Advocacy advice line

7.57 Sweden provides a model for an advocacy advice line. Barnen Ratt I Samhallet (BRIS) or ‘Children’s Rights in Society’ operates a telephone helpline for parents and children. The service consists of approximately 220 trained volunteers who provide telephone advice on a range of issues. BRIS maintains close links with other services and organisations and refers children to appropriate agencies. This is a useful model upon which to base an Australian national telephone advice line for children.

7.58 Kids Help Line currently offers a national free 24 hour telephone counselling service for 5 to 18 year olds. It also collects data from its callers on issues about which young people are concerned. Approximately 12% of all problem calls are ultimately referred to other agencies.[70] This service is funded primarily by charitable donations.

7.59 A national advice line, with federal Government support, is required as an integral part of the advocacy network. A number of submissions supported this proposal.[71]

Recommendation 11 A national toll-free telephone advice line for children should be provided. This may involve utilisation of existing telephone advice services for children. It may best be established as a national network with offices in each capital city. The advice line should form an integral part of the advocacy network and provide suitable referrals to the network wherever it appears a child is in need of advocacy.

Implementation. OFC should commission the establishment of such an advice line to be funded by the Department of Health and Family Services.

[61] SA Children’s Interest Bureau IP Submission 156.

[62] See also paras 7.48-56.

[63] Some of these programs are discussed in paras 18.182-183.

[64] C Flynn, J Delaney & C Hayter Youth Advocacy and Court Support: Evaluation of the Illawarra Legal Centre Project National Children’s and Youth Law Centre Sydney 1994, 28.

[65] NSW Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues Report 10 Inquiry into Children’s Advocacy NSW Government Sydney 1996, 206–207.

[66] eg NSW Youth Justice Coalition DRP Submission 91.

[67] Survey Questions 8(b), (c), (d).

[68] For the 3 questions, the percentages who indicated that they would turn to their friends for assistance were 19.5%, 13.5% and 2.4% respectively.

[69] See para 7.14.

[70] Kids Help Line Internet Home Page — http://www.squirrel.com.au/boystown/khlmenu.htm current as at 31 July 1997.

[71] LA Beards DRP Submission 6; Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35; Education Centre Against Violence DRP Submission 43; National Children’s and Youth Law Centre DRP Submission 59.