Despite accounting for only 5% of all children in care, children in residential care account for 33% of child sexual exploitation reports on children in care in Australia (Royal Commission, 2016).

Sadly, children living in residential care homes are at a greater risk of sexual exploitation, harmful sexual behaviours and dating violence. In the community their vulnerable status makes them a target for criminals and unwanted behaviours from peers.

Since 2021, the South Australian Department for Child Protection has rolled out the Power to Kids program to help child and youth workers gain the skills to identify and prevent sexual exploitation of children and young people in their care.

Power to Kids upskills child and youth workers, giving them the confidence to have ‘brave conversations’ about sexual safety and builds their capabilities to prevent, identify and intervene early when they see indicators of abuse.

The department was seeking a program that could be tailored to their residential care environment and embedded into training for all residential care staff.

Adapting the program into a train the trainer model, The MacKillop Institute worked with the department to upskill staff so they could carry out training internally and contextualise the content for their staff.

With taboo topics like sexual health and safety, child and youth workers who are already highly scrutinised in their roles, can find it hard to broach these subjects. For many, the training has given them the permission and skills to start a conversation.

Rebecca Munn leads the Power to Kids and Healing Matters programs for the Department for Child Protection.

“Feedback from staff has been really positive. The majority of the feedback comes down to our workers feeling much more confident in engaging in brave conversations around sexual health and safety with young people, and feeling like the organisation is now being much more supportive of them engaging in those kinds of conversations,” Rebecca says.

“A lot of staff have said they've been really wanting to do more work in this area with young people, and the program has given them permission to do so. It has also allowed them to feel much more confident when escalating issues and concerns that they're seeing at a house level and getting that support from key stakeholders.

“Our young people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation within the community because of their trauma backgrounds. The way that they seek to connect with people, the way that they create attachments with adults and peers within their space can be distorted at times.

“They're extremely vulnerable when they're out in the community. The Power to Kids program allows staff to begin creating a space where we can educate young people around the aspects of grooming and safe and respectful relationships.

“When they're not with us they need to start thinking about why people might be approaching them or why people might be asking them to do things that they may not feel comfortable doing. The Power to Kids program will make a huge impact over time in this space.”

The Power to Kids program aims to strengthen prevention and responses to sexual exploitation, harmful sexual behaviours and dating violence for young people in residential care. You can find out more about the program here.