Speech by The Hon Scott Morrison MP

Child Aware Approaches Conference, Melbourne


It’s wonderful to be here with you this morning in this incredibly important week; Families’ Week. This is a subject which is dear to every Australian and particularly to those of you who work so proactively and so successfully in this area to strengthen Australian families. It is important that we gather together in these types of events to focus on what we are doing and what we can do better, to confront the realities of what’s happening beyond these walls and inside the walls of families all around the country.

Families are the very centre of our society and not just ours but I believe every society. How functional and how healthy the family is is an indicator of how healthy and functional our boarder society and community is. It’s important for us to be here talking about these very important topics; the protection and nurture of our children. This year the conference is taking place as I said in Families Week and that gives us time to reflect on these matters. Most Australian children, thankfully, grow up in secure family environments. You can’t say that of every country in the world, you can say that of this country. I think that’s something that we should reflect on and value and appreciate.

We also know that many have very, very serious problems. As delegates to this conference know all too well, which threaten the safety, security and wellbeing of children. This is perhaps the darkest side of our community and society. Not just in this country but in so many. It is our job to ensure that we cast light over this very dark place and we address the darkness that is taking place in families and homes all around the country and other places.

Last month, the Government announced our continued support for specialist family services programme across the nation with an investment of $15 million; these services assist children and parents experiencing domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse.

Disturbingly, there is no way of shying away from the extent of suffering caused by such behaviours. Figures released this month by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal close to 41,000 – 41,000 cases of substantiated child abuse during 2013-14. One in five cases, that is more than 8,000, was the subject of multiple substantiations during the year. The causes of these disturbing statistics are very complex as you know and we can’t neatly define them.

This is where Child Aware Approaches come in; with strong messaging that the impact on children needs our careful attention when families have problems.

All the research shows that domestic violence, parental mental health issues, drug dependency, misuse of alcohol, gambling, and homelessness can and do cause serious risks for children, in both the immediate and long terms.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies Good Practice Guide to Child Aware Approaches reported that a Queensland analysis of substantiated child care abuse cases found:

  • nearly half – 47 per cent – involved one or both parents having an alcohol or drug problem

  • more than a third – 35 per cent – of households reported two or more incidents of domestic violence within the previous 12 months, and

  • 19 per cent involved a primary carer with a current or previously diagnosed mental illness.

Early intervention can play a crucial role in all of these circumstances in assisting parents and more importantly in protecting children.

In recent weeks there has been much discussion, obviously of the Budget and what we termed the Jobs for Families package. Now within the Jobs for Families package there is I believe a role for what we do in child care for reaching into this area very proactively and it is arguably one of the most early intervention roles that you can have. Within the Jobs for Families package there is a Child Care Safety Net. This is a programme involving a number of initiatives which targets very specifically with the support of early childhood education into the most disadvantaged and most dysfunctional families in the country.

There are several initiatives; firstly in total some $327.7 million in the Child Care Safety Net in additional funding. That is in addition to all the existing funding that is currently going through the child care support programmes that deal with vulnerable and disadvantaged families. I should stress some $500 million or there about, just over $500 million going into the mainstream child care subsidies that support families that are disadvantaged as well; picking up special child care benefit that some of the Budget based funding initiatives that were being driven through those other programmes. So it is a fairly significant level of assistance, over $800 million all up. Going – working through the child care arrangements to ensure we are addressing vulnerability and disadvantage in Australian families and supporting the children who are living in those families.

There’s $156 million assistance for child care fees for children at risk of serious abuse or neglect; right at the coal face of where the most extreme cases exist. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also reported that the number of children receiving child protection services rose by six per cent over 2013-14, and three-quarters of those were repeat clients. Now this is of great concern, to everyone in the community, and to everyone in Government and this is why the new Child Care Safety Net is focusing on those issues.

The Government is also providing as part of the safety net $20 million over two years under the new Child Care Community Fund for integrated early child care services to address Indigenous disadvantage and prepare children for school. Now this is based on Andrew Forrest’s recommendation in his review of Indigenous disadvantage. When we looked at the results of that and we have appreciated the significant difference that is made to a young child in an Indigenous community who gets the opportunity of early childhood education and how that translates to their performance at primary school, they just don’t match the average – they better it. That child in that situation has the opportunity to do what their parents sadly couldn’t do and that is break the intergenerational poverty cycle. That’s why we are doing it. That’s why the Child Care Safety Net I feel so strongly about because I know the impact it can make in a targeted way in those families.

Services for the very young children in select Indigenous communities will be integrated with schools or community hubs to reduce service overlaps and help identify individual and community needs. Services to be integrated include child care, maternal and child health and family support services. Pulling these altogether creates the hub that looks at the person not at the service. It integrates the services and puts them in direct proximity to the family and the child in need.

The central features of this programme – early intervention and collaboration – are also the hallmarks of Child Aware Approaches. Child Aware Approaches focuses on the need to keep children safe and well. As many of you will be aware Child Aware Approaches is a key priority of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children which emphasises the critical role of intervening early to prevent problems escalating.

An important feature is to develop approaches and support responses through collaboration with mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic and family violence services. The National Framework is a partnership in which civil society and Governments are working together to share responsibility for protecting children. The Framework essentially promotes collective responsibility for children’s wellbeing. The Framework is being implemented in a series of action plans to improve outcomes for children. We are now developing the Third Action Plan, as Brian mentioned, following 15 round table consultations. I did have the opportunity to attend one of those last Thursday where I heard firsthand about the importance of building the capacity of communities so that they are better able to play a critical role in keeping children safe.

If there is one thing I and the Prime Minister has learned about dealing with disadvantage across Australia is the circumstances are very specific to those communities. Unless you can equip the communities to be able to respond to them themselves then a top down approach is unlikely to succeed. So it is very important that communities themselves are able to respond to the very specific and real things that are happening in their communities, which know about and they know about them intimately. They know about those things that aren’t in the reports and the things that are. They know what needs to be addressed honestly and with compassion and sensitivity, but I think also with directness. We want to be able to equip those communities to do just that. That’s what our programmes are based on. We expect to launch the Third Action Plan in the second half of this year.

In this year’s Budget we have a range of measure to support disadvantaged youth also make the transition from school to work. This package includes a $375 million investment in supports to help young job seekers find and stay in work. The Youth Employment Strategy focuses on intensive support for vulnerable job seekers, it provides $105.7 million over four years to deliver intensive and targeted support to young job seekers who are particularly vulnerable young people at risk of disengagement, young parents, job seekers with a mental illness and recently arrived migrants and refugees.

We are also implementing a Transition to Work package which focuses on early school leavers and connecting youth to work through things like work experience programmes and wage subsidies. Last year in the Budget there was must talk about the six month measure, that has been reduced to one month and the age that it applies to has been dropped from 30 to 25. It deals only with those who are in a job ready situation; disadvantaged youth are not part of that programme as was the case last year. In making that change this year we have also increased the support to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to help them not only get in a job but get ready to get in a job and once they are in that job to help them stick in a job. There has been much attention on the middle agenda, the getting of the job, but what has been frustrated is there are many young people who just aren’t ready to even do that. We want them to be ready otherwise we write them off for their entire life with a life of welfare. That’s not something this Government or I’m sure anyone in this room wants.

So our programmes have been a mixture of incentive but also sending a very clear message that you don’t walk out of school and walk on to the dole. That’s not something we believe sends the right message to young people. At the same time we are saying we will work with you to get ready and to improve your employability and to work on your soft skills. That doesn’t matter if you’re a young man, 19 years old, growing up in Sydney’s South-Western Lakemba or you’re living in the Top End. We want to be able to help people in those communities get over the issues that are preventing them from accessing a life of work, a life of opportunity and a life of choice. As opposed to just being resigned to what they consider to be their fate.

Last year we introduced the Child Aware Local Initiative to increase community awareness and support local communities to implement their own solutions and practical actions to protect children. There are now seven communities across Australia working on grassroots early intervention and prevention activities to keep children safe. These are at Lismore in NSW, Townsville in Queensland, Onkaparinga in South Australia, Katherine in the Northern Territory, Tuggeranong in the ACT, Maryborough in Victoria and Huon Valley in Tasmania. I am pleased to see that the Initiative will be discussed here at the conference by people working on the ground to implement it and I look forward to hearing how it is progressing.

Domestic and family violence places children at serious imminent and long term risk from both abuse and neglect. Estimates that family and domestic violence is present in more than half of physical abuse cases for children and 40 per cent of sexual abuses against children give a measure of the problem. Currently in these situations children suffer severe stress and trauma that destroys their view of the world as a safe place and impacting on their capacity to learn. When children lose a mother to domestic violence, when a mother’s life is taken, her children suffer even more profoundly.

A 2013 Australian Institute of Criminology Report shows that one woman is killed every week in Australia by her current or former partner. These figures and these statistics we are now starting to understand. I believe there is a national consensus about what is happening in terms of domestic violence in this country. I believe there is a political consensus, but more importantly I believe there is community consensus that will support the measures that need to be undertaken; at a Government policy level but at a community level as well with members of our own community holding each other to account. It is not just the role of Governments; it is the role of every single Australian to deal with this scourge on our community and on our women in particular. That said it is true that men also suffer from domestic violence and we can’t ignore their plight as well but obviously the incidents of domestic violence fall most heavily on women.

The Government fully supports the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, a 12 year strategy being delivered through four three year action plans. The Prime Minister launched the Second Action Plan last year. I was pleased to be there at the event with every single State and Territory Police Commissioner forming a line. A line I think metaphorically of defence against those who would seek to hurt women.

The Government has invested more than $100 million over four years to support both new and ongoing initiatives under the National Plan. This includes funding for national sporting codes to use their unique position to engage with their communities to change cultures which trivialise and perpetuate violence against women and their children. The 1800 RESPECT initiative which features here at this conference, the Government increased funding for over the weekend; sadly because of the increased demand for that service. We will be there to build the capability of those outreaches and those services to support people in that situation. We look forward to the day when you don’t have to spend those sorts of funds but right now it is absolutely necessary and the Government was pleased to respond to the need which was demonstrated.

$30 million for a community awareness programme, in my own consultations on domestic violence around the country this is something which is repeated to me over and over again; the need through community awareness campaigns and initiatives to confront this issue right where it is happening in our communities.

As this year’s conference theme highlights, we need to reach out beyond the child and welfare sectors if we are to make a real difference. In addition we restored the $25.5 million over two years to legal assistance recognising the important role these services play in keeping women and their children safe. The Prime Minister has also made violence against women and their children a high priority for COAG this year. This includes establishing a new COAG Advisory Panel on Violence Against Women and Their Children. Domestic violence survivor and Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, along with former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay, are founding members of that body.

The Commonwealth, along with the States and Territories, will develop a national campaign, as I have said, aimed at reducing violence against women and children. This was an increase of some nine per cent on 2012-13, including an increase of 14 per cent in the number of children experiencing family or domestic violence. Now I think that just again underscores why addressing these issues both at the parental level can have the obvious impact of protecting children in the same context.

Homelessness can also have further deleterious effects on children. We all understand that and while this is principally the responsibility of State Governments there is a role for the National Government as well. The precise nature of that role over the next few years will be better defined through the Federation Review process. But it was this Government that decided to keep the Partnership Agreement on Homelessness funding in place. It wasn’t previously provided for; it wasn’t in the forward estimates. In this Budget we announced $230 million over two years to continue that funding and it has two primary objectives; firstly, to deal with violence against women in domestic family violence and secondly, to deal with youth homelessness. This programme has a focus, it has an objective, it’s not just there to subsidise existing State Government programmes. It’s there to create greater capacity and greater support for people in these situations, particularly young children who would be the victims of homelessness as a result of domestic family violence that is occurring in the place that should be safe for them.

We have extended this funding for two years and critical to the success is tackling the many issues relating to protecting children is the evidence base as we move forward. Many of the papers being presented here over the next two days will add to that base. An important initiative by my Department is to develop evidence-based practices – and encourage innovation – is the Families and Children Expert Panel. The Government is investing $5 million until 2019 in this work which will be directed to Families and Children service providers. I am happy to tell you that the first Expert Panel projects are due to begin this month. These initial projects will see Panel members providing support to more than 50 Families and Children’s Activity services. These services do an extraordinary job providing assistance to Australian families. Providers have responded positively to the Panel, recognising it as a useful tool to help them deliver high quality services to vulnerable Australians. We have already seen providers start to access the Industry List to help develop their evidence-based practices as they continue to focus on prevention and early intervention and trial new approaches.

There is a strong focus on innovation in this year’s conference looking at new ways to improve early intervention, collaboration and partnership. I have been very impressed since coming into this portfolio at the level of innovation and collaboration in our community as we endeavour to confront seemingly intractable problems.

This can be a very shocking area in which to work. Not just in the area of domestic family violence, and particularly violence against children, but I am constantly impressed by the innovation and the dedication of people who work in this area. Conferences such as this are important for this reason, and I’ll finish on this note, there is no lack of will, there is no lack of consensus. By outlining the various funding initiatives which I have talked about today Governments are prepared to invest. But we have got to do it smart, we have to do it targeted and it has to work. All of us know about the rivers of money that have gone, well-meant, into any number of social areas and causes over the generations. It’s not good enough for us just to be able to talk about how much money is being spent; it has to work. If it doesn’t work then here is no satisfaction in any of the things that I have talked about today because it’s the results that we are all seeking. To get the results, to get the targeting, to get the programmes right, it needs good strong information. That’s what you are doing here at this conference.

So I want to thank you for that, for your participation, the contributions that you make but most importantly the outcomes of all of that. I look forward to all of that information being able to help all of us as we make decisions about where to put resources and how to support programmes so that we can make those decisions in a far more effective way in the future, for the protection of our kids.

Thank you.