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Department admits it's in the dark on foster homes


Caroline Overington | November 11, 2008

The Australian

THENSW Department of Community Services regularly places children in homes it has never seen, with foster parents its own army of welfare workers has never met.

The department admitted yesterday that it depended on the staff of the 39 private companies and non-government agencies that supplied foster care services to provide updates on the standard of care they offered.

The business of providing foster care is worth more than $600million a year in NSW alone. Some agencies, such as Life Without Barriers, which was established by lawyers and businessmen in the Hunter Valley in the late 1990s, last year received tens of millions of dollars in funding from DOCS.

The admission by DOCS that it does not do any kind of spot checks on the foster homes operated by private companies and non-government agencies comes after The Weekend Australian revealed that increasing numbers of children were living in filthy, crowded foster homes.

The more children in the house, the more money the foster parents can make.

The top rate for an extremely troubled child in NSW is now $1100 a fortnight, and foster carers can have as many as six children at any one time.

It is not uncommon to find foster parents who have taken more than 50 children over a year.

DOCS expects neighbours, police and schools to let its staff know if things are amiss with the children in the care of these agencies.

According to the annual report of the NSW Children's Guardian, foster children who live in homes managed by private agencies are less likely to have records that are up to date and more likely to be taking psychotropic medication, sometimes without the proper consent.

The Children's Guardian, a $250,000-a-year public service position created specifically to monitor the standard of out-of-home care in NSW, does not have a complaints function, to enable people to complain. If it does receive complaints, it refers them to the NSW Ombudsman.

The Australian last week asked DOCS and the Children's Guardian a series of questions about the quality of foster care.

A statement from DOCS said its foster carers received "thorough assessment and training", which included a "visit to the applicant's home", but not by the department. The agency that was doing the recruiting visited the home and signed people up.

The DOCS statement said foster carers must undergo police checks and a working-with-children check. They underwent training to "help them understand how a child's previous life experiences may affect their behaviour".

It said there were 80 foster care support teams across the state, recruiting and supporting carers, and that it had a formal process for people to report allegations.

It said all private agencies were required to demonstrate that they were providing good outcomes for children; those that were not entered into a so-called performance improvement plan.

A statement from the Children's Guardian said it accredited only the agencies that provided foster care, not the individual foster carers.

"Agencies are required to recruit carers," it said. However, the Children's Guardian had "visited foster care homes and spoken to foster carers".

It does not say whether these carers were chosen for them, or chosen randomly, from the pool.

The Children's Guardian said it had "no statutory powers to intervene" on behalf of an individual child.

The NSW Government is awaiting the release of a report on child welfare, being conducted by retired judge James Wood. He is due to report on New Year's Eve, and has so far kept 90 per cent of submissions secret.


2008 Nov 11