Mike Baird announces reform to state’s broken child welfare system

More than 20,000 children in NSW are in out-of-home care. Photo: John Donegan Premier Mike Baird has vowed to overhaul the child protection system. Photo: Edwina Pickles

“We will start with one of the most vulnerable groups”: Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Thousands of vulnerable children are expected to be better off under a radical shake-up of the state’s child protection system announced by Premier Mike Baird on Thursday.

The reform comes after a review of the system found more than $300 million a year was being spent on support programs without any evidence to show they work.

The review by senior bureaucrat David Tune also found that children who had spent time in the state’s billion-dollar out-of-home care system were more likely to be unemployed, suffer health problems and have their own children removed, creating a cycle of disadvantage.

Mr Baird described the findings as a “sobering” assessment of the state’s trouble-plagued child protection system.

“It is failing to improve long-term outcomes for children and to arrest devastating cycles of intergenerational abuse and neglect,” Mr Baird said at the Australian Council of Social Service national conference in Sydney.

“For decades we have seen the number of kids in out-of-home care get larger and the outcomes are not just a cause for concern but a cause for action.

“We have been providing additional resources but the question is: are they producing the sort of results we want to see? Clearly they haven’t. We must do better.”

There are more than 20,000 children in out-of-home care in NSW, a number that has doubled in a decade. Mr Tune’s report found one-third do not finish year 12 and 44 per cent do not have jobs within five years of leaving care. The cost of providing government services to people over a 20-year period after they leave care is $284,000.

Mr Baird said the overhaul, which focuses on evidence-based individually targeted support for children and families, was the “single biggest reform to child welfare in NSW”.

Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard said the reform was a direct response to Mr Tune’s finding that: “Expenditure is crisis-driven, not well-aligned to the evidence and does not effectively target clients.”

The first stage of the reform will be reducing the number of children in the state’s broken residential care system.

“We will start the reforms with one of the most vulnerable groups – children under 12 in residential care,” Mr Hazzard said.

“They will get the health, mental health and psychological interventions they need so that they can have a permanent stable home.”

Jacqui Reed, chief executive of advocacy group Create, said any reform should have children’s needs at the centre.

“We have had reviews, inquiries and reforms but the bottom line is children are still being harmed in out-of-home care,” she said.

“We need much more robust independent monitoring of children in care and, most importantly, we need to listen to children and act on what they say.”

Child protection expert Helen Keevers said the current system was financially unsustainable but reform would be a lengthy process.

“You can’t expect a quick fix,” she said. “Do the research, identify the programs which work, don’t go for the one-size-fits-all approach and give it time to work.

“Short-term solutions such as handing contacts to low-cost providers don’t work. They just create a sub-class of people. At best they have been babysat, at worst they have been abused and neglected.”

Dr Kath McFarlane, a former state government policy advisor now at Charles Sturt University’s Centre of Law and Justice, said child welfare agencies must be more accountable under the reform.

“This reform is born out of a real desire to fix the system and better support children and families but unfortunately that can be lost in the implementation,” she said.

“I’d like to see real enforcement of these ideas and see agencies held to account if they don’t deliver.”

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