Thursday, 20 August 2015
Community Affairs References Committee; Report
I want to make some comments on the report that was presented yesterday in this place on out-of-home care. We had a number of speakers in the chamber yesterday who spoke about the extraordinary work that was put forward in this report, which I think has provided a significant basis of information so that people can look and see what is the status of out-of-home care in our nation today. One of the problems we have consistently is trying to draw together all the data about what exists in our nation, and I think this report goes a long way towards doing that. There is no way that I can cover the range of issues that I would like to in my contribution this evening, so I will concentrate on a couple of them and make a commitment to, on future evenings, do a replay and get to the other recommendations—which I know you will be waiting for with great happiness, Mr President.
This evening I particularly want to talk about three points. One is the aspect of making sure that young people have a voice in the decisions that affect them. People will understand that the focus on out-of-home care must be the safety and the security of our children. That is the process across all jurisdictions and that is the determining factor for the development of policy. Over the last few years, many jurisdictions have conducted their own inquiries into the out-of-home care system simply because there have been so many complaints and so many incidents which have caused great harm to children.
One of our recommendations is to ensure that young people do have a voice. The National Children's Commissioner, Ms Mitchell, who provided a very substantial submission to our inquiry and gave evidence, said:
It is really important to understand that children have agency; they can understand a lot of things. I am so impressed by kids as I go across the nation talking to them. Really young kids understand stuff if you engage with them. I think for children in these circumstances—
And that is in the circumstances of looking at needing to have care outside their family—
it is really critical. I am not saying that they are going to get what they want necessarily; it is about having a dialogue.
That is the important point. There needs to be engagement with the young people so that when they are experiencing the need they are able to share that with us. Naturally I am talking about children who are old enough to be able to express their wishes. They are the ones who are actually the focal point of the system, when they are moved away from family in many circumstances and they are lost. We heard about kids who were churned through the system—placement after placement. They lost their sense of identity and certainly lost their sense of safety and security, which in fact was the intent of the system.
The wonderful organisation CREATE, whose focus is ensuring that young people's voices are heard, said to our committee:
… although the principle of children being able to have a say about their decisions, about coming into care and about their lives is more recognised in Australian policy and practice, in reality, children's voices are often not heard in court and decisions are generally made for them without their input.
Miss Jarcinta Short, a young woman who came to see us in Hobart and who had been part of the care system, said:
I would like to have been thought of, instead of my case worker just placing me in places they thought I should be. Was it necessary for me to be removed? If it was not, then I should not have been removed. So my solution would be to ask the child, to put them first and have them be involved in the consideration and in the decision-making. With matching kids to care, I think it is a really good idea for case workers to do a tick sheet with children—the things that they like to do and what makes them them—and then pass it on to a carer that they think would be suitable for that child.
Again it is making sure that young people's voices are heard. Julia said, 'I did not even know I had a child safety officer until I was 12.' She did not even know that there was someone in the system—the system that was allegedly designed to support her—looking after.
We said that all jurisdictions, all agencies involved in this process, should have as one of their key determining practices that they are engaged with the children—and not just once but that engagement should continue on a regular basis so that they consistently hear what the child is saying. As with many other things in our inquiry, this was reinforcing knowledge that we had gained in previous inquiries. When we as a Senate were involved in the inquiry that looked at the institutionalisation of young people in earlier parts of the 20th century, the key issue that came up consistently was that young people were not given their voice and, when they called out for help because they were in fact being damaged, no-one listened and no-one responded. Now, in 2015 when we are looking at the out-of-home care situation care in our nation, it seems that that message needs to be reinforced.
I want to make comment, again, on previous experiences of our committee. Yesterday, when this report was brought down, Senators Seselja and Lindgren talked about their position on adoption. The committee worked very hard on this issue. We looked at the range of concerns and the impact of permanent placement for young people, and the need to take account, always, of security and of the lessons to be learnt from previous experience. Naturally, we believe that children should be at the centre of any decision-making process. In the chapter in our report on permanency of care, we raised the issue about what is in the best interest, and there is a wide range of opinion. In some areas, there does seem to be a return to a favouring of adoption. That needs to be considered. No option that could benefit a child should be dismissed completely.
We must remember past practice. We must remember the work that has been done by the Australian Institute of Family Studies through their surveys—all on the record. They talk about the need for serious consideration before any decision is made on permanent placement for any person and that the impact in terms of loss of identity, loss of link to home and care, loss of link to kin and the clear knowledge of where they are in the world must always be taken into account.
Through previous inquiries about women who have lost their children into the system and about grandparent care of grandchildren, the committee understands the need to ensure there are appropriate services that provide support to anyone who is providing care to children and taking children into their home, and support to children themselves. These services must be planned on a long-term basis because the need and the impact does not necessarily happen immediately. In several of our inquiries, we found that people well on into their lives are still concerned about the way that their lives were changed, most often by past practices of adoption.
I encourage people to look at the evidence that the committee received. We must not accept that the easiest and most attractive option is the best way to go. I refer to evidence the committee received from the Alliance for Children at Risk from Western Australia: 'The big fear is that because there are fiscal challenges in the system the adoption process is an easy way. Yep, 12 months and we are out of this and it is off the books.' That fiscal concern should never be a determining factor about how we provide services in this country. We need to look at the true wellbeing and health of the individuals involved. In any discussion of any form of moving to adoption in the future, we must remember and learn the lessons from the past about the supports necessary to ensure that everybody in the system is protected and that their wellbeing is maintained. I seek leave to continue my remarks.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.