Doctor and activist

Children in Care- a Brief History

3 December 2022

One summer evening when I was still a medical student, I was strolling with friends through a festival with stalls and lights in Hyde Park. A young woman approached me and said “I’m a ‘Hookah for Christ, will you come with me?”, and handed me a leaflet. She was a few years younger than I and one of the most stunningly beautiful women I have ever seen. I paused, somewhat shocked, and wondered how much Christ and how much hookah was in this Goddess incarnate and whether I should follow her path to enlightenment. My girlfriend reappeared at this point and was very definitely of the opinion that I should not.

Some years later, in 1992, I had further cause to rue this ignorance as DoCS (Department of Community Services) were involved in a court case with a sect called the ‘Children of God’, who, it was alleged, had used young girls sexually to recruit members for their cult. The sect maintained that the term ‘Hookahs for Christ’ was merely a rhetorical device. The sect had expensive lawyers and won the case , though there was considerable public doubt about the freedom of cult members. DoCs was highly criticised over the case and the Premier, Nick Greiner, cut huge number from its middle management.

Neo-liberalism was new at that time, and his slogan was ‘Putting people first by managing Better’, which was in itself reflected an attitude of the time that managers knew better than those who actually did the work. A contemporary management slogan was ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, which tended to translate into ’Don’t spend any money on prevention, as it might not break’. Money spent supporting families has trouble showing big returns on management KPIs. The NSW Public Service was being massively downsized and there are some of the view that DoCS has never recovered from this downsizing, as human organisations rely on human knowledge and if there are just generic managers and new recruits, there is not enough corporate memory and experience to handle cases.

In 1999 when I was in Parliament, I was approached by a number of people telling me that DoCS was failing children at risk. The children with dysfunctional families from drug abuse, alcohol or domestic violence were not getting home support, and the initiation and supervision of fostering arrangements were poorly executed. I tried to set up an inquiry into DoCS. I had a number of NGOs speak to the cross bench. I had to get enough numbers so that there was a majority in the upper house. One of the groups suggested that the UN treaty on the Rights of the Child be a term of reference. This seemed reasonable, but Fred Nile said that he and Elaine would not vote for the inquiry if this was in the terms of reference. Richard Jones said he would not if it was omitted. I needed both of their votes to be sure of the numbers. I thought Richard would fold if I left it out- I was pretty sure Fred Nile wouldn’t. The Liberals, who were in Opposition at the time, were generally up for anything that would embarrass the Labor Government. I asked if they would support it, and told them that if Richard Jones changed, we had the numbers. They said, “We are a serious political party. If you cannot guarantee the numbers, we will not support you”. I regretted telling them about Richard and I did not move the motion. 21 months later the Liberals decided to support the idea, and approached me to amend my motion slightly, which initiated an inquiry (10/4/2002) .

The 2003 Inquiry found that DoCS was indeed dysfunctional . It had contracted out quite a lot of work to charitable NGOs without them having either the funds or the expertise to deal with difficult cases. Huge resources were spent monitoring wayward adolescents to keep them out of the criminal justice system until they reached 16, after which DoCS were not legally responsible for them. Cases did not have much preventive work done or decisions made and tended to stay on the desks of managers ‘unallocated’ until there was a problem . When there was a crisis or the matter went to Court, a relatively junior DoCS person would be allocated the case and have to face a crisis situation. The plans given to the Children’s Court for approval were hastily cobbled together at the last minute, often by new case managers who had only just got the brief. The Government had introduced ‘mandatory reporting’ with a phone and fax Helpline. This meant that there were huge numbers of reports, and huge efforts dealing with multiple reports on the same child or situation, but the call centre gobbled up resources that would have been better spent actually managing cases. The government was reluctant to get rid of the mandatory reporting ’Helpline’ as it was supposed to force schoolteachers etc. into reporting cases, which would leave no stone unturned. The function of DoCS seemed more concerned with appearances than reality and it got a lot of negative press.

Behind all this was the Children’s Court, where the conscientious Senior Magistrate, Scott Mitchell, was about the only quality control on the Department as he insisted in fulfilling his legislated role of ensuring that there was a realistic plan for children placed into custody of relatives or foster homes.

The Minister for Community Services, Fay Lo Po was sacked as was the head of DoCS, Carmel Niland. Neil Shepherd, who had been Deputy Director of the Cabinet Office and Health of the EPA replaced Niland. The Labor government promised a billion dollars over 10 years (most towards the end of the 10 years). Prevention was addressed with a new program, Brighter Futures, but the key problems remained with lack of action on 21% of cases noted by the Helpline, so there was another Special Commission into Child Protection Services in NSW in 2008 by Justice Wood , (who had achieved fame because of his work on Police corruption and paedophiles in 1997 ). Wood was helped by DoCS officers and one of their complaints was the stress that the Children’s Court put them under when they had to front up to Scott Mitchell with their child management plans. The report recommended weakening the power of the Children’s Court, and Scott Mitchell was disposed of by appointing a new President of the Children’s Court, who was to be a Judge- a level higher than Mitchell, who would have had to apply for the promotion that he was not going to get. On 1/9/2009 Attorney-General John Hatzistergos appointed Judge Mark Marien the new President , claiming he was strengthening the Court as he expanded on the new Judge’s CV, which lacked anything relating to child welfare.

An academic researcher, Katherine Macfarlane, noted that even in 2015 there was no data collected on how many Australian children in Out of Home Care ended up in the criminal justice system. She termed it ‘Care Criminalisation’ and noted that this data is collected in other jurisdictions .

It would seem that DoCs, which had a name change to Dept. of Family and Community Services (FACS) and then in 2019 came to be part of the Dept. Communities and Justice, still has its problems .

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28/11/22 noted that a private contractor, Lifestyle Solutions, had subcontracted a child’s care to another subcontractor, Connecting Families and the children in question could not go to school as they were too cold without a winter uniform, despite the payment of $77,000 per month to the contractors to look after them . The Office of the Children’s Guardian has not accredited the Dept of Community and Justice Western NSW District to look after the 547 children in its care as it did not ‘meet the requirements‘ in the frequency of visits and that it had ‘limited evidence to demonstrate the district’s support for children’, its record-keeping was inconsistent, and its work in keeping in touch with families came in for questioning .

The Department has never been run properly. One of my minders in Parliament had worked there and spoke of the immense stress of going to Court almost unbriefed or accompanying Police to take children from the parents to foster homes. One of my patients who is an upper-middle level case manager has been off work on stress for 14 years, with no serious effort made to rehabilitate her.

But when there is no public housing, rents are unaffordable, welfare payments are insufficient to survive on, day care is expensive, Aboriginals are becoming increasingly isolated from both mainstream Australia and their own community leaders, ‘choice’ and subsidies have left poorer public schools as ghettos of disadvantage, inflation is rising and services are now for profit, it is hardly surprising that things are not going well. Anyone trying to put together a stable social situation for a disadvantaged family would struggle without these basic elements.

Society’s systemic problems need to be addressed if we are to return to the halcyon Aussie concept of a fair go.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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