Chapter 7 - The future for care leavers
Ensuring that all children and young people are protected
from harm and abusive situations to help reduce the need for placement in out-of-home
care is overwhelmingly supported. As discussed through this report, the Committee
received many calls for a more national and co-operative approach among
governments and other sectors, to tackle child abuse issues in Australia.
Many ideas that were proposed are intertwined. In addition to the many child
abuse and prevention issues that were raised, the need to capture data about
care leavers, irrespective of their age group, was identified as a fundamental
issue so that care leavers needs can be addressed by policymakers. Underlying such
ideas is a need for an ongoing national education program for the prevention of
child abuse. Ideally such a strategy would emphasise the value of children and
young people and how they should be treated, rather than only what is often
occurring in children's lives at present.
National approach to tackling child abuse
provided a comprehensive 'way forward' strategy where the Commonwealth would lead
in conjunction with the States and Territories to combat child abuse and neglect.
Its suggestions include the introduction of an expert group to oversee a
Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Strategy and an inter-departmental
committee to review and improve child abuse and neglect policies and programs,
including those for children with a disability. The organisation's more
practical ideas relate to:
- grants for out-of-home care children for services
such as educational assessments and specialised health care to deal with trauma
from child abuse and neglect;
- support and programs for grandparents, relatives,
kinship and foster carers who have responsibility for children who have been
abused or neglected;
- education and awareness programs relating to
indigenous child abuse; and
- a national 1800 help line for carers of children
in out-of-home care.
The AMA has called for a Commonwealth and
State-Territory national approach to prevent and deal with child abuse, neglect
and recovery. The AMA has also cited the importance of multi-disciplinary
approaches among medical, nursing, teaching, childcare, social work, law and
non-government and government agencies.
The NSW Commission for Children and Young People has also emphasised that good
outcomes for children and young people in care depend very much on the
collaboration of agencies such as health and social security, educational
services, the judiciary, and the courts and law enforcement systems. The
Commission noted the importance of
breaking down the present barriers which are preventing resources from
...training and development activity needs to occur for workers
from different sectors in collaborative teams...where...the federal, state and
non-government sectors work together to develop professional relationships and
to develop a better understanding of each other's practice domain.
A consistent theme in submissions related to the need for
research and data about care leavers, given the lack of data on even the existence
of care leavers using services as well as information about the effects for
them of having been brought up in out-of-home care. The Positive Justice Centre
(PJC) commented on the lack of information on people who have been in care:
Apart from a few inquiries, you will find absolutely no
reference to care leavers in the literature generated by the service providers.
There are no policies, no programs and no research that looks into our needs,
even though this is the core business of those services and would increase the
likelihood that they would achieve their publicly stated goal of reducing
homelessness...through failing to address our special needs they are ensuring
that there is a continuing population to administer.
The PJC has suggested ways to assist care leavers,
including the instigation of longitudinal research on adult care leavers to
determine what programs and policies are needed. Their research design ideas
include those to ensure policy evaluations to identify what works and to inform
policy making as well as to advise agencies on dealing with problems generated
by the child welfare system now, rather than in 10-20 years time.
The PJC also indicated that while one in five adult
prisoners and one in three juvenile prisoners have been in care, there is no
acknowledgment of this in the criminal justice system. They consider that
groups such as the Australian Institute of Criminology and Australian
universities' criminology schools are missing a major opportunity to develop
crime prevention policies and programs that 'actually work'.
CBERSS emphasised that research on care leavers is
important provided that it is the right type of research and not merely for the
sake of someone's PhD thesis, for example. The organisation also noted the
dearth in research particularly that which is relevant for effective
Most of the research has been done with highly biased population,
often psychiatric populations, from which the major concern is trying to
identify risk factors in terms of diagnoses, such as: what are the risk factors
inherent in child abuse experiences that may predispose someone to developing a
personality disorder? Economic costs and some of the social costs of those
experiences are often simply not addressed at all, and there is a great paucity
of literature in that area.
CBERSS quoted major impediments to ascertaining details
of the true extent of child sexual abuse for various reasons including that
little is known of the sequelae of children who are not brought to the
attention of authorities or health professionals.
As noted in Forgotten
Australians, some care leavers consider that agencies such as Centrelink do
not know how to deal with people who have been in institutions and that 'Have you been in care' type questions
should be on forms used by such agencies so that staff are able to provide the
right sort of assistance in a way that is sensitive to care leavers, many of
whom have had a traumatic childhood.
An audit of Australian out-of-home care research was
conducted in 2004 by Judy Cashmore
and Frank Ainsworth.
The researchers identified 94 research projects over a 10-year period and
produced a comprehensive directory on a State and Territory basis of completed
and current research projects, including details of projects' anticipated completion
dates. However, the Positive
Justice Centre was critical of this report contending that the authors failed
to undertake certain research in the past that would be critical of a system
they helped put in place.
Many other suggestions were raised in evidence. The
National Children's and Youth Law Centre has called for continuing research and
exploration of alternatives for children and young people who have experienced
a breakdown in their family or living arrangements. The Australian Institute of Family
Studies (AIFS) has suggested measures such as ensuring a long-term plan for the
child; supporting the placement so that it does not break down; counselling,
support and treatment for the child to address the trauma that led to the need
for alternative care; and engaging a 'mentor' from outside the protective
system to maintain contact with the child throughout his or her moves and on
Work is also being undertaken by the National Child
Protection and Support Services data group to broaden the national data
collection including the introduction of a new national framework to count
responses to calls to community services departments in relation to the safety
and wellbeing of children, including responses that occur outside the formal
child protection system.
The value of children
Apart from moral questions about children's worth and
ensuring that children are properly cared for, that such high levels of child
abuse are continuing in Australia raises questions about the value which
society places on children and in economic terms for all concerned including
the nation. There is significant financial cost from the ever-increasing
substantiated cases of child abuse in Australia.
The AMA has noted that child abuse and neglect are serious public health issues
that can scar people from childhood through to their teens and adult life. Dr
from the AMA, has made the point that the harm and neglect of children need to
be viewed as a public health issue. When referring to the increase in the
number of substantiated cases of child abuse in the 12 months ending 2003, he
...if we had an increase in the incidence of tuberculosis in this
country of the same number and same rate, there'd be a national outcry...the
public would be up in arms, demanding that something be done about it.
Undoubtedly, the considerable strains on the public
purse of child abuse include long-term costs of hospital treatment, correctional
systems, drug and substance abuse programs and income support payments. CBERSS
advised of a study where Family Court expenditure statistics were used and
arrived at the 'conservative' estimate of tangible costs in 1998 to the federal
government of $2,200 per victim of child abuse.
Stanley who has extensive experience of Australian
children's deteriorating health, including from abuse has dubbed this issue as
'real brain drain'. She emphasises the correlation between child abuse and
neglect and other issues such as missing out on education and employment
opportunities and experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems.
Professor Stanley has emphasised the importance of a stable childhood not only
to achieve better situations for individuals but for the nation's 'social
capital'. She pointed out that despite Australia's
wealth and increasing Gross Domestic Product, problems exist for many children.
If you start off compromised, then your whole-of-life chances
are affected and if you start off healthily and well nurtured then you are much
more likely to reach your genetic potential.
The trends I have described suggest that this brain drain is
continuing to rise...Failure to invest in all stages of human development,
particularly in the early years, is being recognised by organisations such as
the World Bank to negatively affect future economic prosperity.
Children who have good early childhood experiences before the
age of six, in stimulating, nurturing environments have better outcomes
throughout their life and the earlier they have these experiences, the better
the result. They have better school grades, better self esteem, fewer social
problems, and fewer health problems and less likely to be teen parents, use
drugs or be involved in crime.
Most parents want to be good parents and want the best for their
children but they need to be equipped and capable to do so. We also need to
look beyond the family to neighbourhoods, workplaces.
has emphasised the importance of nurturing social environments from birth and programs
that enhance child development and has endorsed the use of early-intervention
programs for children. She has noted the importance of a whole of community
effort and the interaction of social, biological, family, child development,
educational and health for life patterns:
Even if we don't particularly care about kids (which I do), even
if we have not got children of our own, even if we only judge everything by an
economic bottom line – this 'brain drain'...is the most concerning and worrying
problem we have.
Public awareness and education - child abuse
CBERSS has noted the effectiveness of campaigns to stem
child abuse citing an American survey of child sexual abuse in 1992-1999
showing that over 50 per cent of the participants mentioned the effectiveness
of prevention programs and public awareness campaigns. The AMA considers that governments
must provide support and education for parents to help prevent child abuse and
neglect. The Tasmanian
Commissioner for Children considers that an acknowledgment of the causes and
effects of child abuse would encourage public awareness and an understanding of
the consequences of such abuse, resulting in a resolve to prevent or minimise
the future abuse of children in care.
A campaign could be beneficial in educating people
about being good parents; informing them of programs which could assist young
people such as care leavers; acting as internal marketing within Commonwealth departments
and agencies such as Centrelink to ensure that staff are aware of care leavers'
needs and reminding society of the high personal and financial costs to
children who are abused, and to the nation as a whole. A campaign could
promulgate information about penalties for abusing children and serve as a way
of deterring potential abusers.
An evaluation of a FaCS education campaign to promote
positive, caring attitudes among adults towards children, showed that
Australians have little understanding about the scale of substantiated child
abuse in Australia
and that few people rate child abuse as a community issue of concern unless
prompted. Of the parents surveyed, 80 per cent want more information about how
to improve their relationship with their children, 71 per cent struggle to find
the time to enjoy activities with their children and three out of four parents
do not believe that parenting comes naturally. These findings are supported by
evaluations of the campaign's parenting seminars showing that parents need
information and support for their parenting roles. A further evaluation is to
be undertaken later in 2005.
As mentioned, concerns have been raised that often
people are not aware of programs which may be able to assist them. Families Australia
noted that often, young people are not aware of any support which may be
available to help them. Evidence has also demonstrated that people who
provide care for children may not know of their entitlements as the following
I was unaware that I was entitled to financial assistance from
DoCS as the children's carer, I was unaware that I was entitled to what DoCS
refer to as an establishment fee of 1 400 per child to help meet the costs
of setting up a home...I was only informed about these entitlements when I met
with a Family Law Court solicitor.
In any public education campaign, good quality developmental
research is a critical element on which to the base the strategy. A wealth of
knowledge about children's experiences in out-of-home care has been gathered in
forums such as the Senate inquiry. This could assist in informing policymakers
with a national strategy which could entail a range of communication avenues
including via the promulgation of specific messages in pamphlets and other
communication products through groups such as GPs' offices, baby health centres,
schools and government offices such as Centrelink, as well as via material
tailored for mainstream print and electronic media outlets and the Internet. Other
professionals who have contact with children such as members of the clergy,
police and legal professions, the judiciary and foster carer associations and
representatives, could also assist in disseminating information and grandparents
are an important group in this regard. Families Australia
quoted 1997 Australian Bureau of Statistics data where approximately 12 000
children aged 14 years and under, were living with their grandparents.
The Committee considers that a role exists for the
Commonwealth Government to instigate a multi-media public education campaign to
help reduce child abuse across Australia
which could be conducted by a lead agency of the Commonwealth. If a national
commissioner for children and young people were established, as recommended
later in this chapter, any national education campaign could come within that
This report provides information on current practices
in the area of child protection in Australia
and the system of out-of-home care. It is evident to the Committee that while
many improvements in child protection have been made in recent years, a great
deal remains to be achieved. A national approach to child care and protection
was discussed in chapter 2.
Recent inquiries in the States and Territories have
identified deficiencies and shortcomings in their child protection regimes. The
States and Territories have responded to recommendations made by these
inquiries. For example, the Queensland Government has adopted a whole-of-government
approach to child protection with the central component the creation of the
Department of Child Safety. The Department will progress a reform agenda to
implement a number of initiatives including training and support for foster
carers and improved external and internal accountabilities with the Department
and the broader child protection system. In the ACT, the Office of Children,
Youth and Family Support was created with the Government aiming to improve
practice and reporting standards.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has placed
family violence and child protection on its agenda as a significant area of
national interest. COAG has focussed on family violence and child protection in
indigenous communities which it sees as a matter of 'grave concern'.
Governments have agreed to the National Framework on Indigenous Family Violence
and Child Protection. The Framework is underpinned by bi-lateral agreements and
jurisdictions will work cooperatively to improve how they engage each other and
with indigenous communities to prevent family violence and child abuse.
The National Plan for Foster Children, Young People and
their Carers has been endorsed and released by the Community and Disability
Services Ministers. Work is currently under way to progress the National Plan's
key areas for action.
There is no doubt that these are significant
developments and that jurisdictions are committed to improving the child
protection system. However, the Committee considers that this is but a 'good
start' and much more needs to be done, and can be achieved, to ensure that all
children in Australia
are protected from abuse and neglect. The huge social and economic costs if our
children's care systems fail are readily apparent in future failed and unfulfilled
While it is acknowledged that the main responsibility
for the implementation and administration of the child protection system rests
with the States and Territories, the Committee considers that the Commonwealth
must play a significant leadership and agenda-setting role in driving the
changes necessary to systems and policies which would more effectively protect
children and young people than has been the case to date. Certainly, examples
exist where the Commonwealth has taken the lead in policy development and
implementation with considerable success, such as, in areas of national
competition policy and a recently-developed national blueprint to deal with Australia's
water resource problems. The Committee considers child protection issues are no
less important, and indeed, are of major importance for the future wellbeing of
The social and economic cost to society of children in
care, while unidentified, is enormous. The costs impact on all levels of
government: State and Territory government through their care and protection
systems and the Commonwealth through various programs and welfare payments to
those in care and after leaving care.
The States and Territories are tackling the particular
challenges within their respective systems. However, there is a danger that the
need for national approaches to problems, cooperation between jurisdictions and
sharing of best practice may be lost as governments focus resources on
implementing policies and practical measures to assist children and young
people and their families, including the day-to-day administration and handling
of child protection issues.
The Committee considers that it is essential that the
reform process goes beyond questions about State-Territory versus Commonwealth
issues. Leadership and direction at the highest national levels are required.
The Committee considers that the Commonwealth, under the leadership of the
Prime Minister and with the cooperation of all jurisdictions, is in a
significant position to take on the national challenge of advancing the child
protection agenda across Australia.
The Committee also considers that the Commonwealth
should establish a national commissioner for children and young people. The
purpose of the commissioner would be to set the agenda to achieve the framework
for a comprehensive national child protection system.
The Committee does not envisage the commission
directing the reform agenda in specific areas but rather to bring together all
jurisdictions – the Commonwealth and States and Territories – so that they may
identify the areas where greater cooperation is required, greater consistency
is needed and where greater sharing of research can be achieved. The Committee
considers that some issues for the agenda should include the need for
uniformity of child protection laws, consistent definitions and common policy
outcomes. There may also be a need to address ways to change the culture of
child protection agencies and how they conduct their activities.
The Committee is all too aware that a national policy
may result in a minimum set of standards. However, in recommending a national
commissioner to advance an agenda, the Committee trusts that the best outcomes
can be achieved in the shortest possible time without constraining the activities
of those States and Territories which are embarking on innovative child
protection approaches that meet their particular needs and circumstances.
The Committee considers that we are at a significant
point where many jurisdictions have identified problems and shortcomings in
their child protection systems and are addressing them. This great impetus
within the States and Territories to commit to and implement change needs to be
harnessed and enhanced to ensure that there is a common approach, greater efficiencies
and effectiveness within the child protection system.
Child protection will always be required: there are a
myriad of causes of child abuse and neglect and any single solution to such
contributory factors is not possible. Early intervention, intensive family
support and programs to show at-risk families, regardless of their
circumstances, situation or coping mechanisms, that help can be available to
assist them are also required to reduce the alarmingly high numbers of
Australian children who are entering the child protection system with
significant, complex and long-term needs.
The Committee considers that genuine improvements for
Australian children in need of care and protection can be achieved under the
leadership of the Commonwealth and the commitment of all stakeholders.
7.38 The Commonwealth establish a national commissioner for
children and young people to drive a national reform agenda for child
protection. In doing so, the national commission should
- bring together all stakeholders, including the
States and Territories, child protection professionals and researchers and peak
organisations, to establish an agenda for change including the identification
of key areas of concern;
encourage the development of innovative models
within the child protection system; and
- encourage State and Territory Governments to
work toward harmonising child protection legislation, including agreement on
7.39 That the Commonwealth engage the Productivity
Commission to undertake an evaluation of out-of-home care to better determine
the real costs to the community of out-of-home care.
Senator Gavin Marshall