SA Child Protection in Crisis

Thank you, Mr President, and thank you to our Shadow Assistant Minister for Child Protection for bringing this important motion to the Chamber

It is hard to think of a more important duty for our State Government than providing safety, security and shelter for our most vulnerable, at-risk children

I have had the great privilege of meeting and hearing the stories of many of our state’s dedicated and compassionate foster and kinship carers

I say “privilege” because they are invariably kind, caring people

But in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have had to get to know these generous South Australians who volunteer their time and their home to care for our state’s most vulnerable citizens

In an ideal world, I would never have had to meet with them because they never would have had to share with me their harrowing experiences of navigating the child protection system; it’s bureaucracy; and the tin-ears of this Minister for Child Protection and her leader, Premier Malinauskas

I’ve heard so many devastating stories that have resulted in real and significant physical and emotional harm to children

I’ve heard of unlawful and unethical actions taken by staff of the Child Protection Department

I’ve heard of the awful treatment of carers by DCP staff

And so far, in my relatively short time in this place, I’ve heard nothing but empty words from this Minister for Child Protection – better known in the South Australian community as the Minister for Recreation, Sport and Racing

A Minister who, I will admit, is good at one aspect of her job – she is a good Minister for Liv Golf, Minister for V8 Supercars and Minister for Gather Round

But when it comes to Child Protection, Mr President – we have a Minister who has abrogated her responsibility to ensuring her number 1 commitment is to our state’s most vulnerable children

A Minister who is not across her brief

A Minister you are far more likely to find at a game of footy, rubbing shoulders with sporting royalty, or cutting the ribbon of a shiny new sports field, than fighting for children under her Department’s guardianship

Perhaps it is not only the Child Protection system that is overwhelmed, Mr President – perhaps it is our Minister for Child Protection that is being overwhelmed by her significant and ongoing commitments to the realm of sport and recreation

Credit where credit is due – I do think that the Honourable Katrine Hildyard is doing a fine job in her Sport, Recreation and Racing portfolio

But it is clear to me; it is clear to foster and kinship carers; and it should be clear to those opposite that the Minister is failing to deliver in her most important portfolio responsibility – arguably the state’s most important portfolio – of Child Protection

I have had the pleasure of meeting with The Carer Project, headed up by Joyce Woody and Lisa O’Malley, and been inspired by their passion and commitment to drive meaningful change in the Child Protection system

Alongside the Hon. Laura Henderson and the Shadow Minister for Child Protection, the Member for Heysen, The Carer Project have enlightened me as to the extent of the significant structural issues within DCP

Lisa and Joyce – and their 500-member strong movement – have been loud and vociferous in their advocacy on behalf of our state’s foster and kinship carers

They have led the charge in driving real reforms in this space. So much so that the peak body, Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers, have adopted the policy proposals that they have consistently and vehemently been advocating for

The Carer Project have been unashamedly vocal in calling out wrongs where they seen them

They have raised their concerns directly with the Minister. Directly with DCP’s executive. And directly with Premier, Peter Malinauskas

While carers have welcomed some of the changes we’ve seen at the top of the Department’s hierarchy, they have been left bitterly disappointed with the lack of engagement; the lack of advocacy; the obfuscation; the lies; and the do-nothing-attitude of this hapless Minister for Child Protection

It must be kept front of mind for this Minister, and indeed for all of us in this place, that foster and kinship carers are ultimately volunteers

And no other volunteer pays out of their pocket like carers do

Collectively, they save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars through the opening of their hearts and homes to troubled children

I recently received correspondence from the Minister in response to a letter I wrote on behalf of the many carers who shared their concerns with me

In my letter, I expressed to her their disappointment that they’ve received no meaningful engagement regarding changes to the Children and Young People (Safety) Act

While Recommendation 7 from the Independent Inquiry into Foster and Kinship Care to create a Carer Council has now been rolled out, I’ve heard that carers were not given the opportunity to provide input or elect representatives  

The Carer Council, after all, was established to – in the words of the Minister – “amplify the voice of carers through delivering direct advice” to the Minister and DCP

It came as shock, then, to be told by a carer that one of the Carer Council members was in fact employed by the Department for Child Protection!

Thinking that this couldn’t possibly be true, I specifically asked the Minister about this in my letter

Naturally, the question was ignored and I was instead told that membership of the Council was formed through a comprehensive, independent recruitment process

The Minister was at pains to say that she took immediate action on several of the recommendations that came from the Independent Inquiry into Foster and Kinship Care

Dr Arney’s November 2022 report extensively documents the concerns of carers about the current system – resulting in the first 6 recommendations specifically naming processes that will improve current inadequacies

Dr Arney’s Terms of Reference made it clear that the Department’s unjust complaints management processes were a prominent reason for establishing the Inquiry

But instead of acting on those first 6 recommendations that hundreds of carers have been calling for, the Minister has confirmed to me that she does not support establishing an independent complaints mechanism

To have that confirmed in black and white was a shock for many carers

I found it particularly galling that – in the same sentence as the Minister confirmed her lack of support for an independent complaints mechanism – she went on to say that, and I quote – “I do however support the need for a transparent and rigorous complaints process”

Well, Minister, you have 6 recommendations to choose from that will deliver what you say you support – so what’s the hold up?

Another direct question put to the Minister in my letter requests for an update on her election commitment – her solemn promise to over 400 carers – to review the outcomes of the Independent Inquiry’s recommendations

This was also ignored

I raised further concerns put to me by foster and kinship carers, including:
– the need for carers to have standing in court;
– the need for respite payments to be legislated;
– the necessity for an increase in base rate payments to keep up with the cost of living;
– and the need for better reporting on serious injuries to children.

Needless to say, I received unsatisfactory answers to each of them

The Minister confirmed that carers are not recognised as a legal party to court proceedings but acknowledged the important role of carers under the Children and Young People (Safety) Act

So important, apparently, that carers can – at best – make a written submission to the Court, only after applying to the Court to do so

Prior to the election, in a personal meeting between The Carer Project, now-Premier Malinauskas and the now-Minister for Child Protection, they explained how carers were being shunted to the hallway of the Courts like babysitters

When it comes to respite payments, this Labor Government has thrown carers scraps

Carers will now receive a little over $15 extra per week to access respite-like supports

To say this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to caring for children with complex, additional needs, is an understatement

Particularly when combined with what carers are telling me is their number one concern in this cost-of-living crisis – the need for an increase in their base payment rates

Mr President, I could speak ad-nauseum of the litany of issues and harrowing stories that have been shared with me:

Unsubstantiated and completely unwarranted Care Concerns levelled against carers for doing nothing wrong

The Minister for Child Protection ignoring carers’ pleas for help despite raising evidence of abuse

DCP ignoring and overriding the advice of medical professionals

The inappropriate reunification of children with drug addicted parents, resulting in physical abuse

Acts of forgery by NGOs

Abuses of process and spiteful treatment of carers by DCP staff

Rude and dismissive treatment of carers by Carer Council members

Carers not receiving respite after many years and decades of caring

Special Needs Loading payments being frozen for years

The deliberate exclusion of carers and a lack of transparency when utilising the Child Assessment Tool

Informal kinship carers without access to funding or services

Ultimately, Mr President, what carers want is accountability:

Accountability to carers’ Statement of Commitment

Accountability of DCP staff to the law of the land

Accountability from NGOs

Accountability of the peak body to the carers they represent

And accountability of this Minister and this Premier to carers for their broken promises and commitments

Mr President, it is not only the Child Protection system that is overwhelmed, it is this hopeless Minister too

I reiterate the calls of the Liberal Opposition, and those of carers, for this vital portfolio responsibility to have its own, standalone Minister

And I commend this important motion to the Chamber