Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies

Location: Sydney

I would first like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Cadigal people. It is a great privilege to be here, to celebrate the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies 50th anniversary – its golden jubilee.

There is no question that children are the most vulnerable members of our society. And so many have their vulnerability betrayed.

According to official figures, every year there are around 60,000 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. And the substantiation rates of abuse have doubled in the past decade. It confronts everything we believe in, that this is happening in a country like Australia. These children carry the physical and emotional scars with them for their whole lives, often with devastating impacts. Sixty thousand cases of either abuse or neglect – most of them under the age of 10. These are just the cases that are reported. And, disturbingly the numbers are increasing.

All children deserve a safe, healthy and happy childhood. But as all of you here today know there are no simple solutions. Your member organisations work at the frontline with the capacity to provide a vital early warning system in child abuse or neglect cases. Our challenge is to better harness your knowledge to intervene and prevent neglect and abuse before it occurs. We must take a child-centred approach. The best interests of children must drive policy making. That’s why we are developing a National Child Protection Framework. It is a major undertaking which hasn’t been done before. Through this national framework, the Australian Government can provide leadership to improve child protection. The framework will be finalised by the end of the year, and it will be a practical, action-oriented document. States and territories will continue their statutory responsibilities because important, and difficult, decisions about an individual child’s safety are best made close to the ground.

In approaching this policy task, I have asked the questions – what role can the Australian Government play to strengthen our child protection systems? How do we make our children safer?

Last month, COAG requested advice from Community and Disability Services Ministers on how to improve the sharing of information about families and children at risk, across the boundaries of states and with the Commonwealth. This was prompted by recent cases that have highlighted the need to re-examine current information sharing arrangements.

To determine how the Commonwealth can best help states and territories and the non-government sector in sharing information, we have appointed child protection specialist, Mary Ann O’Loughlin. She has worked with various governments to reform child protection systems. A vital part of her work will be to identify the barriers that exist in information sharing and how to overcome them. Barriers that exist between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments or between Commonwealth and non-government organisations are being examined. This work will be finalised in the next few months.

In May, we released a discussion paper – Australia’s children: safe and well. It raised important issues that need to be considered. Since then we have received almost 200 submissions. These have come from an incredibly diverse range of groups and individuals – state and territory governments, non-government organisations, health and medical groups, foster carers, grandparent and kinship carers – many people who have been in the system themselves. We have also held about 20 consultations with groups and individuals, including young people who have been in foster care. All these submissions and consultations will be fed into our considerations in developing the framework. We will continue to work with the non-government sector and the states and territories to finalise our work. The framework will be based on evidence, focusing on stronger prevention and early intervention to reduce pressure on the child protection system. It will also examine what greater support we can provide for children who are suffering neglect or abuse.

While our policy response will consider issues across the spectrum, we recognise that the best way to relieve the pressure on the incredibly stretched statutory child protection systems is to get in early. For too long we have responded by managing crises as they occur. We need to broaden our perspective and also treat the issues that are driving the increases in abuse and neglect. Early intervention is essential to help parents grappling with difficult circumstances. Inadequate housing, long-term unemployment, disability or mental health issues, relationship breakdown can tip families over the edge – and that’s when government and community services must be ready to step in. These services must be geared not only to the needs of their clients but also the often devastating flow on effect it has on children and the risk of abuse and neglect. For example we know that every year more than 69,000 children are drawn into homelessness services with their parents. The Government recognises the impact on children and is implementing a major reform program to tackle homelessness which will make the needs of children a priority.

The prevention of child abuse and neglect requires a mix of strategies to reach at-risk families. Families need access to outreach and referral services, and to be able to seek advice on matters such as health, finances, how to look after babies, family violence, and child care. The Government has a range of community, parenting and family relationship programs which need to be delivered in a coordinated way with state, territory and NGOs.

I mentioned earlier that we have already received 200 submissions in response to the discussion paper. They canvass a range of issues and offer different perspectives but there is one common, unifying thread – the absolute, moral responsibility of governments and society to protect our children. To fulfil this obligation to our children we need a new approach that coordinates existing strategies but also explores other options. For example we know that child care is integral to an effective prevention/early intervention strategy. Increasingly, child care providers are sources of family support beyond the direct care of children. We need to build on this to link intensive child and family support services with child care providers to identify parents and children at risk before problems escalate.

We also need to consider expanding the early intervention capacity of existing agencies like Centrelink. I know this is a difficult issue, with both strong support and opposition. But I believe everything must be on the table if we are to get the best possible framework. We only need to look at the Maternity Immunisation Allowance – which saw a dramatic improvement in immunisation rates – to see how powerful financial levers can be. We are already using the Centrelink’s resources and its existing contact with vulnerable families to trial income management – in partnership with local child protection authorities in parts of Western Australia. Income management is designed to help stabilise vulnerable families, by ensuring their income support payments are spent in the interests of children. To make sure the rent is paid, and money is available for food and clothing. We have recently begun holding information sessions in several towns in the Kimberley and the Cannington district in Perth. To make sure it runs as smoothly as possible, Centrelink and Department for Child Protection staff have been undergoing training, and the trial is being accompanied by additional financial management support for parents. We must use all available levers to fight child abuse and neglect. We need to look at all existing platforms and how they can be used for early intervention – ante-natal care, maternal and child health centres, playgroups,

Of course, a well-trained and resourced child welfare and protection workforce – is essential to tackle child abuse and neglect. An effective workforce strategy needs to include the government and non-government sectors. It also needs to address Indigenous-specific issues, to increase the Indigenous workforce, training places and to make sure all workers have expertise in dealing sensitively with Indigenous children and their families.

We also need to consider the development of national standards for the out-of-home care system. This has been one of the critical issues raised by carers, the Australian Foster Carers Association, Barnados and the CREATE Foundation.

Also up for discussion is how we can make our national reporting and accountability mechanisms clearer. For example, we could:

  • identify national indicators of child wellbeing
  • establish competencies of foster carers
  • set up a national approach to arrangements for unsupported young people

The effective sharing of relevant information between agencies is prominent in many of the submissions. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne highlights the need for information sharing between police, child protection, health and family support services to properly protect children. And organisations such as the Australian Foster Carers Association, Family Relationships Australia and others have all called for national consistency and portability of working with children checks so that the same standards apply no matter where the worker lives or where they move to in Australia. This could also mean that people who have been denied clearance to work with children in one jurisdiction wouldn’t be able to seek it in another State or Territory.

These are just some of the issues that have been raised in response to our discussion paper as we move towards developing a coordinated national response to child abuse and neglect. The National Child Protection Framework will also draw on lessons learnt from the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The NTER has been controversial but there is no doubt that important progress is being made. Many families in remote communities report feeling safer because of the increased police presence, reduction in alcohol consumption and more night patrols. Women in many of the targeted communities are finding that the new income management arrangements mean they can buy essentials for their children such as food and clothes. And I’m told that in the remote community of Balgo, in the east Kimberley, the directors of the Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation have asked the store manager not to open up until he has received a call from the principal of the school saying that the required number of children have turned up to class. This is a very good example of Indigenous elders taking control of the situation themselves, and adapting the principles behind government policy to their own circumstances.

Five years ago it was estimated that the direct cost of child abuse and neglect in Australia was $4.9 billion per year.

This, of course, does not even begin to take into account the immeasurable, lost potential of thousands of children deprived of their childhood. Hurt, frightened and confused.

All of us – government, communities, people like you – must stand up for children – and their right to grow up in a safe, caring and tolerant society.