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By Crispin Hull
February 25, 2009 / The Sydney Morning Herald
It is three months since the Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW handed its report to the NSW Government. At the time, the Premier, Nathan Rees, promised a response by March and said there would have to be compelling reasons not to accept its recommendations.
Charities that deliver direct help to many thousands of children a year in Australia are deeply concerned that the critical Wood recommendations will not be fully implemented and instead watered down because the Government will wilt under pressure from public sector unions and others resisting change seeking to defend their territory.
The former Supreme Court judge James Wood made critical recommendations, including: an end to mandatory reporting to the Department of Community Services of all cases of suspected risk of harm; outsourcing to non-government agencies all but significant harm cases; and contracting out foster care services to non-government agencies.
The sound reasons for these recommendations are as true now as in November. Action was urgent then; it is more urgent now. The recommendations involve a transfer of resources from the Department of Community Services to non-government agencies.
DOCS has been swamped. Children, about whom it has been notified have died. Thousands of families in need of help, if not urgent attention, slipped through the net.
Even when cases are followed up by DOCS, families respond with understandable hostility. This is, after all, the authority that has the power to take their children away.
Barnardos agrees with the recommendation for outsourcing all foster care and the management of long-term care of children who cannot live with their parents to the non-government sector.
Significant numbers in foster care and residential care are already outsourced, including children and young people with the most complex needs. Evidence given to Mr Wood by the Children's Guardian, the government agency set up to monitor standards for out-of-home care services, showed that on all quality standards the non-government sector outperformed the DOCS foster care services.
Many non-government services have reached full accreditation but not DOCS, which is currently involved only in "quality improvement" and aims to achieve full accreditation by 2013.
This is not good enough for NSW foster children. Fully accredited agencies provide quality foster care services and are flexible responsive organisations, as Mr Wood found.
He also found the shortcomings of the out-of-home care services run by DOCS had been apparent for more than a decade, with a number of inquiries recommending contracting all the services of foster care to the non-government sector. An increased role for non-government agencies has been stated DOCS policy for some years but with little progress.
Children's charities are concerned that the limited planned progress to increase resources going to the non-government agencies initiated over the past three years will stall while the Wood proposal for complete transfer of services is considered.
The NSW Government has repeatedly failed to set out a timed, definite plan to outsource foster care in NSW although this has been achieved for a number of years in Victoria and other jurisdictions. Previous responses to outsourcing of out-of-home care services have been resisted within staff associations.
Some of the reaction by the Public Service Association to the Wood report is cause for alarm. At the time, Steve Turner, the assistant secretary of the NSW Public Service Association, opposed outsourcing.
"This report does nothing to increase the resources available for children at risk," he said. "It's about outsourcing those children and the services they need to no one. What they are proposing is to decentralise the services available for children at risk for agencies in the community that don't currently exist. We believe this will lead to more children falling through the cracks."
This attitude is a misunderstanding of the role of government. Government should be there to ensure children at serious risk of harm are taken into care when others, the non-government or private sector, cannot do the job. The non-government agencies can do the job for the vast bulk of cases and do it better than government. Non-government agencies would make better use of a finite cake, which would be better for children in need.
Mr Wood's assessment that the non-government sector has "smaller and less formalised management structures and often greater capacity to implement reforms and innovative service models more quickly than government agencies" and that many children, families and foster carers "do not want to deal with a government agency" makes sense.
But the size of the problem is of concern. While there are 13,000 children and young people in out-of-home care more than 50 per cent of these are in kin care, living with grandmothers, relatives or close friends, and the numbers in foster care will continue to rise unless something is done.
Crispin Hull is the chairman of Barnardos Australia.