Tuesday, 6 May 2008
Justice James Wood
Special Commission of Inquiry in to Child Protection Services in NSW
PO Box K1026
Haymarket NSW 1240
Dear Justice Wood
I write to support urgent action for a more effective child protection system.
The recent deaths of a number of children that were known to DoCS are cause for action; however there have been serious concerns about child protection and family support for some years. I share community concern about the Department of Community Services’ ability to protect children who are at risk and to help prevent abuse.
My submission addresses the following Inquiry terms of reference:
1. The adequacy of resources in the child protection system,
2. The adequacy of the current statutory framework for child protection including roles and responsibilities of mandatory reporters, DoCS, the courts and oversight agencies,
3. Professional capacity and professional supervision of the casework and allied staff,
4. The system for reporting child abuse and neglect, including mandatory reporting, reporting thresholds and feedback to reporters.
Constituents regularly ask me to contact DoCS about lack of action and feedback when they report concerns about children’s’ safety. Constituents regularly tell me that there is poor communication from DoCS officers about their family or reports about other families.
Media reports, research and comment from peak bodies such as NCOSS and ACWA all identify that DoCS has been chronically under staffed. Severely limited resources mean that the child protection system is lopsided, with available resources focussed on crisis and very limited capacity for prevention or early intervention.
I share the high level of community concern that resources must be directed towards prevention and support before crisis, which is more cost effective as well as producing better outcomes for children and communities. There is strong evidence that community level changes and programs based on family strengths can prevent the need for intervention and costly crisis services, foster care and removal of children from their families.
My submission calls for:
ignificant increases in prevention and early intervention services;
Action to address workforce problems, including staff training, incentives to retain experienced staff and support for less experienced staff;
Changes to Children’s Court proceedings to reduce the adversarial nature of court action;
Expansion of DoCS Helpline resources in order to reduce waiting times and provide feedback to the community about action taken on reports made; and
Dialogue and service development with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to deliver culturally appropriate services.
There is considerable research to show that early intervention reduces the incidence of child abuse and neglect. NCOSS reports that early intervention programs have the capacity to “reduce the need for more drastic, or crisis, intervention”. The 2007 DoCS Literature Review on early Intervention Strategies for children and young people aged 8-14 concludes, “Relatively brief [parenting] programs that focus on enhancing parenting and family communication have been found to show significant preventative effects, even six years after the delivery of the program”.
There is a strong correlation between child abuse and problems later in life, including mental illness, substance abuse, anti-social behaviour, crime and imprisonment. The 2007 Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission study found a connection between adult drug and alcohol abuse and negative childhood experiences.
While crisis intervention can stop abuse from continuing and remove children from crisis situations, many children will carry physical and psychological scars and continue to suffer adverse effects.
DoCS’ voluntary early intervention program Brighter Futures has only been implemented in one third of DOCS Community Centres in NSW. Other early intervention services such as Families First and the Aboriginal Child, Youth and Family Strategy also need support. I share community concern about service integration and communication, so that families and communities get help as early as possible.
Expert peak bodies such as NCOSS and the Association for Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) continue to call for more emphasis on early intervention programs. NCOSS reports that early intervention programs are generally only available to people who are already in crisis situations.
I have supported community calls through National Investment For the Early Years (NIFTeY) for:
Child- and family-friendly policy frameworks, with all new policies screened for impact on families and children;
Appropriate support for all women to ensure healthy pregnancies;
Family-friendly work practices in all NSW workplaces;
Using the Australian Early Development Index to help plan and review prevention and early intervention programs;
Comprehensive and universal early years support with home visits and free universal access to early childhood centres.
My requests supported priority access to these programs for children from at-risk and disadvantaged backgrounds, but these are important programs that should be available for all young children. I share community concern that all children should get the support and opportunities to begin a healthy, high quality life.
Early intervention should be used to prevent crises, and should be available to all families.
I recommend that the NSW Government invest in prevention and early intervention services and make them available across all of NSW.
Numerous media reports have identified chronic staff shortages at DoCS. Child protection is a complex and high stress responsibility, and these officers deserve appropriate compensation, training and support.
Media reports suggest that inexperienced officers have been required to take high stress, high responsibility positions without adequate training and support. While there has been progress on staff retention, burnout and high staff turnover are indicators that DoCS must allocate more resources to attract and support new child protection staff, as well as retain experienced officers.
I recommend that DoCS;
Fund child protection university positions and specialist courses to train additional officers for this role;
Provide incentives to retain experienced child protection staff; and
Expand training and support for less experienced staff.
ACWA and Banardos have called for greater use of alternative dispute resolution in order to prevent the need for costly, rigid and adversarial Children’s Court hearings. While the Children’s Court may be required to act formally in some cases, experts in the field believe that alternative dispute resolution could achieve better outcomes and encourage families to work cooperatively with DoCS before problems are entrenched.
I recommend that the Government provide for Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms in Children’s Court proceedings in order to reduce the adversarial nature of court action.
I regularly hear complaints about the waiting times and lack of feedback from the DoCS Helpline. Residents tell me that they give up waiting on the telephone to report concerns about children, and that there is no feedback from DoCS about their reports when they do make them. There are ongoing concerns about the Helpline being inundated with calls that are made only in order to comply with mandatory reporting requirements, rather than to address a real concern about the safety or wellbeing of a child.
I share community concern that reports of child abuse or neglect should focus on children who are at risk, rather than preventing potential court action against the reporter. Despite improvements there are still long wait times to speak with a caseworker. The Helpline should either be restructured to improve wait times, or given more resources so that more officers are available to take calls.
There has been an exponential increase in child abuse and neglect reports. The DoCS submission to this Inquiry on mandatory reporting says that reports to the help line increased 19% in 2006/7 from 2005/6, With 286,033 reports received compared to 241,003 reports received the year before. In 2001/2 there were 159, 643 reports made; an additional 126,390 reports in a few years. These recent increases continue a long term trend of dramatically increasing child protection reports.
A number of constituents and welfare organisations are concerned that the DoCS Helpline is not always appropriate because the officers staffing it have no local knowledge or relationship with the affected family or community, and all reports are merely “statistics”.
Peak bodies such as ACWA have suggested that the Helpline is not the best way of receiving reports from citizens, and calls for a community focused approach built around local DoCS offices where people are able to report to someone face to face. This model would enable local staff to focus on a particular community, and give the community familiar workers who know local issues and families.
I recommend that the DoCS Helpline be restructured to improve waiting times, and that DoCS provide alternatives where citizens can report and discuss concerns personally.
The Department of Community Services appears to be in a constant state of chaos, review and restructuring, with12 years of structural and key personnel changes up to 2002. Recent media comment has continually reported poor outcomes for children and families, mismanagement, poor communication, and lack of resources. In 2002, the Ombudsman reported that communication between staff was also poor because of poor record keeping.
I share community concern that DoCS resources and efforts should be directed at service delivery and not further internal restructuring, personnel changes and job reclassification. While all organisations need to adapt and improve, there is widespread community concern that restructuring has prevented action in service delivery.
I recommend that the Government require DoCS to adopt best practice continuous review and improvement practices, but allow the agency to focus on service delivery without further restructuring.
I commend the NSW Government for increasing DoCS funds this year by 11.6% as the final instalment of the 2002 $1.2 billion enhancement for child protection. The increase in funds to Juvenile Justice to meet growing demand is also welcome.
However funds to most community organisations have not been increased beyond CPI adjustments for many years. Non-Government organisations provide essential community building, prevention and early intervention services. Community organisations provide services as playgroups where parents can learn from other parents, family and relationship counselling in low-key non-threatening environments. Community organisations have traditionally offered flexible and responsive services to meet local community needs, which Government is unable to provide.
Community organisations regularly contact me about the need to maintain and expand the Community Services Grants Program (CSGP) because it is flexible and can work at individual, family, group and community level. I have repeatedly asked for additional funds to support the many community organisations on which the Government and community rely to help disadvantaged people and build strong communities.
I have also supported calls from the Every Kid Coalition for the Government to provide:
Professional home visiting services to families with babies and young children;
Integrated child and family centres in every disadvantaged community;
Respite care for children at risk; and
Intensive family support services in areas of high need.
The Government must invest in the resources to enable this sector to identify families in need early and provide support to prevent the need for more intensive action.
I recommend that the Government increase funds for Community Organisations, particularly in Out of Home Care and the Community Services Grants Program.
There is a long and troubled relationship between Indigenous Australians and “the welfare”, and this has resulted in a deep mistrust of Government child protection services. At the same time, Indigenous children are more than five times as likely to be the subject of substantiated child protection report.
The Families First web site identifies that, “[T]here is a significant gap in health and educational achievement between Aboriginal young people and non-Aboriginal young people. As well, Aboriginal young people continue to have higher rates of involvement in the criminal justice system and Aboriginal families are over-represented in child protection notifications. In some Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal children and young people are at very high risk of harm and neglect.“
I commend programs like Families First and the Aboriginal Child, Youth and Family strategy; however, there has been a history of Governments trying to ”fix” Aboriginal communities and families by imposing solutions from outside. Existing programs that work with Indigenous communities need to be strengthened, and services that perform well need to be properly funded to continue to perform well.
I recommend that DoCS work with local Indigenous communities to develop and implement culturally appropriate programs that suit individual communities across NSW.
I share community concern that urgent action is required to prevent child abuse and neglect and improve the capacity of the Department of Community Services and community organisations to help families with children.
My submission recommends:
Funding for child protection training and specialist courses, incentives for staff retention and better support for less experienced staff;
Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms in Children’s Court proceedings in order to reduce the adversarial nature of court action;
Restructuring the DoCS Helpline to improve waiting times, and provide alternatives where citizens can report and discuss concerns personally;
DoCS adopt best practice continuous review and improvement practices, but no further restructuring so that the agency can focus on service delivery;
Working with local Indigenous communities to develop and implement culturally appropriate programs that suit individual communities across NSW.
Member for Sydney
Related information: | Community Services |