Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Family Relationship Services Australia Conference 2010, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

Check against delivery

First I would like to start by acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

And to pay my respects to their elders past and present and honour them as the proud custodians of the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

Thank you for inviting me to your conference.

Today I want to speak to you about the new Family Support Program – reforms driven in collaboration with the organisations you represent.

But before going into the detail I want to acknowledge the great contribution you have made and continue to make every day to Australian families across the country.

In our cities, suburbs, country towns and in the most remote parts of the country.

Working on the ground, supporting families through life’s predictable transitions but also reaching out to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

I think it’s fair to say that all of us are here today because we believe that the collective strength of our nation depends on the strength and wellbeing of our families.

And their capacity to nurture and protect our children.

All families – in all their different forms, wherever they live, whatever their circumstances and whatever challenges they face.

I think we would all agree that, through their central role in the care and development of children, families shape the attitudes and values of the next generation.

They are the base from which children move into adulthood.

I think all of us would also agree that in meeting the essential family responsibilities of caring for and protecting their children – all parents should have the best support we can give them.

Which is why it is the shared responsibility of government and organisations like yours to develop and deliver the policies and programs that reach out and connect with families.

The policies and programs that put children at the centre of all we do.

The safety and wellbeing of children is at the heart of the Australian Government’s social policy agenda.

It drove the establishment of the first National Framework to Protect Australia’s Children to tackle shocking levels of child abuse and neglect with better information sharing between agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and state child protection authorities so children at risk don’t slip under the radar.

Along with work currently underway to develop new national standards for out of home care to safeguard the safety, health and wellbeing of the more than 34,000 children who can no longer live safely with their families.

The wellbeing of children is also at the centre of the Government’s introduction of Australia’s first national Paid Parental Leave Scheme.

National Paid Parental Leave is now just under two months away. From 1 January 2011 this landmark reform will give parents the financial security to spend more time at home with their new baby and to help families balance their work and family responsibilities.

And helping parents spend more time at home with their new baby helps children get the best possible start in life.

We are also increasing financial support for families by increasing Family Tax Benefit by more than $150 per fortnight for teenagers aged 16 to 18 years who are at school or in training.

The wellbeing and safety of children is also at the heart of our reforms to the way we deliver family support.

It informed last year’s consultations on the Family Support Program, as we moved to a new approach to the way we deliver Commonwealth support to families and children.

And I would like to take a moment to thank you all for the significant contribution you made to those consultations.

The feedback from the 500 people who went along to the forums and the views contained in the 37 written submissions have been central to the development of the new Family Support Program.

In fact, many of you will probably see your own recommendations reflected in the final Program which is on track for introduction in July 2011.

What was clear from the consultations was a shared sense of what needs to be done to better support families and protect children.

How critical it is to link those families and children who need help into a network of support agencies.

How important it is for agencies to work together with increased emphasis on better collaboration and coordination.

The need for more intensive services for families who are struggling, including earlier interventions for children at risk of neglect and abuse.

And the importance of making services easier for families to find and use and to tailor services to meet the changing needs of families.

The new Family Support Program is about responding to the challenges faced by families so that children don’t become casualties.

We all know that when parents have strong and stable parental relationships, the family functions better.

And children’s chances of thriving, of doing better at school and having better relationships of their own, are improved.

This is why we need all of you in our family relationship services to build on your outstanding record in relationship counselling and play a more intensive role in providing parenting support.

At the same time, expanding the focus of existing adult-targeted services to make the impact on children in the family a top priority.

For example, if a mother is severely depressed, the impact of her illness on her children is central to the support services provided.

This new approach encourages better coordination between service providers to give people specific help tailored to their own family’s needs.

For example, a separating couple going to the local counselling service could also be connected to the local Communities for Children.

Or a newly formed stepfamily might get help for the children to adjust to the new parenting arrangements, as well as parenting support for the new step parent.

And if I could take a moment here to congratulate Stepfamilies Australia and Drummond Street on the work they are doing.

Today I’m proud to launch Stepfamilies Australia’s new National Network, which will deliver information and support tailored to the needs of Australia’s increasing number of stepfamilies.

I know a lot of work has gone into setting up the Network, and I wish Stepfamilies Australia every success in this new phase of development. The work of Stepfamilies Australia reminds us that families today are increasingly diverse.

As well as many more step and blended families, we have many families with both parents working, and more single parent families.

Grandparents and other relatives are now being more frequently called upon to care for children.

Humanitarian entrants and families impacted by trauma or substance abuse face challenges of their own.

Under the new Family Support Program, family relationship services will have greater flexibility and capacity to respond to these diverse nature and needs of Australian families.

I know you and your organisations have lobbied hard for less paperwork so you can spend more time working with families and greater flexibility so you can offer a broader range of activities to families – including parenting classes, counselling, playgroups and dispute resolution.

This is why we have streamlined more than 20 service types administered by my Department into four.

This will more sensibly bundle together services with a common purpose to provide more flexibility while making sure the important elements of the current program are retained.

First, Communities for Children will provide prevention and early intervention to families with children up to 12 years, who are at risk of disadvantage and who are not in touch with children’s services.

This will include meeting the needs of Indigenous families in remote locations.

Second, family counselling – dealing with adult relationship issues, counselling for children and broader parenting support.

Third, specialist services which have particular knowledge and skills for dealing with vulnerable families affected by issues such as drugs, violence and trauma.

And fourth, Community Playgroups to support mums and dads with young children.

These services will complement and work alongside each other and will be supported by national services such as the Family Relationships Advice Line and Online, Mensline, and the Raising Children website.

Along with the changed program structure, we are also reducing red tape for service providers.

Funding agreements will be streamlined so that there will be one schedule for the program, and this will require only one annual acquittal.

This more efficient model means that service providers will be able to work more flexibly and creatively and to adapt their work to meet the local needs of children and families.

For example, services currently funded to deliver a particular type of counselling will be able to expand their counselling support to a broader target group.

The Government also expects services delivering Family Relationship Education and Skills Training to offer parenting education and skills training as well as relationship services.

A young couple stressed over relationship problems, whose children are misbehaving, might be offered a parenting course along with relationship counselling.

If it is noticed that the same young couple have a child with a speech delay, a family worker should arrange for additional help – a referral to speech therapist – and so begin to ease some of the pressure within the family.

Perhaps Dad is even encouraged to join the father’s group so that he can be more confidently involved in parenting.

This is the big change – whole of family support.

This includes working with other community services as well as with Centrelink to support families in crisis so that opportunities are not lost at times when families are most open to assistance.

I am confident that you will use your networks and local knowledge to strengthen ways of working together that meet both your needs, and those of the children and families in your region.

I understand that these collaborative relationships may take some time to establish and my Department will be discussing how this can be achieved during 2011-12.

A major feature of the new Program will be the requirement for providers to ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged families and children have priority.

This means you might have to actively seek out vulnerable people, go to where they live, run activities that build trust, tap into baby health clinics or community centres.

So our most vulnerable families know about and become comfortable using your services.

I know some of you already work more intensively with vulnerable families and over a longer period of time to get great results.

Because some families with complex issues need longer-term, wrap around support.

For example, Logan Family Services worked with a young mother referred to them from child protection services following family violence. She was traumatised and isolated.

Following initial counselling the mother was introduced to a young mother’s playgroup. Through the playgroup she learnt to become more confident in caring for her baby. The support offered to this mum and baby over several months contributed to this family remaining together rather than being taken into the child protection system.

This reflects the importance of connecting vulnerable families to the services they need.

And increasingly services will take a more hands-on role in doing just this.

This could include making appointments, arranging transport, or bringing in experts to deal with their individual issues.

This is about putting the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children into action, and working to help reduce the number of children entering the child protection system.

It is about recognising the shocking truth about child abuse and neglect – more than 50,000 cases a year.

I want to stress that state and territory governments will rightly retain their frontline statutory responsibility for child protection.

But the new Family Support Program’s more intensive and broader range of services will complement the work of the states and territories to reduce the number of children coming into the child protection system.

We see the new Program as a key preventative measure.

To deliver this ambitious agenda, we need stability in the sector.

Most of the service system is well placed to deliver high quality services to children and families, and we need to maintain this.

I want to reassure you that we are in no way undermining the outstanding work already being done.

This is about changed emphasis and new focus.

So for example, we are not considering any wholesale re-tendering or major tender rounds.

Nor are we considering significant shifts in funding.

Following this conference, my Department will be inviting service providers to discuss the program design in more detail.

You will be able to discuss implementation issues including consultation on high need areas.

And we will also let providers know how we will work with them to put in place the new funding agreements that will start in July next year.

If we think any service providers are likely to be affected by significant changes, the Department will be in touch early so they have time to make any necessary adjustments.

Negotiations for funding agreements with service providers will commence early next year.

Where some providers need to make minor adjustments to service delivery, my Department will work with providers to make those transitions smooth.

As part of our scheduled contract negotiations to commence in early 2011 we will provide new program guidelines and funding agreements.

These will clarify the expectations of providers, particularly in relation to the greater collaboration and focus on outcomes for children which I spoke of earlier.

I spoke earlier of your contribution to the reforms we’ve made to the Family Support Program.

Cooperation and collaboration underpin the Government’s commitment to building strong, productive partnerships with your organisations.

So just as your first hand experience has been at the heart of the policy reform process, we want to continue to work with you on the implementation task ahead.

As part of this, my Parliamentary Secretary Julie Collins will be your go-to person in the months ahead.

She’s going to be very, very busy!

But there’s one thing you’ll discover about Julie – she’s not afraid of hard work or short on commitment to progressive social policy.

I’d now like to ask Julie to explain her role in implementing the new Family Support Program.