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It's high time we looked at the care of vulnerable children. NSW is failing them

Posted on 9/08/2016 by

Child Protection1

More than half of the children in out-of-home care in NSW are being looked after by NGOs, with little government oversight and no measure to assess that care

In 2014, Johnny Slager was trying to come off methadone. He recognised that he was struggling to care for his 22-month-old son Braxton and had contacted child protection services for help.

Despite reservations about putting his son into foster care (he had suggested alternative accommodation with family), Slager signed the temporary care form, assigning care of his son to an accredited, non-government organisation for three months.

Three weeks later Braxton was dead. He had drowned in the backyard pool of the western Sydney foster home in which he had been placed. The photographs from the scene show a slimy green pool and a backyard littered with debris, and a pool gate that did not self-lock.

The police report was damning:

... the pool fence did not comply with legislative standards as it was not a self-latching gate ... the premises were not safe or secure for young children placed under foster care. There were also excessive amounts of alcohol ... and blister packs with medication left throughout the location and within reach of the children.

How was this environment deemed suitable for the care of a vulnerable child?

Since 2012, more than 7,500 children have been transferred from the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services to the care of NGO out-of-home care providers, which represents approximately 56.2% of all children in out-of-home care.

Despite the significant number of children receiving care by NGO providers, there is no measurable way to assess the adequacy of care being provided, or outcomes to be achieved with respect to the welfare and wellbeing of children.

The department must have a role in monitoring the number of caseworkers providing care in the NGO sector, the nature of the care being provided, and an assessable measurement of welfare goals to meet the complex needs of a child.

One of the primary roles of government is to take care of those children whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them. The government cannot absolve itself of responsibility from providing oversight into the operations of NGO foster care providers, because the community counts on the government to step in where no one else can. With increased scrutiny, the department, alongside the NGO providers, can work hand in hand to deliver better outcomes.

A government must be held to account where it fails in its duty of care to those children. And we must leave no stone unturned in our efforts to improve the care and protection of children.

The 2016/17 NSW budget papers reveal that 100 child protection jobs are forecast to be cut over the next 12 months, including 56 staff involved in the assessment of children at risk of serious harm and 35 staff supporting children in foster care.

That’s why the recently announced NSW inquiry into child protection, to examine the amount and allocation of resources in the sector, is so important.

There are too many instances where children in care have slipped through the cracks. We cannot tolerate a system where the cascade of mistakes that allowed Braxton to wander into a murky pool and drown can be repeated.

But repeated attempts to access statistics and information under the Government Information Public Access Act are denied, met with the Baird government’s usual secrecy.

Much vaunted attempts to increase transparency and accountability in child protection outcomes, trumpeted by a succession of ministers in the family and community services portfolio, have come to nought. Under this government, things are only getting more opaque.

When the caseworker dashboard was established in 2013, just 28% of all children at risk of significant harm received a face-to-face assessment by a caseworker. Not only has that number remained stagnant for three years, a majority of children in out-of-home care are no longer included in those quarterly statistics because the dashboard does not cover children in the NGO sector.

Children in NSW deserve better than mere bureaucratic sleight of hand.

And just as horrifying is the fact that the NSW government has admitted it does not know how many reports of sexual abuse against children in state care it receives. Compiling totals of alleged abuse incidents was deemed not a “reasonable” use of resources.

How can the government determine where resources are most needed if accurate statistics about abuse aren’t readily available?

And now we hear that at-risk children are being placed in motels, or even worse, sleeping on beanbags in the corner of department offices.

The parliamentary standing committee inquiry into child protection will hopefully shine a light into the full functions and activities of the Department ofFamily and Community Services, as well as the NGO providers they work with.

It will scrutinise the ability of the government’s systems and procedures to identify and investigate the risks facing children in the care of the minister, the systems by which we assess risk, and their overall adequacy and reliability.

Perhaps most crucially, it will examine the adequacy of funding allocated to the department and NGOs for casework and the associated costs of caring for children in care.

Despite a 20% increase in the number of children reported to the department as being at-risk of significant harm, incredibly the Baird government has cut funding for administrative staff in the department. The minister says it won’t affect the jobs of frontline caseworkers. Yet these frontline staff speak of soaring workloads, as the day-to-day administrative tasks overwhelm caseworkers who would otherwise be working to protect children or reunite them with their families.

The inquiry will review the relationship between the department, the NGO providers, and the Office of the Children’s Guardian, the organisation tasked with accrediting providers and carers through the working with children check.

The inquiry will also examine the specific initiatives targeted at our at-risk Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The auditor general has identified the lack of services in rural and remote areas as an area of shortcoming. This inquiry will only reveal more about what can be done in this critical area, especially when it comes to increasing the percentage of children we place in kinship care.

It has been almost eight years since the Wood special commission of inquiry shook up child protection in NSW. In the last five years, the situation in this portfolio has decreased markedly.

It’s high time we took another look at the way we care for at-risk children, because we can ill afford to it get wrong.

Johnny Slager asked for help from the system. The system failed him. And most tragically, it failed Braxton.

Source: The Guardian