NSW Out of Home Care Reform – A game changer?

| November 25, 2016

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird has revealed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s child protection system. Dr Kirsty Nowlan from the Benevolent Society wants to see that the policy delivers the protection all children should receive as their birth right.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s recent announcement that there would be game changing reforms to child protection in NSW is a welcome response to the Tune Review.

Those experiencing or working in the system have long raised the alarm that the system is broken; that too much money is being invested into the crisis end of the system; that major reform is needed if we are genuinely committed to better outcomes for children.

The statistics tell a story of a spiralling crisis with the numbers of children in care having doubled during the past ten years, to almost 20,000 children. The untold human story is that the children behind these numbers have:

  • Greater experiences of physical and sexual abuse
  • Greater emotional and behavioural disturbance
  • Poor mental health
  • Poor physical health
  • Worse education and employment outcomes

The current system inadvertently feeds this intergenerational trauma. As a society we continue to put children at risk of harm through inadequate and partial responses to the signs of risk. Significant disruption is needed to achieve the fundamental level of change required to turn this around.

The Tune Review has clearly been highly influential in shaping the direction of government reforms. The review process has, however, been shrouded in mystery. The full report hasn’t been released so there is limited opportunity to interrogate whether the promised game changing reforms are likely to provide the cut through that previous reports have so obviously failed to deliver.

The system that supports vulnerable children and families is not new to reviews and reforms. In fact there have been 17 major inquiries and reports into child protection since 2006. The lack of engaged conversation from the sector in response to the report is striking. We all want to see children and families safe; it’s one of the most basic aims of a good society. So what is the real challenge: lack of resources? Systemic racism? Inefficiencies? And will this latest reform agenda address them?

The proposed Tailored Support Packages – a linchpin of this policy – is a welcome shift towards child and family centred support; however, with a financial commitment that only supports the program to be delivered to children already in the Out of Home Care system and families at imminent risk of entry to it, this reform agenda risks replicating past failures.

Certainly, breaking down government silos so that vulnerable families get the cross sector support they need is a welcome announcement. The cross government co-ordination to be undertaken by a new commissioning unit within FACS though raises a few unanswered questions: Through what structures will the agencies co-operate, how will the power of that unit extend to the resources of another agency, how will it be financed and measured and who will report to whom?

The paper released on Friday 18 November by the Department of Community Services is scant in detail, and questions arise as one considers the process of getting this new approach into practice in a way that can achieve the real outcomes that it seeks to deliver.

The report and response acknowledge that mental health, domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems are drivers of child abuse and neglect. The reforms propose that by providing support to families struggling with these issues will increase the safety of children. This is an approach long held and advocated for by the sector.

What the Government’s response fails to address is the extreme social disadvantage often experienced by these families. With such an omission the process may result in it being yet another shuffling of the decks without bringing about the change that is so desperately needed.

The immediate investment in the six reform objectives for the 2016-2017 year is overall welcome. However, following are some points to consider:

  • A commitment to investing in evidence informed practice is something that shouldn’t in itself require a reform action. It should be something that we expect of good government. The budget commitment allocated raises the question of what economic modelling has taken place that informed the level of investment: Is it sufficient? And crucially, how much is needed to prevent families from reaching crisis point?
  • Managing exits from out of home care, specifically focussed on permanency planning, must be done with the best interests of the child in mind and not driven by a policy response that uses adoption to drive down the numbers (and cost) of children in Out of Home Care.
  • With 36.8% of children in Out of Home Care being Aboriginal, it is essential that there is genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities in practice, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are empowered to create and deliver local solutions, including respect for and resourcing of Aboriginal family-led decision making.
  • Reform actions connected to the enhancing of government data analytics capability fall short of viewing the issue through the lens of the best interest of the child. With a focus on the investment approach and contracting, the policy fails to address the data gaps throughout a child’s life pathway that would enable earlier interventions.

The other strange anomaly as all this takes place is the concurrent inquiry being undertaken by the NSW Legislative Council into Child Protection. What more will we learn, when and how might it contribute to the reform process in a way that ensures increased child and family health and wellbeing and how might the recommendations be integrated into this reform process.

The reforms proposed in Their Futures Matter: A new approach certainly appears to be seeking to address some of the hallmark challenges of past decades, although more detail is required before anyone can say the policy is on target. Whilst the sector waits for more detail, the broader question still remains – how do we as a society ensure that the policy delivers the protection that all children should receive as their birth right?