This speech was delivered on 08.11.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the original contribution here.
With the privatisation of electricity assets, ports and lands across New South Wales, the Baird Government is receiving a one-off surge of capital. It is proposing to spend that one-off surge of billions of dollars primarily on infrastructure, with $16 billion going on one private motorway and billions more being spent on light and heavy rail. But one asset—indeed the most important asset of all—has missed out on that expenditure, and that is our children. The challenge that The Greens put to all parties in this Chamber is to ensure that we set aside a minimum of $1 billion to be spent on the families and the children of this State to empower communities to prevent children falling into care in the first place.
Why is it important in New South Wales? Half the kids in care in Australia are in New South Wales. Worse still, one in 10 Aboriginal children are in out-of-home care. That is a continuing stolen generation. The June quarter figures from the Department of Families and Community Services show that 73,986 risk of serious harm [ROSH] reports were delivered to the helpline. Of those, just over a quarter—only 28 per cent—of the kids who are the subject of those ROSH reports have been assessed in a face-to-face assessment. The system just cannot keep up.
While there are close to record numbers of caseworkers, there is a mismatch of resources in this State. Why is this important? It is because we know that when children are removed from their families they have a series of contra-indicators for the rest of their lives. Just one figure is telling. Children removed from their families are 10 times more likely to have their own kids go into care. Kids who give birth while they are themselves in care are the most likely of all to have their children removed. It is a vicious and unvirtuous cycle. Money in the child protection system is heavily allocated to the crisis point. We spend a vast amount of time managing emergencies, removing children and putting them into care. But that means that we do not have the resources, we do not have the focus and we do not have the funding available to do the crucial things that keep kids out of care in the first place—that is supporting families and communities rather than just taking their kids. What would an additional $1 billion of investment in our families produce? We need a two-pronged approach.
We need early intervention that gets in as early as possible and helps kids stay in their community and Aboriginal kids stay on country, stay with kin. We need comprehensive wrap – around services for those kids that are already in care. We cannot just abandon them. We know what some of this looks like. It includes support for carers, especially kinship carers, not just in the form of reasonable financial support but also counselling and classes to enable them to nourish and support the children in their care to thrive.
We all assume that someone is doing this, that we are not just taking kids from their homes and hoping for the best but that is not what is happening. We probably also should be considering caseworker management including tracking and performance reviews of caseworkers. It is pretty much discretionary what caseworkers do and do not do in New South Wales. There is no comprehensive tracking of them and few performance standards have been put in place. Let us be clear, case workers have one of the hardest jobs in our society, and we need to ensure that we have changes in place to support them to do their jobs fairly, to support them to keep kids with families, not just remove kids and put them into out-of-home care and assume that they are going to be better. Most often they are not.
There are some strong arguments for increasing the leaving care age to 21 and after-care support including a personal advisor system, but that is not being debated because there are no resources. If we all reflect on how much we relied on our parents after moving out of home we might get a bit of an idea of how necessary this might be for kids in care. Then there are the more fundamental realities that seem to be entirely missed in this State, like how hard it is for kids who are in care or are leaving care to get a driver’s licence and how the lack of a licence makes finding independence even more difficult. We need to set a firm target for the percentage of kids leaving care who have a driver ‘s licence. The State is their parent; the State should be giving them a driver’s licence.
We need volunteer driver training to be expanded. There is some in place but it is far from adequate to meet the nee d. Having a driver’s licence improves access for kids to jobs, education and health services when they are young adults . For many of those children leaving care is an essential part of getting independence, and keeping it. We need to ensure there is a system in place to deliver that . We have a one-off chance to invest in our most important asset in this State, our children, and it would be a crime to squander it.