Many children in the care of the state have been abused and neglected, not only by their families but by the system that was supposed to protect them. It is time for that to change. It is time for all of us to work together to give all our children the life they deserve.
The child protection system in South Australia involves numerous government and non-government agencies who should work together to improve the state’s capacity to protect children. At the heart of the system is the statutory agency, Families SA, which has recently been the subject of a great deal of complaint and dissatisfaction. The heavy focus of this report on reforms to the statutory agency should not be taken as implying that the Agency alone is responsible for the safety of children. For sustainable improvements to the quality of life for children at risk of harm, changes are required well beyond statutory functions at both a government and community level.
The Commission adopted a liberal approach to interpreting its Terms of Reference and conducted a wide-ranging inquiry into the child protection system. Determination of what amounted to a risk of harm was not limited to questions of physical or sexual safety, but was taken to include such matters as emotional, social and educational development. In addition, the Commission examined ways to keep children safe in their environments, such as rotational care and home-based care, and considered the circumstances of children with diverse needs, such as children with disabilities and those in regional or remote locations. The Commission also had regard to preventative and early intervention strategies to keep children and their families out of the child protection system.
This Inquiry reveals a system overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of work, with notifications received every day relating to children living in dire circumstances who desperately need someone to take action on their behalf. In many cases the response comes so late that there is little choice to do anything other than to remove the child from their family.
When this happens it is not always possible to find an alternative care placement that meets their needs. Too many children languish in unsatisfactory rotational care situations (including emergency care) for long periods. As reliance on rotational forms of care has grown in this state, the costs of alternative care have grown to soak up more than 70 per cent of the overall child protection budget. This leaves little to invest in prevention and early intervention strategies to stop children entering the child protection system in the first place.
The reforms recommended in this report will not completely fix the system. Child protection is not a problem with an easily identifiable ‘fix’ or an end point at which the problem can be assessed as solved. The best that can be hoped for is that the proposed reforms improve the system and mark the start of a process of continuous evaluation and improvement.
The Commission’s investigations reveal deficiencies across many parts of the child protection system. Under-investment over many years has hindered much service provision. Efforts to grapple with increasingly complex problems with increasingly limited resources have not worked.
The system itself is based on an outdated model constructed many years ago to respond to specific incidents of child maltreatment that were thought to be isolated and rare. The understanding of child abuse and neglect is now more sophisticated, and simply investigating and responding to specific incidents is no longer adequate.
The child protection system in this state (and in other jurisdictions) has developed with little reliance on understanding and developing the evidence base for interventions and strategies. Other professional disciplines, such as medicine, intervene only after an evidence base is established and the interventions are consistently evaluated. In child protection practice, this approach is less common. It is difficult to know whether the interventions offered are good value for the investment, in the sense that they are making a real difference to outcomes for children and their families.
Similarly lacking is investment in growing the knowledge base of the workforce tasked with managing this complex work. The gap between the complexity of the task, and the resources and skills of the Agency required to manage it, has been filled with innumerable policies and processes in an attempt to bring structure and certainty to the work. However, this array of ‘guidance’ has made little impact on the quality of the work. One of the most striking observations made by the Commission is the yawning gap between policy requirements and day-to-day practice in many areas.