The State Government has stopped funding a publicly-run child protection program that has worked with at-risk children and their families for almost the past decade, and will instead go out to tender to replace the service – angering doctors and other health workers.
The Infant Therapeutic Reunification Service was developed in 2011 in response to a gap in interventions in the child protection system.
But government funding ran out in August, meaning the program is no longer operating.
The program worked with families with children under three years of age who have been, or are at risk of being, neglected or maltreated, and involved a range of services including domestic violence, drug and alcohol and accommodation.
The Government says it will go out to tender “in coming months” to replace the service – insisting it is “consolidating and strengthening” its approach.
But the Public Service Association (PSA) and SA Salaried Medical Officers Association (SASMOA) have slammed the decision, describing it as “irresponsible” and telling InDaily it will leave vulnerable children at risk.
SASMOA chief industrial officer Bernadette Mulholland said the service should not be privatised.
We strongly believe that expert work of this kind should be undertaken in the public sector
“Our understanding is that the service in its current form has ceased to operate and there are currently no services available in this space, which is a terrible outcome for at-risk children and families,” she said.
“Our members are angry that a great service that made a life-changing difference to children and families has been disrespected, undervalued and unfairly treated.
“They are extremely concerned about the potential impacts on at-risk infants and families.”
PSA general secretary Nev Kitchin said the State Government had a responsibility to protect and support vulnerable children and families.
“Steven Marshall should not be closing effective, low-cost public health programs that are successfully keeping children safe and out of state care,” he said.
“The irresponsible decision to cease this service is based on flawed and incorrect information – and because it became a political football between three ministers – none of whom has been willing to take responsibility.”
Kitchin said the Child Protection Department’s own data shows that 82 per cent of all children who have been supported by the program “have not been subject to a further substantiated notification”.
“In other words, this program is having an incredibly positive impact on children and families who might otherwise be at serious risk,” he said.
“The child protection system is already under stress so it makes no sense to cut a cost-effective preventative program that relieves pressure on the system now and into the future.”
The PSA has provided InDaily with testimonials from families supported by the service.
One parent said: “My son was removed from me at birth by the Department for Child Protection for a number of reasons. We have since been reunified. This is in large part due to the work that we have been able to do with ITRS.
“This service has not only been valuable to myself and many other families but is crucial going forward to help other parents be able to work with children who have faced trauma and difficulties in making connections with their parents or primary caregiver.”
Another wrote: “I can’t thank the team enough for how much their service and support has impacted on me as a person and as a mother to my children.”
A mother who worked with the program after her two youngest children were removed from her care but have now been returned said: “With the service, I learnt to recognise and understand feelings and emotions which was something I wasn’t very good at doing beforehand.”
The PSA wrote to Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink in July to voice its concerns and request an urgent meeting before the program stopped.
“The decision to cease funding of this life-saving service appears to be solely based on a deficient (Human Services Department) report which has since been withdrawn,” the letter, dated July 21, states.
“Despite comprehensive data and information being provided by the team, the report contained largely inaccurate data and assumptions.”
Mulholland told InDaily: “Quite extraordinarily, this review was conducted without consultation with staff, clients or any external stakeholders.
“Although unclear, the predominant justification for terminating the service as it exists appears to be because the review found it had not reunified ‘enough’ families in a selected year.
“SASMOA is alarmed by this attitude. Just because a reunification does not occur does not mean the service is not valuable or successful.
“A decision to reunify a family – or not – is based on a thorough risk assessment after careful consideration by a multidisciplinary team of doctors and allied health professionals. Children should not be reunified to extreme risk situations and unsafe environments.”
A government spokeswoman said the Department for Child Protection (DCP) “will be consolidating and strengthening its approach to family reunification services through a recommissioning process later in the year”.
“The ITRS was a pilot program and is no longer operating,” she said in a statement.
“DCP has committed $4.3 million over the next five years to family reunification services –and there is no decrease in ongoing funding to reunification services.
“The State Government is committed to providing more connected and better services for South Australian families and children at risk.
“Reunifying children and young people with their birth family is an important focus for the Department for Child Protection, acknowledging some families need additional support to be able to keep their children safely at home.”
She said Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service staff working in the ITRS program had been redeployed to other services for a similar client population.
The Government said the ITRS had been jointly funded by the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and DCP.
The spokeswoman said the Women’s and Children’s Hospital “will be welcome” to tender for program funding as part of the recommissioning process – although Mulholland said she believed it was “unlikely” the hospital would do so.
Mulholland said: “We strongly believe that expert work of this kind should be undertaken in the public sector – especially given the relationships with the health and child protection departments – and fear the loss of specialist knowledge and skills in infant reunification services which cannot easily be replicated.”