Child protection: governments found to be spending $500m a year without any real gains

Productivity Commission finds federal and Northern Territory governments operating in isolation and fundamental change needed.

The federal and Northern Territory governments are spending $500m a year on addressing child protection issues but failing to make any real gains, the Productivity Commission has found.

It said governments “should focus on what outcomes they are collectively achieving from their investments, rather than seeking credit for individual funding announcements”.

The damning assessment, in the commission’s draft report released on Friday, said the governments were operating in isolation in a system which was so fragmented they didn’t know what each other was doing or whether services were having any impact – and fundamental change was needed.

Children in the NT are four times more likely to come into contact with the child protection system than other Australian children. In an effort to address the hugely disproportionate rate, the NT and Commonwealth governments have made significant financial commitments, spending about $538m in 2018-19.

But the Productivity Commission found the money – which went through nine funding agencies in more than 700 grants to more than 500 service providers – was being spent without an understanding of what communities need, or what was already being funded by other agencies.

“There is inadequate coordination between and within both governments, with each often unaware of what the other is funding and of what is being delivered on the ground,” the commission said.

“There is immense goodwill, positive reforms and pockets of good practice, but a fundamental shift in approach is needed – one that is underpinned by a stronger commitment to transparency and collaboration between governments, service providers and communities.

“This would help to ensure that governments are collectively accountable for achieving their shared objective – of keeping children and young people safe and well.”

The report found a particular overlap in services addressing family violence and crisis accommodation, justice and legal services, sport and recreation, and community development services.

In some locations, dual services existed, while in other places there was nothing. Some individual services were funded from as many as seven different sources.

Participants in the study also drew the commission’s attention to gaps in services, including youth mental health, parenting programs, access to safe houses and various youth justice services including rehabilitation.

In answer to a long-running complaint in the sector about unpredictable short-term contracts, which hindered long-term plans as well as staff hiring and retention, the commission recommended the government transition to contracts with a minimum seven years, with exceptions for things like program trials.

The contracts should also cover the full cost of the service and properly took into account the capacity of organisations, particularly in Indigenous communities.

A key finding of the NT royal commission into the protection and detention of children was that government funding was not properly tracked, monitored or evaluated. The commission noted there were more than 15 different types of geographical units used in NT government expenditure reports, and in some cases, the money couldn’t be linked to specific towns or communities.

The NT government has been criticised previously over a lack of transparency in its Indigenous expenditure.


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