Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 08, 2023


Child Protection

The Hon. L.A. HENDERSON (17:05): I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises that the child protection system in South Australia is overwhelmed;

2. Recognises that South Australia spends less than the national average on services to prevent children from entering care; and

3. Calls on the Malinauskas government to provide earlier, more intensive intervention for at-risk families before they fall into crisis.

The spending in the child protection system reflects a serious imbalance. The Productivity Commission report from 2022 showed that 78 per cent of child protection spending is spent on out-of-home care, which shows the lack of spending on preventative measures. Of the total child protection spending, 12.1 per cent is on protective intervention, which is 30.2 per cent lower than the national average.

Protective intervention includes receiving and assessing child abuse and neglect allegations and referring families to support services to prevent their children from being taken into care. Six per cent is spent on family support services, which is 21.9 per cent lower than the national average. Family support services aim to prevent family separations and to reunite children with their biological parents where separation has occurred.

For intensive family support, only 3.7 per cent of the child protection budget was spent, which is 29.8 per cent lower than the national average. The spending on early intervention and intensive family support is the lowest in Australia. This imbalance in spending is perplexing given the evidence is clear that investing in quality early intervention and family preservation measures reduces the number of children who end up in the care system.

In terms of Aboriginal families, the Alexander report that was published at the end of last year on a review of child protection in South Australia highlighted that, in addition to a need for increased spending on early intervention measures, there needs to be a deliberate and vastly increased investment in early intervention and family preservation services for Aboriginal families. The report notes that the spending on Aboriginal children and services should be proportionate to their representation in the system—not the population.

As reported, South Australia currently spends 3.4 per cent of the child protection budget on Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, which is lower than most other Australian states and territories. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020-21 report on child protection in Australia states that there are 18,187 Aboriginal children in South Australia, who make up 4.9 per cent of the 369,658 total South Australian children.

Nationally, Aboriginal children make up 6 per cent of the total number of children. Although Aboriginal children make up 4.9 per cent of the total number of children in South Australia, they make up 34.5 per cent of children who received child protection services in 2020-21, yet only 3.4 per cent of the child protection budget is spent on Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.

The Alexander report notes that different agencies as varied as the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People and the Guardian agreed that more money is needed to be spent on early intervention, prevention and family support services.

The point is not that South Australia should suddenly be reducing its spending on children in care but that the imbalance needs to be addressed with a concentrated and deliberate effort, which will entail more spending and focused effort at the front end of the system—perhaps a little less money on social media influencers attending an exclusive Sam Smith concert and a little bit more money on the issues that should be a priority, like keeping South Australian children safe.

Reports of child neglect and abuse are spiralling in South Australia. The child protection system is overwhelmed. In South Australia, at least one notification of abuse and neglect occurs in one in four children by the time a child turns 10. In 2019-20, there were over 75,000 notifications regarding 39,000 children and over 20,000 families. Of these, some 70 per cent were already known to the Department for Child Protection.

The sheer number of notifications of abuse or neglect in South Australia means that the Department for Child Protection staff are overwhelmed. There is a need to dramatically slow the influx of notifications, and this can be done by offering more intensive intervention services at a much earlier stage to support families that need help.

Families in which abuse and neglect are reported tend to require support from a variety of government departments due to domestic and family violence, substance abuse, poor mental health, and insecure housing. Preventative support services that address these situations are what families who need them should be getting before the abuse and neglect of children occurs.

Currently, child protection interventions are primarily for families where abuse and neglect are established in order to prevent the removals and for placement of children in care. However, change at this late stage is much more difficult compared to early interventions. Screening to identify families in need of support much earlier requires a deliberate integration of services in order that they work together to identify families so that they will be able to identify more risk factors.

This motion calls on the Malinauskas government to ensure that young South Australians are given the protection they need and deserve.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.E. Hanson.