The creation of the Department for Child Protection

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Amanda Shaw Guardian

I am pleased to hear the Government’s commitment to creating the new Department for Child Protection and I look forward to the Guardian’s Office developing a strong relationship with the new Chief Executive and leadership team.

I welcome Commissioner Nyland’s recommendation that the new Department for Child Protection ‘must be headed by a Chief Executive with established credibility in child protection work…’

The new department will be a solid base from which to work on Commissioner Nyland’s other recommendations which will be contained in her full report due for release early in August.

But creation of a new department will not be sufficient in itself.

The new department will immediately need to undertake long-term planning to ensure better placement options for children in care.

The quality and suitability of out-of-home care and the large numbers of children in emergency placements requires urgent attention.

Collaboration between and among government and non-government agencies will be needed to strengthen family support services to prevent children from coming into care where it is safe for them to remain with their families.  Where that’s not possible, we will need to intervene early to protect children and make sure those who come into care do so in a timely and appropriate way.

The new department must ensure there are sufficient numbers of skilled child protection workers with access to regular supervision and support, professional development and information about the latest research promoting best practice.

In these areas and across the whole child protection system we must encourage and support the active voice of children themselves.  If we listen, genuinely listen, children will tell us what is happening for them and what the reinvented system needs to provide.

Expenditure on child protection in South Australia 2014-15


5 April 2016

The quality of a child protection system depends not only on the budget allocated but how that budget is spent. See how South Australia performs compared to other states in what we spend and how we spend it in our handy analysis of the child protection data from the Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2016.

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Cuts to family services can be false economies

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Pam Simmons Guardian

Earlier in the year I had the privilege of responding to a SACOSS conference address by Christopher Stone, Research Director of the Public Service Program at the Centre for Policy Development. His address was about the false economies of across-the-board cuts to public spending, among other things.#
One of the themes of the session was along the lines of: when public institutions cannot do what they promise, public trust in the institution falters and, as a consequence, the public’s willingness to comply with laws and regulations falls. This is typically considered a breach of the social contract.
The ‘state’ supports families in numerous ways: paying for or subsidising education, health care, public transport, childcare, libraries, parks, courts and police. When it comes to helping when the going gets really tough, ambivalence creeps in. Understandably there is a strong element of judgement about who gets help, for how long and at what cost. There are consequences though when the state fails to meet its end of the bargain.
We (the state) have a mandate to provide family services and we encourage expectations of support. Indeed, people get blamed if they do not take up offers of support. Take for example a hypothetical Family Q. Family Q has a reunification or safety plan which has half a dozen things they must do for the safety of their children.
Expenditure on family services though is rationed and, in real terms, sometimes cut. Family Q are overwhelmed because of ordinary and extraordinary demands and crises. They have a schedule of appointments to keep, only some of which they think will help them. The family support worker has more families and engages less with Family Q for lack of time.
When Family Q misses repayments, appointments and phone calls we think that Family Q is not really serious about doing the right thing. There is disappointment, disillusion and possibly even disrespect on both sides. The relationship with Family Q is now tense, highly emotional, with a heap of shared anxiety and possibly resentment.
The communication from the agency becomes more impersonal and directive. Family Q starts to receive letters of warning, missed calls on their phones, and sometimes more referrals to services they don’t want. Their resistance and resentment grows.
The family services department documents it all and prepares to report on non-compliance.
Family Q makes a complaint that they were not given a chance to prove they could safely care for their children. The court makes a decision that the child is better off in out of home care than living with ongoing uncertainty and chaos.
Trust has gone and all contact with the family services department is avoided, or if it can’t be avoided, is contested.
This story is over-simplified but it illustrates how a public institution that is potentially supportive, cooperative and helpful can shift to one that is controlling and scrutinising. Rule compliance becomes the currency between bureaucrat and client. Managing disagreements in the form of complaints becomes a major part of the business.
The reform underway in our child protection agency is the start of a transformation which needs to be matched with legislative change, family services planning and financial backing.

# See The reference for this letter is primarily in MacDermott, K and Stone, C (August 2013) Occasional Paper: Death by a Thousand Cuts: How governments undermine their own productivity, CPD Australia.


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How does SA compare in expenditure on child protection and related areas?

CP expenditure graph 2-11-12

Australian Productivity Commission figures show that South Australia spent the least per child* on child protection services of all Australian states in 2011-12, about 70 per cent of the Australian average.  This, comparisons on out-of-home care and intensive family support services and the historical trends are in the Guardian’s report Expenditure on child protection, out-of-home care and intensive family services.

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*  The ‘per child’ rate is the rate for all children, not limited to those who receive services.

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‘The best predictor of good outcomes is engagement’

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Pam Simmons Guardian

Practice wisdom and the more rigorous evidence base, tell us that early intervention with families experiencing problems will benefit children and their families.  Investment in universal programs for parents and children is good investment.  The programs usually reach those who can and do seek help.  Targeted services are good investment too, and bring help to the families who don’t always know they need it.

The families that worry us most are the ones who have high need and are excluded, sometimes by program design or failure to engage, or because they self-exclude.  It is their children who are at highest risk of harm and for whom the statutory child protection system exists.  On the one side there is a family who can’t or won’t get their children to the GP or to school.  On the other are ‘visitors’ who are offering help.  What could be easier than that?

In truth, what could be more difficult?  For a start, everyone is afraid.  The families are fearful of judgement and punishment. They fear losing their children, they fear being found out, they resent external authority.  The world they occupy is not the world the visitors know. The visitor is an alien, who assumes the right of entry and the moral right to judge.

The ‘visitor’ – the social worker, health worker, truancy, police, or tenancy officer – is afraid too.  Not always and not all of them but if you are new to the job, you are often unprepared for the mess, the threat, the chaos and the attitude. You come offering help and in return you get disdain or anger or bemusement.

We have a choice to continue to focus effort on rescuing children from ‘bad parents’ or we work more with families to be responsible for the good care of their children.  Easily said, not easily done.  Experience in the UK and elsewhere of attempts to make such radical change, that is, to move from an investigation-driven child rescue system to a family support model, suggests that it cannot be done without significant structural and cultural change.*

There are many good ideas about the structural change required and some have commenced; fewer ideas about the cultural change.  Professor Marianne Berry, then Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection, addressed cultural change in a public address in SA late last year, when she talked in detail about the importance and challenge of engagement with families.  She turned the ‘visitor’s’ view of the family into the family’s view of the visitor. What the family saw was someone in their home who doesn’t look like them, making a list, and leaving them with brochures, letters and phone numbers.

Professor Berry said that the best predictor of good outcomes is engagement.  Among other things, this means no judging or blaming parents or children, listening without jumping in to help, working towards goals with the same sense of urgency as the family, providing practical support, and being honest.

In turn the visiting worker needs the calm and wisdom of a senior officer who provides a depth of discussion on return to the office, respect for opinions and shared decisions to act and not react.  They will also need flexible funds for some creative solutions and timely cooperation from other agencies as needed.

While the structural changes bringing child health, education and child protection government agencies under one umbrella continue, we need to have a conversation and take action on delivering services in a very different way.

* See Higgins, D and Katz I (2008) Enhancing service systems for protecting children: Promoting child wellbeing and child protection reform in Australia Family Matters No, 80 pp 43-50.

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Joining Hands and Minds

…is a powerful coalition of Aboriginal groups and service providers to support and develop Aboriginal children and families in the south of Adelaide.

This is an extract from the third panel of the painting Diversity of One – Working Together by Indigenous artist Max Mansell. It celebrates the JHM shared lunch event at Port Willunga in January 2011.

It has its origins in a task group formed in the wake of a 2007 conference and consultation with Southern Aboriginal Workers Network, the Southern Elders Group and the ATSI team in Southern Primary Health.

Following the federal government’s apology in February 2008 and the first Joining Hands and Minds Open Space Forum in December 2008, the group, consulting with the Elders, settled on the name Joining Hands and Minds (JHM) Task Group.

‘We make sure that our membership reflects the voice of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people’, says JHM co-chair, Allan Wanganeen, Aboriginal Liaison Officer with Uniting Care Wesley.

‘We believe non-Aboriginal people also need to take responsibility and action to challenge and change beliefs, attitudes and actions that impact on Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and that this should be done in partnership with and informed by Aboriginal community members and service providers.

‘The task group brings the voices of Aboriginal people into its work by building relationships with Aboriginal workers, members of local Aboriginal communities and local Elders and works alongside other activities and forums in the region.’

Co-chairman Chris Martin, Community Development Officer for the City of Onkaparinga, says that JHM provides a much needed opportunity for workers to reflect on their practices and share their stories and resources.

‘The group works in practical ways to educate our workplaces and the wider community, not only on the struggles, but also the rich cultures alive in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.’

JHM’s membership includes Relationships Australia, Southern Primary Health Noarlunga, DECD, DSCI, SAPol, Southern WomenÕs Health, City of Onkaparinga, Mental Illness Fellowship of South Australia, Community Partnerships at Work, Southern Junction, Quit SA, The Second Story, Family Relationships Australia, Uniting Care Wesley, CAHMS, Communities for Children and the Southern Adelaide Domestic Violence Service.


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ISG a vital tool in early intervention

Access Economics’ November 2008 report, The Cost Of Child Abuse In Australia, estimated the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in 2007 at  $4 billion. The report conservatively places the value of related costs at a further $6.7 billion.1

The social and psychological costs of child abuse and neglect to individuals and communities are huge and those who pay most are the children and young people who have been abused or neglected. According to a major review conducted by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse in 20052, child abuse is associated with low self-esteem, increased fear, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, homelessness, suicide and many other physical and mental ailments. Even for resilient individuals, these events can have a significant negative impact on success in employment, educational attainment, relationships, parenting and capacity to participate in and contribute to society.

Over the past decade the focus of child protection policy has moved away from punitive measures to an emphasis on early intervention, improved interagency collaboration and education strategies.

The key to success is to intervene early, when children are beginning to experience difficulty, share the warning signs, collaborate and take action before the problems become entrenched.

Keeping Them Safe p.12 3

Child protection reviews and reports, like the 2009 National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the 2003 Layton Review Report, advocate early intervention, interagency collaboration and improved information sharing among agencies.

In October 2008 the South Australian State Cabinet endorsed the Information Sharing Guidelines for Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of Children, Young People and their Families (ISG), a state wide framework setting out how information can be shared to enable early and more effective coordination of services and to prevent further harm.

The first stage of implementing the ISG began in mid 2009. Participating agencies report that:

•   The ISG supports and expands on existing good practice within organisations.

•   There is benefit in having one overarching framework that provides a consistent approach and explains simply and directly how and when to share information and for what purpose.

•   Acting to protect vulnerable children and young people frequently involves sharing information about the adults whose behaviour poses a risk to the safety and wellbeing of the children and young people they relate to.

•   Supporting vulnerable adults supports vulnerable children.

We work from an early intervention and systemic framework anyway, so we always consider the safety and wellbeing of the whole family in what we do. The ISG reinforce that. This process makes staff feel more confident they are doing the right thing.

Group Manager, UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide

Every family that is successfully supported will save the costs to government of investigations, prosecutions, responding to homelessness and provision of state care, mental health facilities, drug and alcohol services and other services.

We have some very strong interagency groups set up across the region and we are continuing to set these up in areas of need. The ISG, and particularly the flow chart, have been used as an induction tool for these groups. Information sharing for us has been significantly supported by the existence and promotion of the ISG. … if anything it’s legitimised the practice we have always had and has strengthened interagency collaboration by removing some of the aspects of uncertainty that seemed to exist across agencies in the past.

Regional Manager Support Services, DECS

The final word is from a Child and Family Health Service worker about a positive intervention involving a young mother and her six day-old child escaping family violence:

… the ISG gave all of the workers involved in this case the extra tools and permission they needed to ‘join the dots’ and provide the multi-agency support this family really needed.


1  Taylor, P., Moore, P., Pezzullo, L., Tucci, J., Goddard, C. and De Bortoli, L. (2008). The Cost of Child Abuse in Australia, Australian Childhood Foundation and Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia: Melbourne.

2  N. Richardson, Social costs: The Effects Of Child Maltreatment, National Child Protection Clearinghouse, AIFS, Resource Sheet no. 9, 2005.

3  Government of South Australia (2004) Keeping Them Safe

Fewer children to rescue – more families to help

Pam Simmons Guardian

Working in human services is rewarding and challenging, and child protection every bit so. I was reminded of this during Child Protection Week when I listened to Justice Robyn Layton talk of the need to combine practice supported by evidence of effectiveness, with personalised and individualised service. This requires a high level of skill and use of professional knowledge. A great deal of satisfaction results when they come together to help and empower someone in need.

At the same time, I was reading Rosemary Kennedy’s book Duty of Care in the Human Services: Mishaps, Misdeeds and the Law. The responsibility sometimes feels overwhelming, not for fear of legal action but for fear of getting it wrong and the harm caused. Ms Kennedy comprehensively argues that, while the costs of mistakes are high, the value placed on human services is relatively low. The low value attributed to human services partly stems from society’s unease about the people we serve and the ambivalence about those considered ‘undeserving’.

This ambivalence is seen at times in implementing policy and planning. Six years ago, when the State Government responded to Justice Layton’s comprehensive review of child protection, the resulting plan, Keeping Them Safe, inspired a collective effort to do better by children. It also resulted in two significant boosts to the budget, the first in 2004-05 and the second in 2006-07. The bit of the plan that suffered under the twin handicaps of low value and ambivalence was family services.

As simplistic as this analysis seems, I think society feels good about rescuing children and, at the same time, feels bad, and angry, about parents’ failure. So the subsequent financial and human investment shifts from the ‘feel bad’ to the ‘feel good’.

Those of us who work in human services often end up overwhelmed, and troubled, by rescuing children while lacking the resources to intervene to prevent harm occurring in the first place. Six years ago, at the release of Keeping Them Safe, there were 4.2 children per thousand on care and protection orders. There are now around seven in a thousand. It is not that children are being brought into care unnecessarily. Far from it. Partly it is that decisions to take action are being made when children are younger. Very likely it is also partly explained by curtailed intervention services for families in crisis.

A similar fate awaits the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. Simon Schrapel, Chief Executive of UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide, drew attention to this in a June 2010 opinion piece Can A National Approach Really Make a Difference?. [Sorry, this link is no longer available] Early action on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of out of home care standards and a common approach to assessment, referral and support, he says, will not revolutionise the way we protect children and young people.

What will make a difference to the growing child protection demand are services to families in high need. Our most vulnerable children live in families grappling with drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and violence, sometimes compounded by isolation and poverty. Greater focus on family services by federal and state governments will not stop the growth in numbers of children requiring state care but it will slow it down.

Even if South Australia reduced the growth to five per cent instead of the average nine per cent now, that’s 93 children at the end of the 2010-11 year who would not be in state care. The change would not happen in a single year, and probably not two or three, but it would happen. Fewer children to rescue but more families to help. This is a whole lot more satisfying and empowering for all. And working in human services would be that much more satisfying.

Helping neglected children


Pam Simmons Guardian

Dramatic events in several states, including South Australia have sparked nationwide interest in the neglect of children. While we would all wish that the responses to children’s needs were swift and adequate, and certainly prevent tragedy, this cannot be guaranteed. No child protection system is foolproof. What we aim to do is to make it as strong and responsive as possible.

Neglect is an awkward concept to work with because it depends so much on prevailing standards of care, which change over time and over cultural context. It is very difficult to assess what is ‘good enough parenting’. Let’s not forget too that the concept of ‘neglect’ has a particular shameful history in its use against Aboriginal families. The Bringing Them Home report provided evidence of Aboriginal children being seen as one and the same as neglected children.

Regardless of the difficulty of defining neglect, it is seriously damaging for children and that is why the public debate should be welcomed, albeit preferably not in the heat of real or just averted tragedies. The public will help decide what the child protection system will respond to by discussing what are acceptable standards of care and safety and by learning about responsibilities before statutory intervention.

The underlying features of neglect such as low income, substance abuse, homelessness, the burden of sole parenting and mental illness, are complex and often chronic. The child protection system, in its narrow sense, is not well placed to deal with these entrenched problems and services to support the family must come from other quarters. However, someone must take responsibility for working closely with the family to progressively address the needs of the children. The community does not care who does it as long as it is done.

One of the uglier sides of the recent public attention was the damning of ‘welfare mothers’ for having more children. Birth rates are falling across every social group and are falling faster at the lower end of the economic range. However, it is reasonable to question whether a one-off lump-sum payment like the baby bonus is the best way to offset the significant costs of having a child. The debate here leaves open the bigger question for Australia of a paid maternity leave scheme paid to all regardless of employment and replacing the baby bonus and maternity payments. It could be accompanied by a children’s trust fund with payments to all children at birth and at regular intervals for use on turning 18.

It is not acceptable to say that the responsibility for children’s wellbeing rests solely with individual families. Good outcomes for children are not determined by leaving families alone nor by the wealth of a country. Good outcomes are decided by policies which focus on family support, valuing parenthood, early childhood services and reducing inequalities. And for children at high risk we need a robust child protection system that responds confidently to family problems and children’s needs.

Helping families care for kids

While more children are in state care, families at risk have been neglected by successive governments in South Australia. The erosion of funding for intensive services for families in serious trouble stems back to the 1990s and by 2006-07 this state spent only $4.81 per child compared to a national average of $30.07. Our expenditure in this area has fallen 10 per cent since 2002-03 while the national trend is a rise of 81 per cent over that same period.

This is important because, at the same time, South Australia has had a 37 per cent rise in the numbers of children in state care. In response to this the government has significantly increased expenditure on child protection and alternative care.  However, much of the additional expenditure is meeting demand from the previous year.  We are chasing our tail on child protection.

Our response to child abuse and neglect has largely narrowed to what the government agency can do in investigating reports, seeking court orders and removing children, as a last resort. The social worker faced with a child at risk has too few options. They can pick up the pieces but they do not have the time to get in early to stop the downward spiral.

Most other Australian states and territories face the same problem of a growing number of reports of child abuse or neglect and escalating demand for out of home care.

Projections in NSW show that, if current trends continue, one in every five children born in 2007 will be reported to the Department by the age of 18.

This is a shocking prospect. If we do nothing other than remove children at risk we will have many more in state care than five in a thousand, as we have now.  But the more probable scenario is that the child protection system becomes so overwhelmed with investigations, court orders and removals that the truly high-risk situations get missed.

Further, the more children we take into care the less likely we are to be able to provide a safe caring alternative.

Another approach, and one that seems to be working in Victoria, is two-pronged: invest well in looking after children in state care and invest equally well in helping families in trouble. This is not simply parenting classes, information brochures, and fortnightly visits by a nurse, all of which are good. This is something much more intensive to help families with major and protracted problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, spiralling debt and mental illness.

Early evidence in Victoria shows that where a sustained effort to help families in high need has been made, child protection reports, substantiations and court orders have fallen.

This is not cheap. Victoria commits around $75 million per year for family support services, $22 million of that in intensive services. This state reports around $2 million for intensive services. South Australia has recently spent wisely and well on universal children’s services such as home visiting and children’s centres. These universal services will benefit all children but children most in need require something more.

We understandably question why abusive or neglectful families should be given a second chance. Fair enough – a child’s safety and wellbeing comes first. But children need families and the state cannot always provide an effective substitute.

Removing children to punish parents also punishes children. It is not done lightly and, in most cases, the decision to remove children permanently is not done suddenly. But we would be so much more confident that we were doing right by children if we had first seen what their parents could do, with help.

Pam Simmons

Guardian for Children and Young People

This piece was first published in The Advertiser on 30 May 2008.