Liberal MLC Mathew Mason-Cox’s stinging criticisms of the Berejiklian government’s handling of the troubled — and supposedly under-funded — Family and Community Services portfolio contains blind spots about the real problems in the $2 billion child protection system and the changes under way to fix them.
The claim FACS spends too much on removing children and not enough on helping families stay together is misleading.
The government has not released the full report of the independent Tune Review. But according to the embarrassing summary findings made public, non-government charitable organisations receive substantial funding to provide services for vulnerable parents and children — but are achieving poor outcomes for both families and taxpayers.
The review found that it was “difficult to assess the effectiveness” of the $1.86 billion of taxpayer’s money spent in 2015-16 on at least 61 support programs, as client and expenditure outcomes were “rarely measured or monitored”. It also found that 67 per cent of these programs had not been evaluated, meaning that their “effectiveness is unknown”.
Mason-Cox’s critique highlighted the fact that only 30 per cent of “‘serious risk of harm” reports received by FACS receive a face-to-face investigation.
This is a major and longstanding problem, but it is simplistic to blame insufficient resources. What is crucial is the number of re-reports — multiple notifications involving the same children due to persistent safety concerns.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 70 per cent of the children in NSW who were the subject of a notification in 2015-16 had been reported to FACS before.
FACS practises “family preservation”, which means that all efforts are made to keep children with their struggling parents by providing them with support services, which charitable providers are funded to deliver.
The high number of re-reports demonstrates — consistent with the Tune Review— how ineffective these services are, as does the fact the number of children ultimately being removed into care has more than doubled since 2000, to more than 18,000.
Despite the heavy expenditure, the system is palpably failing to keep children safely at home, or to safely return them home from care. Hence the average total period of time that children spend in care in NSW is a staggering 12.5 years — almost as long as all children spend at school.
The Tune Review has inspired the sweeping “whole of system” changes being rolled out to curb the rapid growth in the out-of-home care. The changes aim to keep more families together and stop children spending most of their childhoods in care.
Under the Their Futures Matter reforms, by 2020 all NSW families with children in, or at risk of, entering care will receive tailored, targeted packages of evidence-based support services to reduce entries to care and achieve successful restorations.
It will also be mandatory for realistic decisions be made about whether restoration to parents is feasible and for all children to find a permanent home within two years of entering care – either through restoration, adoption or guardianship.
The Tune Review’s recommendation for a cross-sector advisory body to be established to oversee reform of the sector may have helped to prevent bureaucratic obstruction by FACS.
But tinkering with governance arrangements is no substitute for the courageous and committed political leadership under premiers Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird, and Gladys Berejiklian, which has ensured the government’s reform agenda is being driven by the Department of Premier and Cabinet rather than FACS.
The NSW government is not simply pouring more money into a failed system. The nation-leading reforms in NSW will make child protection services far more effective and accountable, for the benefit of parents, children and taxpayers.
Jeremy Sammut is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Resetting the Pendulum: Balanced, Effective, Accountable Child Protection Systems and Adoption Reform in Australia.