Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Speech to the 2009 National Investment For The Early Years and Centre for Community Child Health Conference

Location: Melbourne Park Function Centre, Melbourne

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Families in Australia

I would like to first acknowledge the Wurundjeri people – the traditional custodians of the land we meet on.

For all of us here, who know so well that the strength of the nation rests on the wellbeing of our families and children, supporting those who survived Victoria’s terrible fires is a great and immediate responsibility.

Watching the tragic aftermath – parents in shock, bewildered children- we can see only too well that the trauma of this ordeal will take a long time to heal.

As experts in the field you understand that the road ahead for these children and their families will be extraordinarily challenging and complex.

As one newspaper headline put it: What do we tell the children?

So what do we tell children who’ve lost school friends, neighbours in their street, their pets, their homes? How do we help them make sense of it all?

And how do we give their parents the support and strength to hold their families together?

The parents who are facing those immediate tasks of finding somewhere to live, getting back to school as well as coping with the constant, ordinary challenges of family life.

Over the past days I’ve met some of these families living in tent cities.

But already steadily re-gathering and re-grouping.

Mums and dads chatting with their neighbours; kids playing footy.

They are drawing on one another’s resilience and strength. Many are already planning their futures.

They are sheltering within that precious spirit of community.

And it’s our great and continuing responsibility to sustain the spirit of community; to provide the shelter these families and children need to survive and thrive.

Because the measure of our recovery and reconstruction effort will be how we nurture and sustain these families and communities.

We are here for all families.

Whatever their structure, composition or challenges.

Families are central in the care and development of children; shaping the attitudes and values of the next generation.

They are the core platform from which children move into adulthood.

They also shape the nation’s social and economic life.

Families are not merely passive recipients in these environments.

Strong families can be positive agents of change and influence.

We know that the essential family roles – of caring, supporting and protecting members – can’t be performed in isolation.

Families are at their functional best when they are strongly connected to their community.

It is our responsibility to build this essential connection through effective policies and programs which extend the nurturing shelter of community to those families who are missing out.

As you know, government across many levels, provides multiple layers of support for individuals and families.

Broadly-based support through a universal base of social infrastructure – services like schools, child and maternal health services and Medicare. Backed up with a family payment system which supports three quarters of all families with dependant children.

Then another layer of services – broadly available but specialised in their support like our playgroups, or parenting advice – responding to individual circumstances and needs.

And at the more in depth level – intensive targeted services to help tackle disadvantage with intensive parenting and family support.

Where families face complex issues and have significant needs, these service layers need to all work together.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children has found that the most disadvantaged families with the most challenges are least likely to access the services they need.

What they need is concentrated, coordinated support, readily available and not limited by unnecessary red tape.

So these parents can build skills within the family and connect with their community.

There is a great deal of strong, substantiated evidence about the best way to achieve this.

For example, the study of the Communities for Children program found it achieved positive results for vulnerable children and their families including:

  • less hostile parenting among hard to reach parents; and
  • increased involvement in community service activities among parents in households with relatively lower incomes.

Communities for Children, and the former Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, were due to end in 2009 and now we have the opportunity to move in a new direction.

Now is the time to set a new direction for Commonwealth support for families and children while retaining what has proved effective from the previous strategy.

What we know is that where Communities for Children worked there was flexibility in what is delivered, tailored to local circumstance.

Services were built from the needs of the community and integrated with other local services.

They were services which connected to the community and local parents used and benefited from them.

The model struggled when it didn’t meet local needs, was disconnected from the community and didn’t build capabilities, was poorly integrated with state, territory or local government agencies, and in many cases, other Australian government funded services.

Many sites could have also continued to help children as they grew older and moved into school. Adapting and growing with the children.

Flexibility in what needs to be delivered locally and integration with other services will underpin our new approach.

We will restructure the existing, fragmented collection of family, parenting and children programs into one integrated whole – the new Family Support

It will deliver a consistent and coordinated approach to supporting Australian families as their children grow, and as their families change.

Sometimes the support a family needs changes dramatically when there is family breakdown.

However often our adult-focussed family relationship services don’t – or can’t through contractual limitations – take account of the children who inevitably accompany their parents through this breakdown.

Family services need to be child focused, to understand the needs of each family and where to get support.

To know what other services are offered locally so they can make sure families get connected to the range of support they need.

Clearly, one-stop, parent and child centres fit well with the Family Support Program.

The centres will provide a broad-based community platform from which more targeted interventions can be launched.

They’ll know the parents and know what they need.

I know for many of you, the existing proliferation of programs can be an administrative jungle – frustrating for families who seek to access them, as well as service providers and governments.

Some organisations, such as Good Beginnings have more than 10 agreements to deliver similar services across the country.

Some Centacare offices can have more than 20 agreements, just to deliver services in one local area.

Similar complexity is faced by UnitingCare and Anglicare and other large providers.

There has to be a simpler, more effective way of doing things.

So we can adapt what is provided to meet the needs of local families, or so providers change how they operate so families can more easily access services, and the right services for them.

This is what I’m determined to achieve through this reform.

Services delivered within one overarching program – so they get to the people who need them more quickly, more efficiently and with greater flexibility.

I want the new Family Support Program to act as a platform to combat social exclusion, build stronger families, and provide earlier interventions for children at risk of abuse and neglect.

This is an opportunity to improve our services to families.

But as always with change, there may be transitional issues. To overcome these, my department will be working closely with providers.

As you are aware, many service providers have existing funding agreements with the Government up to June 2011.

Others are having their funding agreements considered now.

Of course, all existing agreements will remain in place until their term is completed.

As this occurs new arrangements will be put in place which are consistent with the principles I’ve spoken about today.

I know that Communities for Children providers are especially interested because their contracts are generally due to conclude on 30 June this year.

Some have activities due to end before 30 June.

Today I want to announce that we have allocated an additional $1.6 million to help continue all Communities for Children activities until the end of June this year

Beyond June, Communities for Children activities will evolve under the new Family Support Program. Funding is available for the continuation of these activities.

Our new model will be driven by two key streams.

The first, broader family support, at critical transition points in their lives. Those who only need a little bit of help along the way.

The second, focusing on more intensive, targeted services – supporting the most vulnerable in the community.

Local provision, driven by local needs, with local services working together, providing the complete range of services a family needs.

Building the capability of local communities.

We want a new partnership between government and the people working on the ground to provide services to best meet the needs of families.

These partnerships will build the good work of the past but with key changes:

  • a relationship with Government that gives service providers a greater capacity to influence the direction of their programs
  • greater flexibility in the range of services they offer
  • greater flexibility in the client groups they work with, including with children up to 12 years of age instead of just five years
  • reduced red tape, and longer term funding security.

Over the coming months, we’ll be talking to service providers about how to make this transition into a new Family Support Program – with a particular focus on the evolution of Communities for Children.

Many of the 45 Communities for Children sites will continue largely unaffected.

Others, where outcomes have fallen short, will be restructured and reformed.

My department will work closely with all sites and providers in the coming weeks to settle all arrangements well before the end of June.

The new Family Support Program will also improve the Commonwealth’s capacity to work collaboratively with State and Territory governments.

While not replicating existing State and Territory services, there is scope for early intervention services aim to achieve our common goal – to reduce the need for statutory child welfare action.

We are bringing this same collaborative approach to the development of the National Child Protection Framework.

Because the shocking levels of child abuse and neglect – 55,000 cases last year alone – demand a concerted national response.

Harnessing the resources of government and the capacity of community organisations to build strong resilient families where children can grow – safe, well and happy.