'Broken and unsafe': Child-safety watchdog finds state care often harmful

Traumatised children and young people in care are being housed in hotels and serviced apartments under the supervision of casual agency staff because of a lack of suitable places in residential care.

These so-called "contingency" placements - which cost the state a staggering $43 million last year - are supposed to be used only in an emergency but in some cases have lasted months, says Victoria's child-safety watchdog, Commissioner for Children Liana Buchanan.

"For too many children what they experience in care is as harmful, if not more so, than what they experienced before they came into care," Ms Buchanan said.

"No-one can imagine that living in a hotel or a Quest apartment is the best way to care for a child that has experienced trauma and violence. This is proof we have a system that’s not flexible enough to meet children’s needs."

This morning Victoria's Commission for Children tabled a wide-ranging and scathing inquiry into the current state of the care system, based on interviews with 200 children and young people.

It's the most extensive set of interviews done with children who live at the coalface of Victoria’s care system, and it makes for grim reading.

The commission's report reveals in the past decade, the number of children in the Victorian care system - including those in foster care, residential units or family "kinship" placements - has doubled. There has been a net loss of foster carers.

This increase is particularly marked for Aboriginal children: the number removed from their parents and living in care has tripled in the past decade, from 680 to 2000.

Meanwhile, Victoria’s child protection system has not kept pace. As of the end of 2018, 1445 children and young people whose cases are managed by child protection did not have an allocated case worker.

Many children told the commission it was rare for them to have any say in decisions. "I remember coming home from my first day at school and celebrating with cake. Then I was told I had to move placement and leave school," says 17-year-old Evelina in the Commission's report.

Notifications, investigations and substantiations of child abuse and neglect have tripled in the past decade, but there has only been a corresponding 70 per cent increase in government funding, the commission finds.

The over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in care is particularly acute: while Aboriginal people only make up one percent of the state's population, one in four children in care is Aboriginal.

Three quarters of Aboriginal children and young people are not living with an Aboriginal carer. A third of Aboriginal children and young people in care who had one or more siblings were living separately from all of them.

And Aboriginal children have exceedingly high numbers of allocated workers - an average of 13 workers over a two-year period.

"These disgraceful figures mean the harms of a deeply flawed system are amplified for Aboriginal children and young people, who are pre-disposed to care through intergenerational trauma including the continuing impacts of the Stolen Generations," said Aboriginal Commissioner for Children and Young People, Justin Mohamed.

Keyara Bolan, 20, a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, went into kinship care at the age of about 8 and has lived with both of her grandmothers. She is now a kinship carer for her teen brother.

Growing up, she often played the role of parent for her siblings - cooking dinner, changing nappies and bathing them - but when they all went into care she was separated from two younger brothers when she was 13, she told The Age.

“It was a feeling I can’t explain, like being split in half,” she says. “Living with family, you’re loved, but it’s not the intimate love you would get from a mum and dad. I didn’t have anyone I could confide in.”

The Commission's report reveals the emergency "contingency" placements are very expensive: they cost the state’s Department of Health and Human Services $43 million in the last financial year, more than $2000 per child, per day. About 55 children are housed like this on any one day, with the numbers rising steadily since 2016.

Child protection staff told Ms Buchanan one of the primary reasons for these placements included when a child with a disability had insufficient support available through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. They said high numbers of children, especially boys, with autism were included in these numbers.

Victoria has consistently invested less than the Australian average in out-of-home care, at about 25 per cent less than the average. A huge chunk of the annual care budget is spent on residential care, with an annual cost of about $666,000 per child.

And residential care is a dangerous place for young people.  Although only five per cent of children in care are in residential care, it accounts for approximately three-quarters of all incidents.

Children and young people told the Commission they were exposed to violence, drug use and other criminal activity in residential care, where more than 400 young people in care currently live.

"DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] take us out of our parents’ care for whatever reason and put us in a resi which is just as bad. …If someone’s being taken out of someone’s care because there’s been violence, you don’t put them somewhere where there’s more violence,’ said a 17-year-old quoted in the report.

While the Victorian government has substantially boosted funding to child protection services since 2016, this has not been matched by recruitment, particularly in senior staff, the commission found.

And the retention of new child protection workers is alarmingly low. About 50 per cent of all staff leaving the child protection workforce between July 2018 and May 2019 left within their first year on the job.

Ms Buchanan called for the current model of residential care to be abolished and replaced by much for flexible options for children in care. She said it relies on a highly-casualised, transient workforce.

The commission made 17 recommendations, including the government develop a new strategy for the child and family system, and fund it. Police involvement in residential care should also be reduced, it said.


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