While orphanages no longer exist in Western Australia, thousands of traumatised children live in out-of-home care in what some child protection staff call 'hidden' residential institutions.
About 5500 children were living in out-of-home placements, including foster care arrangements and group homes, across WA as of June 30.
The majority of the children were placed in permanent or temporary foster care arrangements, while hundreds of others lived in group homes across the state.
They are children and young people who have experienced extreme trauma and have nowhere else to go. As of June 30, there were 375 children in 64 residential care group homes run by state government or community service organisations.
The Department of Communities manages 24 group homes, including 14 in the metropolitan area and 10 in regional areas, and supports 40 family group homes operated by external organisations.
The children aged 10-17 were placed in the group homes for various reasons including neglect, abuse, mental health issues, family and domestic violence, and drug and alcohol misuse within the family, which often occurs within a context of intergenerational trauma and social disadvantage.
Often, it was a combination of factors which resulted in children being removed from a family and placed in a home where the number of young people varied.
Children who have been victims of neglect or abuse are traumatised, the Residential Care Manual states, and many child protection interventions, including the removal from home and placement with strangers, may actually increase a child’s trauma.
Group homes emphasised providing a therapeutic sanctuary model of care for people who had experienced extreme trauma, a Department of Communities spokesman said.
Extreme trauma incudes sexual assault – experiencing or witnessing it – which manifests in the children and results in complex needs, concerns and behaviours.
But the complexities surrounding sexual assault don’t end when a child is placed in out-of-home care, and the department has acknowledged that at times offenders were even placed in care homes with victims.
As of October 28, eight children who were reportable offenders were in department care, including some placed in group homes with other kids.
This comes after a courageous 17-year-old former group home resident, Macie*, shared her story of having a known sex offender placed in the same home with her, despite being a victim of sexual abuse herself.
In Macie’s case, she was just 13 years old when the department placed her in the same home as a 15-year-old boy who had knowingly been accused of sexual assault offences.
The department was also aware Macie had suffered sexual abuse and rape before the boy was placed with her in the same residential care home in Perth’s east.
Her alleged abuser, who was later charged in relation to WA Police investigation, is due to appear via video in Perth Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
Child Protection Minister Simone McGurk told WAtoday some cases related to Operation Timing Belt were linked to government-run residential care homes.
Macie going public with her story drove Ms McGurk to call for an independent review by the Commissioner for Children and Young People into the state’s child protection system policies and practices.
The review is currently under way, with the commissioner expected to deliver a report in early 2021 outlining the systemic issues from Macie’s case, whether policies and procedures were followed, and recommendations of changes that need to be made.
Former residential group home carer Michelle* said Macie’s case was "disgusting", but at least three other victims were also placed with known offenders.
"Even if it’s not victims of sexual assault being put with sexual predators, you’re still getting non-violent kids with violent kids," she said.
"There is no other outcome for that child than to become what they need to become to fit in – it's terrifying."
Michelle recalled a situation where an abused teenager, who never had money growing up, would leave the group home to perform sexual favours for older men for payment.
"I wasn’t allowed to lock her in," Michelle said. "I had teenagers at home at the time and if I was to allow them to do the same I’d be put in jail, but I had the department saying, 'No, you can’t lock her in'.
"It was the department’s knee-jerk reaction to a previous incident where a young person was locked in the house because he was going out to do the wrong thing at 3am; he kicked his window out and gashed his leg and had a big bleed.
"A teenage girl getting in the car with what ended up being a 37-year-old man for half an hour three times a week, and various ones, that’s more harmful than if she cuts her leg on glass. Some of their protocols are just stupid."
As a mother herself, Michelle said while she believed in therapeutic care, the current sanctuary model needed to change because it was "setting these kids up for failure".
"The average outcome from this environment is these kids end up dead, on the streets or in prison … it’s only the odd one that doesn’t," she said.
"The expectations or the lack of expectations of them in the home on every level – manners, schooling, destruction of property – are not what society tolerates."
Michelle said there was no real understanding of what it was like in the houses anymore, even from the trainers who used to work in them.
"If you're going to do a job in the department, go and work in those homes, know what the staff go through, know what the kids go through; it’s scary," she said.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
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