Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the Coalition of Organisations Committed to the Safety and Wellbeing of Australia’s Children, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

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Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land where we are meeting and pay my respects to the Elders past and present.

All of us here are driven by the shared passion to protect our children. This is reflected in the origin of your Coalition and its advocacy role.

People and organisations from across the child protection spectrum, harnessing their great capacity, skills and experience to build a new voice for vulnerable children.

Your Coalition is now a critical element in partnership with government to drive long, long overdue change and reform. Representing more than 90 major non-government community service organisations and academics.

I want to say right at the start that I know some of you are impatient with the pace of reform. A frustration I can understand. We all want to keep moving ahead as quickly as possible. But even in our impatience for reform and change it is important to reflect on what has been achieved. The steps forward we have made in the 12 months since the Framework became a reality. Steps that, for the first time, are being taken collaboratively.

The Commonwealth, the States and Territories, your Coalition working together to deliver on the more than 70 actions identified under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. In 2008, when we started working with the Coalition, and State and Territory Governments to develop a Framework, we recognised that this was a long-term reform. This is a new approach that requires unprecedented commitment, resolve and effort. And a new level of cooperation across all levels of government and non-government organisations to protect our children. The Coalition has played a pivotal role in developing and implementing the National Framework. Representing the broader non-government sector and our vulnerable families and their children.

For the past four years, the Coalition has campaigned hard to put the interests of Australian families at the heart of social policy development. Highlighting the importance of a national, integrated, cooperative approach to child protection. An approach that transcends state borders by supporting but not replacing the state-based statutory child protection systems.

This approach demands a skilled workforce with the capacity to both respond quickly when children are at risk of neglect or abuse. But even more importantly to intervene early with preventative measures to stop a situation spiralling out of control.

Getting this right demands investment in the skills of those working in the child protection sector. Today I’m happy to tell you that the Australian Government will invest just over $2 million over the next three years in a new workforce capacity and development project under the Framework. This funding will go to the Australian Centre for Child Protection for the Building Bridges between Services, Building Capacity within Services project, which I am very pleased that Dorothy Scott is going to lead.

As part of this project, an accredited training program will be developed and rolled out in 12 communities with high levels of disadvantage across the country. It will boost the capacity of community service workers to identify and respond to families and children who are at risk.

The program will help organisations who are delivering services to families and children improve the skills of their staff so they can identify families who are struggling and respond quickly and effectively before problems escalate. As part of the program, the skills and expertise of workers who work in adult-focused services will be strengthened including workers in drug and alcohol, mental health, homelessness, and domestic violence services.

We want these services to be more aware of any risk there might be to the safety and wellbeing of children so they can then to refer these families to other appropriate services. The program has a strong focus on Indigenous communities with more than half the locations selected in communities with a high Indigenous population.

More than 700 workers will receive accredited training under this program, and up to 30 highly skilled workers will be supported to become trainers themselves so that they can continue to deliver the program in their local community.

The program will also provide flexible, ongoing support to services who have received training through brokerage funding for example, to supporting mentoring or leadership development of high performing staff.

Other locations where this new program will be trialled will include Communities for Children Plus sites.

As you know, one of the key Commonwealth commitments under the Framework is to expand integrated service delivery sites for vulnerable children. We originally committed $10 million to establish eight sites across the country, building on our existing Communities for Children network. But I have been so impressed with the evaluation of Communities for Children – and from the feedback I receive every time I visit one of these services across the country – that I committed an extra $10 million to this new initiative.

New services are being established in Cardinia (Vic) and Midland (WA), with existing services in Ipswich (QLD), Launceston (TAS) and Playford (SA) receiving funding boosts to expand their operations to support families who are most at risk. The final three sites will be announced shortly.

We are also very close to announcing the successful providers for our new Kids in Focus program. This new program will work with families where there are drug and alcohol issues on two fronts – getting parents assistance with their problem while also working on parenting and coping skills with the whole family to keep kids safe.

Many of you have told me about your concerns about the extremely high level of drug and alcohol abuse among families. Like you, I want to see us break this cycle. I want to also talk about just a few of the other key projects which are well into implementation now. We need your help to see this through.

First the National Standards for Out of Home Care. As you know, the Commonwealth has been leading this important project and engaged KPMG to assist. Consultations across capital and regional cites have almost finished and I want to thank all of you who gave your time, ideas and input during this process.

KPMG and my Department are working to consolidate the consultation feedback and begin the work of drafting up the standards, so that they can be discussed with the States and Territories and the Coalition before I take them to the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference in June.

This is a very important and challenging project.

I really want practical, tangible and measurable standards so that we can actually improve the quality of care that children receive. We all know that a child’s experience in out of home clear is inextricably linked with the quality of the carer and that includes their skills and abilities. To make sure children are placed in the care of the best possible people, we need to support our carers with training and other assistance.

We also need to get a clear picture of what sort of services are currently available to carers. That’s why the Commonwealth is commissioning a stock take of services and supports for carers – foster, kinship and grandparent – to report back to Community and Disability Services Ministers’ Council. This work will help us identify where the gaps are and where carers need more support. I will keep this item on the agenda with my state colleagues, as we move to implementing the standards.

As all of you on the ground know too well, the Framework’s specific actions do not sit independently from the rest of the Government’s reform agenda. Since we came into Government, children have been right at the centre of that agenda. The reforms to housing and homelessness, violence against women, early childhood education and care; the education revolution – are all driven by our commitment to reform that is in the best interest of children.

Obviously, one key area in my portfolio is Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The pressing need for change to make sure Indigenous children have safe, happy, healthy lives drives the Government’s Closing the Gap reforms and our unprecedented investment in housing, health, community safety and education.

Among these:

  • 35 Children and Family Centres to be established across Australia. The first Centres will be operational by the end of 2010.
  • 50 new Indigenous Parenting Support Services are being established across Australia by 2012.
  • Expanded Playgroups for Indigenous Families and mobile playgroups
  • New and expanded Maternal and Child Health services and more access to antenatal care, pre-pregnancy and teenage sexual and reproductive health for Indigenous families
  • Cr`eches in remote communities in the Northern Territory that previously had little or no access to early childhood programs for children under five years of age
  • 22 safe places in the Northern Territory Government along with mobile child protection units, and remote child and family safety workers.

These services alone are costing the Government more than $500 million over five years, in addition to our massive investment in housing and community safety.

Delivering this new infrastructure and new service is a huge and challenging implementation task – often in the most remote parts of the country.

This is where we need your help. Your experience in the practical, day to day delivery – on the ground. We need your grass roots experience to help shape the planning, governance and delivery of our ambitious reform agenda.

A key element of this agenda is welfare reform. As you now, we have introduced legislation to re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act and its application to the Northern Territory Emergency Response. To retain the benefits of welfare reform. And to extend the benefits of income management to the wider community.

It introduces landmark reforms to the welfare system which, over time, will see the national roll out of a new scheme of income management of welfare payments in disadvantaged regions across Australia. Income management is a key tool in the Government’s broader welfare reforms to deliver on our commitment to a welfare system based on the principles of engagement, participation and responsibility.

I know this reform has its critics. But I am convinced that it will help us to tackle, on a national scale, the entrenched cycle of passive welfare through a new system of income management and incentives to support people moving from welfare to personal responsibility and independence. It reflects the Government’s determination to put children and families at the centre of our welfare reform agenda. And our commitment to progressively reform the welfare system to foster individual responsibility and to provide a platform for people to move up and out of welfare dependence.

Progress on the implementation of the National Framework is on the agenda for discussion with my Ministerial colleagues at the Community and Disability Services Ministers’ Conference in June. This will be the opportunity to agree on how to progress the national priorities which are less well advanced.

We are making headway. Most importantly we are starting to see a fundamental shift in thinking about the wellbeing and safety and children.

There is increasing recognition that we will continue to fail our children if we see our role as only responding to child abuse and neglect after it’s happened.

All of us working together must continue to drive this change.

We must use the capacity and potential of the National Framework to drive reform across all systems and jurisdictions.