Children in Care Motion

01 December 2016

I too would like to acknowledge the interest of Senator Hinch in putting this important issue on the Notice Paper for discussion under general business today.

Here in Australia we do have a child protection system that is dominated by the states. Clearly it is the statutory role that the states and territories have; nevertheless there is a growing appetite to have a national conversation about the wellbeing of our children and whether the states are adequately working together to protect the interests of children in our nation.

Federal Labor introduced the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020, and that paper is very relevant to the motion that is before us today. The paper, put forward by the Hon. Jenny Macklin as the minister at the time, sought to put some clarity around the responsibility for vulnerable children in our nation. Everyone in this place would agree that all children have the right to be safe, the right to receive loving care and support and the right to receive the services they need to enable them to succeed in life. While, as a nation we hope that parents are able to exercise their primary responsibility for raising their children and for protecting their wellbeing and ensuring their rights are upheld, it is also incumbent on us as governments, as parliamentarians and as a wider community to do that.

It is certainly of note to me, for example, that the human rights of children, whilst they have come a long way in recent years, are still, in my view, underrecognised and underappreciated. We need to do more in this nation to recognise the intrinsic human rights of children. Too often in our society, culturally, children are seen and not heard or treated as the property of their parents. But, while we are dealing with vulnerable beings who are unable to look after or care for themselves, we need to make sure that all of our nation's children have their rights upheld—and there is more that we should do.

In that context it is significant to look at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. If you look at the culture and history of what the royal commission is looking into, in terms of organisations that have perpetuated abuse against children within their institutions, it often stems from that lack of recognition of the rights of those children and the needs of those children relative to the privilege of those institutions. I think that is an important starting point: looking at the kinds of issues that Senator Hinch is putting before the chamber today—that is, we must do more to recognise the intrinsic right of children to wellbeing and to be protected from abuse and neglect.

Senator Hinch's motion recognises some tragic circumstances arising in the state of Victoria, but this is also a significant national problem. There are some 50,000 or more reports of child abuse and neglect substantiated every year by child protection services across the country. There are many more things that we need to do, as Senator Hinch, I think, would like to indicate with this motion at a national level to protect the best interests and welfare of children—and I would really like to discuss with him in the future about more of the kinds of things that we should be reflecting in this chamber.

Senator Hinch, for example, highlights the issue of the outsourcing of the care and welfare of our most vulnerable children and that it needs to be reviewed. In my experience, the welfare and care, in terms of outsourcing, of our most vulnerable children in our nation is frequently reviewed by state child protection departments, often as they have launched from crisis to crisis after different tragic incidents have arisen from state to state.

I question what Senator Hinch is really getting at when he asks for a review, so we really need to have some further engagement with him about what he is trying to achieve with this motion—for example, when you talk about the outsourcing of the care and welfare of our most vulnerable children, are we talking about foster caring arrangements? Is that outsourcing? Are we talking about the fact that we are severing that relationship between a parent and a child because of that abuse and neglect and because of the intervention of a child protection system, or is Senator Hinch referring to residential care or privatised residential care? All of these settings for looking after the most vulnerable children need to be considered when looking at this issue. So, while I support Senator Hinch's motion, I do not think it adds much clarity in terms of what we actually need to do. It highlights the urgency of the issue and is a call to action, but it is not yet providing us with much guidance as to what Senator Hinch actually thinks we need to do.

However, I am pleased to see that people are actively thinking about these issues. I certainly am and many of Australia's organisations interested and dedicated to the welfare of children are very actively involved in considering these issues—for example, as I highlighted, the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children sets out some of what the picture looks like in relation to who is responsible for what.

Traditionally, the Commonwealth's responsibility, when it comes to protecting vulnerable children in our nation, has been through supporting the states to fund education. It is very much there in our family payments system and our social security system, which is there to provide financial security, albeit inadequate financial security, for families to protect the wellbeing and interests of children. That is the most significant thing that the Commonwealth can do and does do to protect the interests of all Australia's children.

We also fund, through the Department of Social Services, a great many early intervention services that are there to support vulnerable families, with the hope of supporting them to raise their children in a way that supports their wellbeing, so that they do not come into contact with our child protection system. We have many successful programs in that regard. It is important that we have those programs that are preventing the pointy end of intervention for vulnerable children. We know, for example, Indigenous children are six-times more likely to be the subject of a substantiated case of child neglect or abuse than other children in our nation. That is why many of these services are targeted appropriately at Indigenous communities to support those families and the wellbeing of their children.

What I would say here is that we need to see the issue of protecting children as more than merely a response to abuse and neglect in our children but as moving to promote the safety and wellbeing of children overall, because if we can embed the promotion of safety and wellbeing of children overall then we prevent far more children from coming into contact with the pointy end of the child protection system.

While the states are responsible for the pointy end of the child protection system—and indeed they are also offering services to many families—we have the Commonwealth providing that social safety net for Australia's children through the payment system but also through many of the amazing services that are funded. This week there has been the Family and Relationship Services Australia conference here in Canberra, and I note that Senator Brandis had a statement read out at that conference noting the importance of those services to supporting the wellbeing of families in breakdown to prevent them from coming in contact with our court systems. Again, these are the kinds of issues that Senator Hinch has previously brought before the chamber, noting the significant contribution of family breakdown and the Family Court system to conflict in families and creating vulnerable situations for children.

In that context, if you look to a national approach on these issues—if the Commonwealth were to say, 'Okay, we want to review the outsourcing and care of vulnerable children in our nation'—you have to say, 'What are the states doing, and what is the Commonwealth's responsibility towards those children?' Traditionally, as I have explained, they have been quite separate things, but more and more, as the states are discovering, they have very different systems. They are unable to share data with each other. They implement different best practice. Because they are not able to share data, they are not really even able to share best practice. What that means is that we really need to have a national conversation about this issue, and it requires involvement from the Commonwealth to see progress made, because in my view the states can no longer tackle this problem alone without some further leadership from the Commonwealth.

I am pleased to say there is some progress, but I have to say it has been much too little, too late. We have had, for example, community services ministers meeting without the Commonwealth, trying to make progress on these issues. But, for the first time in a while, Minister Porter has met with child protection ministers and, on 11 November, they put together a communique which highlighted a number of key issues, including a National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations. If you connect the idea of a National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations to the sentiments of Senator Hinch's motion, where he is calling for a review of the outsourcing and care of our most vulnerable children, in fact what we are talking about here is the need to do better on that very setting that Senator Hinch is describing.

There are a range of principles, if you like, embedded in the way organisations dealing with children need to work in order to make them child safe. These are things that are highlighted by the royal commission, and they are now increasingly being highlighted by more and more organisations that are interested in child safety and wellbeing. So the National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations is designed to be used as a benchmark for cross-sectoral jurisdictional child safety and policymaking. It is designed to be seen as a framework for funding and investment decisions based on those child-safe principles. It is designed to look at legislation and compliance regimes, and it is designed also to draw from the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is also designed to support the findings on working with children checks and actions on creating and maintaining safe environments for children.

As you can see, and as Senator Gallagher highlighted, these are indeed very complex arrangements when it comes to dealing with the safety and security of vulnerable children. Senator Hinch's motion is commendable in highlighting the importance and urgency of this issue and that we must do more, but what I want to say to the chamber today is that, yes, we must do more but we need to step through these things in a strategic and considered way but with high priority. It is not a simple thing of just reviewing the outsourcing of the care and welfare of our most vulnerable children. There is a huge amount of thinking that is already going into this issue. The thinking on this issue is coming very much through the royal commission currently, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages of findings from the royal commission—and these are just its interim reports. We as a nation—as a Commonwealth and as the states—will need to respond to what the royal commission is telling us about the situation of Australia's most vulnerable children. The royal commission has looked at the historical circumstances of children in institutional care but very much with a view to teaching us what we need to do in the future. So we will have—in this place, in government and in the states—a very significant job to do to ensure children are protected.

I am pleased to say that we are now starting to see progress—albeit too slow—on issues such as interjurisdictional information sharing, consideration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander placement principles when it comes to foster care, and indeed renewal of the next action plan under the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children, which Jenny Macklin put in place.

There is also significant interest from the Commonwealth and from state ministers in permanency planning reforms. When you look at the need to review the outsourcing in the care and welfare of our most vulnerable children, the permanency of those placements and the way are planned for those children are of key significance in whether those placements succeed. As Senator Gallagher highlighted, there is a great deal of instability for many of the children who are in our foster care system. They can go from placement to placement and be in many different foster families and many different institutional settings. There are things that the system is doing to contribute to that and that are causing difficulties for these children in addition to the difficulties that they already confront. Planning for permanency is a significant area that ministers across the country are looking at. Indeed, they will need the Commonwealth's support to step through some of those issues.

There are significant national reforms that will interplay with this. I note these are on Minister Porter's agenda—for example, the investment approach to welfare. It will be interesting to see whether an investment approach to welfare will see more resources directed to vulnerable families who need it and prevent more interaction with our child protection system because the wellbeing of families is improved or whether the minister's approach will be to audit expenditure and do quite the opposite by ripping resources away from families who need it. I am somewhat cynical, I have to say, about stepping through our investment approach to welfare if it uses an actuarial approach to taking money away within the system. However, a proper investment approach to welfare could be applied quite successfully within our social welfare system to support the neediest families and prevent them from engaging with the state's child protection systems. In closing, our nation's children absolutely deserve the best in life. They deserve their fundamental human rights to be protected, and we in this place have a lot more work to do on that.