Minister for Human Services
Ministerial Statement – Child Protection Redesign
15 March, 2016

Six months ago I stood before you and outlined that the child protection system was broken and was failing the State’s most vulnerable children, young people and their families.

I made the point that this Government believed a different approach to child protection was an imperative and that in order to better protect children, we must better support families.As a Government we have focussed on delivering our long-term plan to grow the economy and create jobs.  We have got the budget back on track; therefore, we can now invest the dividends of that hard work into core services, like education, health, skills development and Tasmania’s vulnerable children and families.

I am pleased to table today, after extensive consultation with over 300 stakeholders across Tasmania, the full report of the Reference Group, led by Professor Maria Harries: Redesign of Child Protection Services Tasmania:  ‘Strong Families – Safe Kids’.

The Government has agreed, in principle, to all the recommendations in the report.

Further, the Government has committed to investing an additional $20 million in cross-agency investment over the next four years, to implement the changes.

This investment will deliver on three key areas as recommended by the Reference Group, including:

  • Acting earlier and improving the timely access of advice and action – through Children and Youth Services providing a “one-door”, statewide, early advice and referral network, that will work to support children and families from day one and not just provide a pathway to the child protection service;
  • Refocusing our child protection service and strengthening the capability of our child protection workers, with better structures and supports for our workforce; and
  • Growing the capacity of families and communities through the delivery of a continuum of services ranging from advice and support, through to intensive and, at times, assertive in-home support for families approaching the point of crisis.

These reforms are a fundamental change in the way that child protection services are delivered in this State. The measures we will take will not only better support our child protection workers to do their job, but create a stronger, safer, future for Tasmania’s children and young people.

Madam Speaker, child safety and wellbeing is everyone’s business.

As the Commissioner for Children said earlier this year, “Children (are) best served if we all help”. Further, he went on to say that “our statutory child protection service doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it operates as part of a wider system for supporting children’s wellbeing – those who work in education, health, policing and the community sectors as well as families and communities, all have an essential role in safeguarding children.”

The statutory child protection system plays a very small, albeit important role in a broader system of protection. The safety and wellbeing of children must be accepted as a collaborative endeavour between families, communities, non-government and government agencies.

Despite numerous reports, reviews and inquiries over the past 16 years, coupled with a variety of incremental changes, Tasmania has not been able to achieve the level of reform required to dislodge the entrenched issues that all these past reports have identified within the Tasmanian Child Protection Service.

Madam Speaker, it is not just the Government that has recognised the need for fundamental change.

In the words of our child protection workers who were involved in feedback forums on the redesign, they said clearly:  “What is needed is more prevention and early intervention” and “We should be more collaborative, focussed on what is best for the child”.

Perhaps the failures of the system are more poignantly expressed in the words of children interviewed last year by the Commissioner for Children.

“No one asks for my opinion or my views”; “Sometimes I am just ignored”; “I was moved to a new foster carer and never told why – I felt as if I had done something wrong but no one told me”.

The comment, which will resonate with those of us who have had the experience of growing up in a loving family, with brothers and sisters is: “I wish I could live with my siblings; the longer we are apart the harder it is to get along when we see each other.”

The first step in changing those perceptions was entrusted to independent Professor Maria Harries, Adjunct Professor at Curtin University and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at the School of Population Health at the University of Western Australia.

This redesign, therefore, is built upon the insights of both experts working in the system and those that are impacted by its limitations; children and young people.

Madam Speaker, when I spoke in my previous ministerial statement, I presented to this House a picture of a child protection system facing potential collapse if comprehensive action was not taken, regardless of any additional resources added.

In fact, Professor Harries states in her report that “the temptation to invest only in more child protection workers is one that many jurisdictions have come to. The inevitability of this latter strategy will be maintenance of the status quo of discontent that marks the current professional environment alongside an increase in costs.”

One of the most significant issues highlighted by Professor Harries in her report is, while the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 provides a legislative framework which correctly places government statutory services as a small component of an overall system for keeping children safe, the reality is that the Child Protection Service has become the default service for community members and professionals to report any concerns they may have regarding children, regardless of the level of risk.

This has resulted in a system that is groaning under the weight of ever-increasing notifications at the expense of a system that focuses on early intervention and family support.

As I have said before we are putting almost all our resources into the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of the fence at the top.

The fact is there are only a small number of children for whom it is unsafe to remain with their birth parents.

However, there is a much larger proportion of families in crisis who need immediate support and help, and many families who require lower levels of support earlier in their parenting journey, so they too don’t fall into crisis.

This is a fundamental role of government, but one that has not necessarily been successfully implemented in the past.

Madam Speaker, the 2011 inquiry into Tasmania’s Child Protection Service found that “The majority of children referred to the child protection system come from families that are affected by a combination of other issues that include financial difficulties, substance abuse, mental health symptoms, inadequate housing and family violence.”

That is why the redesign has put such a strong emphasis on both stronger families and the importance of providing new networks of support from other government agencies, services and initiatives across our community.

We know that if support services for families are not provided before they reach a crisis point, the levels of demand within the statutory system will continue to increase, be more costly and there will continue to be poor outcomes for vulnerable children and families in Tasmania.

The cost of child protection services and the costs to the community increase significantly as you travel along the spectrum of harm. Nationally, costs in out of home care represent about 50% of the costs of child protection services and, in Tasmania, this equates to around $49 million per year.

The longer term or indirect financial cost associated with child neglect is substantial, with adverse financial and other costs for individuals and the communities in which they live, often including future drug and alcohol abuse; mental illness; poor health; homelessness; juvenile offending; criminality; and incarceration.

But more importantly, the issue we have to acknowledge and address is the effect on the individual child.

A broken system breaks children and, over time, leads to broken adults.

Madam Speaker, we also cannot afford to overlook the fact that children entering our child protection system reflect the broader social, cultural, educational and economic dimensions of our community and each of these domains needs to be considered in a systematic and thoughtful way to improve the situation of children and families.

Having a job, a safe and secure place to live, being able to send your children to school and generally providing for your family is one of the most important ways this Government, across all agencies, can reduce and prevent the number of children coming into the statutory child protection system.

The Government can, and is, playing its part by strengthening the economy and creating more jobs to help people move out of disadvantage and to break the entrenched circle of generational poverty that has existed for some families. We also recognise that while the economy is continuing to grow, there’s a lot more we need to do particularly across our hospital and health services, transport infrastructure and our education and training systems.

The Government is committed to supporting Tasmanians; those in immediate need and also those among us who deserve their chance for a brighter future.  This includes young Tasmanians in our school system and young Tasmanians who may be disadvantaged due to their families being under strain.

Madam Speaker, the positive news is that as a small jurisdiction, Tasmania is ideally placed to work differently and to build an innovative system response which responds to these challenges and better meets the needs of Tasmanian children and their families.

As I said at the outset, we have identified three key themes, underpinned by 14 initiatives that will be our initial priorities as we commence the long term process of redesigning Tasmania’s Child Protection Service.

As part of our long-term plan to deliver a child protection service that Tasmania’s vulnerable children and hard-working child protection workers deserve, our immediate focus will be on providing the support and structures to build an innovative new child protection system which places children at its heart.

Firstly, we will act early and improve the timely access for advice and action.

We know that a combination of mandatory reporting and the lack of service options has resulted in a steady growth each year in the notification rate for concerns about child abuse and neglect.

Advice received during consultations was that currently, agencies and authorities are frustrated with the inability of the Child Protection Service to respond to notifications immediately. As a result, they often make multiple notifications in an attempt to ‘grab the attention’ of child protection officers, regardless of any change in the perceived risk to the child.

  1. To build on the initiatives in community education and a shared approach outlined later in this statement, we will redesign Intake Services to become part of a broader early advice and referral network that sits within the broader child and family service system – in effect, a “one door” statewide service that moves beyond assessing whether a child protection response is required and provides an advice and referral point for all services based on an assessment of need, at that point in time.

Importantly, this will provide earlier interventions while also playing a critical role in protecting children that require an urgent response.

  1. To support this initiative, we will ensure workers have access to ongoing, contemporary professional learning and the new referral service is underpinned with additional practice consultant roles to provide current and relevant clinical practice supervision and advice.
  2. As part of the move to a state-wide advice and referral service model, we will also incorporate a shift/roster element, to provide capacity to take and respond to calls on a 24 hour basis.  Additional allied health professionals will be employed to support this extended hours service.

These workers will also be available to assist key mandatory reporters and notifying agencies such as Tasmania Police, the Department of Education and the wider health system including the emergency departments of hospitals in dealing with both child protection cases and young people at risk.

Establishing one front door with strong links to the broader child and family service system will contribute significantly towards refocusing the system away from statutory interventions of last resort, to providing earlier access and integrated support to vulnerable children and their families in the community.

Previous investments in resources such as the current Child Protection Liaison Officer position at the Royal Hobart Hospital have shown the merits of better linking the expertise of multiple service systems to achieve better outcomes for families, often without the need for statutory intervention.

Madam Speaker, it is not viable to expect the current child protection system alone to respond to the multiple needs of Tasmanian children and their families, and national and international evidence suggests that an integrated, cross agency response is required to better assess and respond to needs as part of a redesigned child and family service system.

  1. We will link the new front door advice and referral service with key service delivery agencies such as Tasmania Police, the Department of Education, Mental Health, Alcohol and Drugs Services and Family Violence services through either co-locating liaison positions or through other partnership arrangements.

The Department of Education, with its own allied health practitioners such as social workers, psychologists and school nurses, will greatly assist in delivering a more timely, integrated response to these families, with positive immediate and longer-term outcomes for children’s wellbeing, learning and school attendance.

This team will also have a specific focus in providing support in a culturally appropriate way to Aboriginal children and young people.

Secondly, Madam Speaker, we will also Refocus our Safety Response and Strengthen Capability in Our Workers.  In the report, Professor Harries states that “More generally, structures which utilise small units have been shown through evaluations to promote better practice, higher levels of staff morale and, ultimately, improved outcomes for children.”

The current service model is predicated on a historical approach to child protection, established in response to serious physical abuse, which is now unable to respond to the increasing complexity and demand driven by mandatory reporting and changing community understanding of child abuse.

  1. We will support these changes through improved systems, training and information technology which is fit for purpose so that staff are appropriately supported, highly trained and able to readily access critical information to inform their decision-making with vulnerable children and their families.
  2. Consistent with the relevant legislative framework, current child protection resources will also be refocussed into teams that have a very clear mandate to secure and maintain a safe environment for a child when it is no longer provided in the family home.

Under this initiative, teams will be structured and resourced as small units who work together for a group of children.  These units will be focused on one of three areas: court focused teams; short term (reunification) case management; or long term (permanency) case management.

In respect of the latter team, sadly Madam Speaker, for some children in out of home care, the outcome will never be successful family reunification.

It is clear that in some cases, especially when the child is very young, we need to look seriously at whether the best interests of the child are served by remaining in what could be an unsafe environment. We then need to move swiftly from interim safety arrangements to longer term permanency arrangements, to instil security and certainty, which all children need.

  1. This team will investigate measures that allow for earlier consideration of long-term permanent placements for children who cannot return home.

Significant work on this matter has been progressed by other Australian States so coupled with those learnings, the Government will undertake extensive consultation and engagement with key stakeholders. This will include the legal system, the Commissioner for Children, community and non-government care providers, parents, children and extended family members.

The best interests of the child will always be paramount if a child needs to be placed in another family, regardless of whether it is a foster carer, guardianship, extended family or an open adoptive family.

  1. We also recognise that staff need support to undertake the tasks associated with the new team structure, therefore, additional practice consultant roles will be embedded across the State to provide current and relevant clinical practice.
  2. We also recognise that the normal business of running regional offices, scheduling appointments, and the general provision of non-clinical support to families is a vital component in the success of the Child Protection Service. As part of this redesign, we will provide additional support and administration workers across the State.
  3. We need to ensure that staff keep ahead of skills requirements across the sector, have access to contemporary professional learning activities, as well as other supports to ensure their wellbeing and a safe workplace.  The development and delivery of e-learning training resources will be part of this initiative, as will be the provision of more flexible ICT tools.
  4. Additional psychological support resources will be available to support the resilience and wellbeing of members of these teams to undertake their important roles.
  5. In regard to children in out-of-home care who may present with possible developmental delays, a dedicated program will be established to provide comprehensive allied health assessments to children to provide more timely referrals to the appropriate support pathways.

Madam Speaker, we know that the majority of parents and families have the capacity and the motivation to raise healthy and happy children. Every family has its challenges, and everyone needs some help, at certain times of their lives.

That is why, thirdly, we will Grow the Capacity of Families and Communities.

As acknowledged within the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, many of the challenges faced by child protection services have arisen out of changing social values and better knowledge about the safety and wellbeing of children. Child protection services were originally established in response to serious physical abuse. They were aimed at ‘rescuing’ children from dangerous families. Now, in response to changing community expectations, these services deal with every concern about all children regardless of the level of risk.

The Harries report references a remark that “the child protection system is perfectly designed to get the results we get”.   In other words, the absence of intensive and assertive support services for families has meant that the only suitable response has been to wait until the family crisis reaches the threshold for statutory intervention, with the child removed from the family.

Madam Speaker, in almost all instances, a parent does not want to have their child removed from them.  We need to strengthen these families, to ensure they understand the important role they have as parents.  No child or young person should end up in the statutory child protection system simply because of a lack of action to prevent that from happening.

In order to progress a public health approach it is critical that the statutory Child Protection Service is supported by appropriate universal and secondary support services, from both the government and community sectors.

Ideally, these services should range along a continuum, from advice and support services through to assertive engagement services which provide intensive in-home support to children and families who are on the cusp of the out-of-home care system.

Almost unanimously, people who were consulted on this redesign proposed a less forensic, and a more proactive and collaborative approach to the work of keeping children safe, while ensuring their wellbeing and healthy development.

Unequivocally, they made the point that to do this required a strengthening of the networks of non-government organisations to boost capacity to support children and families in need without having to wait for the outcome of a notification to the Child Protection Service before they could access services.

I value the feedback of these people, who have been working in and around the Child Protection Service for many years, and respect their professional input to these deliberations.

For instance, Gateway Services have provided a critical role in providing early support to families and children in need, and will need to continue to do so.

The initial investment in earlier intervention and support services was intended to provide an alternate pathway for reporting and accessing services for lower level concerns, but the reality, and one the Gateway Services have worked hard to manage and stem the tide of, has been the creation of an additional pathway, with reports to the statutory child protection service continuing to increase.

The data shows that since the inception of the Gateway Services in 2009, the notifications to the Child Protection Service have increased by 36% from 9,970 in 2009-10 to 13,560 in 2014-15. Over the same period, the percentage of notifications that were actually substantiated has remained relatively static.

As is true for other jurisdictions, the Gateway Services are being increasingly inundated with reports, many of which are not statutory concerns, and, arguably, do not need forensic statutory investigation.

Among a range of concerns, families and services reported a constant ‘churn’ between the Gateways and Child Protection Service with families being referred constantly between both portals.

As a result, many children are ending up in out of home care due to circumstances that could have been avoided if they and their families received earlier, intensive and, at times, assertive support.

Madam Speaker, the evidence is unequivocal: removing children from their homes can deliver poor outcomes for many children.

We must therefore, ensure that this is done as a last resort.

Tasmania needs one capable and integrated advice and referral service.  It needs a service that can rapidly respond when presented with evidence of children in imminent danger.

It needs a service that can immediately activate a broad strength-based response where removal of the child is not necessary, but what is required is to ensure that the home is a safe, nurturing environment for the child.

In order for fundamental change to occur we need to take all our stakeholders with us on the journey and this takes time.

We also need to make sure that some concurrent initiatives are consistent with the objectives of the redesign.

The launch of this Report is the umbrella under which all the reforms and change programs currently underway across Children & Youth Services will be linked – including Youth at Risk, the Child Health & Parenting Service, ongoing implementation of Signs of Safety, and reform of the Out of Home Care system.

In this way, we can join up several reform programs and services already underway, and ensure they are progressed in a more strategic and systematic reform agenda, alongside the imperative redesign of the Tasmanian Child Protection Service.

  1. We will review all current services across both government and non-government providers, to ensure the right balance of primary and secondary support services to families and children into the future and to ensure these services complement the broader change agenda of the redesign.

This process will be undertaken in consultation with the Gateway Services and other family support service providers to gather feedback and ensure the outcomes of this component of the redesign are relevant, respectful and reflect the views of the non-government sector.

  1. In the interim, while a more integrated, long-term system of support is being developed, funding will be available for brokerage assertive interventions for children and families from the non-government sector to provide an alternative service option for those families who are at risk of their children entering care.

Madam Speaker, before I finish, there are a number of people I want to thank for their dedication and assistance over the past 6 months in the production of this comprehensive and consultative redesign report.

  • Firstly, Professor Maria Harries and all the members of her redesign team,
  • Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Pervan;
  • the Director, Communities, Sport and Recreation, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Kate Kent;
  • the Commissioner for Children, Mark Morrissey;
  • the Deputy Police Commissioner, Scott Tilyard; and
  • the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Education, Robert Williams.
  • The Reference Group was also ably assisted by the Deputy Secretary of Children and Youth Services, Tony Kemp, and the Redesign Project Director, Mat Healey

Madam Speaker, there is also another group of people, arguably the most important, to whom we are all indebted and who rarely receive enough thanks – our Child Protection Service workers who undertake one of the most important jobs in the public service; that of protecting our most vulnerable children and young people, and their contribution to creating stronger futures for these children, young people and their families is acknowledged and appreciated. Thank you.

Work will now begin immediately on the detailed reform implementation plan in consultation with our workforce and community partners, ahead of funding flowing from the 2016-17 State Budget.  This work will be led by a high-level interagency committee whose members will include the heads of agency from Justice, Education, Health and Human Services and the Commissioner for Police, thereby ensuring a truly whole of government response.

Importantly the implementation plan will have at its heart a dedicated team within Children and Youth Services who will consult with workers, unions, community stakeholders and the non-government sector. This will ensure that from the start of the 2016-17 financial year, these initiatives can get underway, and the lives of vulnerable children and young people are improved.

Madam Speaker, I now table the Redesign of Child Protection Services Tasmania: ‘Strong Families – Safe Kids’ Report and in the interests of full transparency, a copy of the Report is also publicly available on the DHHS website.