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Speech by The Hon Larry Anthony MP

Annual General Meeting of the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia

Location: Rydges Eagle Hawke Resort, Canberra

Ladies and gentlemen

Introduction

Thank you Simon for your introduction.

And thank you to the Association for giving me the opportunity to speak at your Annual General Meeting.

I understand this AGM is in the middle of your three-day symposium, which is looking at some crucial out of home care issues and challenges.

Out of home care and the issues that go with it are very difficult areas.

There are no easy solutions to the problems especially when it comes to foster care and child protection.

The situation is not helped, of course, by the complexities of our system of government, with its split between federal and state responsibilities.

Getting media and public attention

But from my point of view, the more attention we get, the more chance we have of achieving better outcomes for Australian children, in the long run.

If one good thing came out of the recent media attention on foster care and child protection more broadly, it’s that the media and community are now much more aware of the prevalence of child abuse in our society.

As the federal Minister with direct responsibility for children at the national level, I want to get the issues as much coverage as possible, and I want all Australians to start talking openly and constructively about how to move forward.

In this context, while I don’t agree with everything they said, I welcomed the contribution a couple of weeks ago from Families Australia, on how they thought we could best tackle child abuse and neglect in Australian communities.

Commitment to children from the top down

For its part, the Australian Government is taking a strong stand on these issues.

Indeed, we had well and truly acted in many of the areas identified by the Families Australia recommendations, well in advance of the release of their campaign document and media release.

The Prime Minister, himself, is a very staunch ally in getting more work done to support Australian families, to foster positive early childhood development, and to prevent child abuse.

In May, for example, John Howard announced $10 million for projects under the National Agenda for Early Childhood to help parents build skills and to support vulnerable children.

Last month, the Prime Minister also committed $20 million, he called it a ‘down-payment’ to try and address some of the tragic consequences of violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities.

The money will go on finding community solutions to drug and alcohol abuse and on increasing awareness amongst young Indigenous people about sexual assault.

I also have the firm support of some very committed and powerful Ministers.

Many cover children’s issues in their own portfolios, for example:

  • Senator Amanda Vanstone in Family and Community Services
  • Darryl Williams, the Attorney-General
  • Senator Kay Patterson in Health
  • Brendan Nelson in Education, Science and Training
  • Phillip Ruddock in Immigration and Indigenous Affairs
  • Senator Chris Ellison in the area of Justice

On a national scale, the Australian Government also spends $19 billion a year on a variety of targeted, family payments that support Australian families with children.

I know your Association is a strong supporter of taking an early intervention approach.

This is something I’m passionate about, as well.

Since coming to power, we have spent unprecedented amounts on a range of programs to assist families before things escalate and they hit rock bottom.

This includes:

  • the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy,
  • the Men and Family Relationships program, and
  • the Child Abuse Prevention Program.

From the Prime Minister down, the Australian Government is also fully behind the National Agenda for Early Childhood and the work I’m doing with the states and territories to develop a National Plan for Foster Children and their Carers.

I’ll come to both of these in a moment.

Child protection

But let’s look first at child protection.

I’m the first to admit, we still have a long way to go.

Last week, Child Protection Week, highlighted this.

The latest information from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that substantiations of child abuse and neglect increased from nearly 25,000 in 1999-2000 to more than 30,000 in 2001-02.

I’m sure these figures come as no surprise to you.

But let’s face it, we don’t really know how big the problem actually is, because many cases still go unreported.

Tackling this, and other child welfare concerns, is made doubly difficult because in Australia, State and Territory Governments each have their own legislation, policies and practices on children’s issues.

The states and territories all have slightly different systems and they are struggling to keep up with the rate of social change that is occurring in Australia.

While some recent budget announcements suggest an increased commitment on the part of states and territories to child protection, they are failing to come up with answers.

At the same time, I’ve always said child protection is one of the toughest areas that states have to deal with.

Most states have had inquiries into their own child protection systems.

Yet, none has been able to reverse the trend of increasing numbers of substantiated child abuse cases.

I often come under pressure from my Federal Parliamentary colleagues for not getting stuck into the States about their lack of progress in this area.

I have always said children are too important to play politics over – I passionately believe that.

The Opposition’s only response is to have a National Commissioner for Children.

I personally do not agree with this.

I honestly believe having a Minister for Children speaking in the Government will achieve a lot more than a Commissioner who has no real teeth.

I do not believe another level of bureaucracy is the way to go.

There have been many who have called for a Royal Commission into Child Abuse.

The Prime Minister is on the record and I agree with him, that if we had a spare $60 million he would much rather spend that on prevention and intervention than on a Royal Commission.

The reality is there is no ‘quick fix’ solution, it’s also true that one abused Australian child is one too many.

While not everyone agrees on the best course of action and who is responsible, we must have a common goal – that is to make sure that every Australian child has the chance to live a safe, healthy and happy life.

Child protection must be an urgent priority for everyone.

It is vital that governments and communities work together.

It also requires a strong social coalition, where the different levels of government, the community sector and business work together.

In protecting children, the social coalition also includes magistrates, teachers, police, child care workers, child health professionals, and so on.

Most importantly, it also involves parents.

Because, in the end, it’s parents who take on the responsibility for making sure their children grow up in safety, with the support and love they need to reach their full potential.

National Early Childhood Agenda

The role of parents is a key part of the National Agenda for Early Childhood.

Just as it took 100 years to get a dedicated Minister for Children, it’s also taken this long to have a national agenda for early childhood.

It will be the first of its kind in this country.

I want it to be the best in the world.

It’s a number one priority for me.

Let me give you a brief update on where we are up to.

For those of you who’ve heard me speak about this recently, please excuse me if I repeat myself, but it’s important to get the information out there.

The first, important stage in developing the Agenda is finished.

We’ve held consultations throughout Australia about what the Agenda might include.

I want to thank people here this evening who contributed to these talks or put in a submission.

The early feedback shows that there is widespread support for a national agenda.

There is optimism that the timing is right to make some real improvementsin the way governments and services respond to the needs of children and their families, and ultimately to improve outcomes for our children.

People were happy that a national agenda has bipartisan support at the federal political level, but they also understand there may be some disagreements between political parties on content.

People also wanted to see more value placed on the role of parenting within the community, and more support provided to parents in that role.

The main message from parents was that because many no longer have extended family networks to lean on, they need more support.

They acknowledged there’s already a lot of government and community support for families – including schools, social workers, community nurses, single parent programs, parenting programs, playgroups, mothers groups, child care, and so on.

But they also said they weren’t getting the most out of the help available.

They said that, among other things, parents weren’t aware of what’s on offer, and there is a lack coordination and consistency across services.

As well, parents were concerned that not enough was being done to prepare people for parenthood, and that they need to know more about their child’s development and health.

All this feedback is going to make a big difference when it comes to shaping and developing the agenda.

It’s important that we get it right, and that it responds effectively to the needs and concerns of Australian families, their children, and their communities.

While I see the Agenda as having a universal focus, clearly we are most interested in children who are most at risk of poor outcomes.

This has to include children who have experienced child abuse and neglect, especially Indigenous children and children with disabilities.

The agenda won’t be that elusive quick-fix solution I spoke about earlier.

It is a long-term commitment and it needs to involve the states and territories.

We want to talk more with them and work cooperatively.

There are some early signs of goodwill and I am determined to build on this.

The National Plan for Foster Children and Carers

The National Plan for Foster Children and Carers has also taken off.

As most of you would know, it was the Australian Government, through me, that got the states and territories together to discuss a National Plan in the first place.

Let me be honest and say to you the first meeting was precarious.

You should have seen these Ministers.

They were skeptical – what is he up to.

I said “look, I’ve not advertised this meeting, I’ve not got a draft media release ready to go, I just think we need to sit down and talk about this issue – we need a Plan.”

To be fair I would have to say there has been excellent cooperation since then.

And I know bureaucrats do not get a lot of praise – but I want to say I think the bureaucrats at both the State and Federal level have been instrumental in a lot of this cooperation.

We all recognise that to make headway, we really have to make an Australia-wide effort.

Dorothy Scott who spoke at your symposium yesterday, summed up the foster care situation pretty bluntly on Radio National last week.

She said then:

We have now overloaded a fragile foster care system to a point that it’s actually breaking under the strain… All states are struggling to deal with increased numbers of children coming into the care of the state. It is more serious in some states than others, but that is really only a matter of degree.

The facts also tell the story:

  • The number of children placed in out-of-home care increased from around 14,000 in 1999-2000 to more than 18,500 in 2001-02;
  • 51 per cent of children in out-of-home care are in foster care; and
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are dramatically over-represented in the system.

On top of this, the pool of foster carers is shrinking.

And too many children are still going from one foster home to another.

The Radio National report featured an 18 year-old girl who had experienced an astonishing 80 foster care placements before she finally moved on to independence.

While the draft National Plan for Foster Children and Carers is only a first step, I see it as very positive beginning.

But I’ve never believed that governments have all the answers.

So, we are talking to peak groups about the Plan.

Three people from your Association were at consultations in Canberra on 4 September.

And we’re looking forward to even more feedback on the Plan from your organisation.

Quite rightly, the Plan focuses on improving outcomes for the children and young people in foster care.

In essence, the Plan sets out how the Australian and State/Territory governments will work together where jurisdictions overlap or where cooperation would make a difference.

It covers four key areas for action and the outcomes we want to achieve.

These are:

  • training for instance, quality foster carer recruitment, competency-based training, national accreditation of carers, and quality assessment against agreed standards.
  • research reviewing current research and identifying knowledge gaps, and from this, developing an agreed foster care research agenda.
  • uniform data collection looking at standardised statistical definitions, data collection processes and reporting, and providing cross-jurisdiction information on carers.
  • support including exploring current arrangements for allowances and benefits aiming for clear and consistent application of entitlements, more information for foster carers at the time of a placement, and better support for relative and kinship carers, including grandparents.

Ministers agreed to look at different models of supporting children and young people with high needs, such as substance abuse and mental health problems. Indeed, you are looking at some of these models at your symposium.

It is a joint Plan with State and Territory Governments.

Any decisions about the process for developing the plan must be made with their agreement.

You have my assurance that I’ll keep working as hard as I can on getting the Plan up and running.

Conclusion

I firmly believe that the planets are aligning and we all are going to achieve some real outcomes for children.

When before have we had a Prime Minister talk so much about Social issues, like work and family and instigate a National Agenda for Early Childhood.

We have the Australian of the year, Professor Fiona Stanley advocating strongly for early childhood.
We have the Prime Minister convening Indigenous leaders to talk about family violence and child abuse.

We have an Inquiry looking into our current family law system and child support system.

For the first time Child Protection was put on the COAG Agenda the meeting before last. Unfortunately, the State Premiers walked out of the last one so not a lot was achieved at that one.

As the first ever Minister for Children, but more importantly as a father of three young children, I will be working hard to kick some goals for Australian children.

Once again, thank you for inviting me to speak today.

I really appreciate the fantastic work every member of your Association does to make life better for so many Australian children, young people and their families.

Enjoy your symposium.

Thank you.