Going bold on child safety and wellbeing

In terms of protecting children from abuse and neglect in Australia, we have been unable to ‘shift the dial’ from largely piecemeal and reactive responses: we have largely been caught in a cycle of responding to harm rather than (also) investing substantially in early intervention approaches to turn around the incidence of abuse.

Nationally, the number of abused children and children entering out-of-home care continues to rise with most government funding going to support tertiary services, such as investigations and providing out-of-home care. Between FY10 and FY16, child abuse substantiations rose from 31,295 to 45,714, while out-of-home care numbers went from 35,895 to 46,448[i].

The Productivity Commission found that national expenditure on child protection services (out-of-home care, family support services and intensive family support) reached a record $4.8 billion in FY15, a 20% increase over the previous five years[ii].

Notably, national expenditure on out-of-home care was $2.72 billion in FY15, or 65% of the total spend on child protection services. That was more than double the amount expended in FY07. By contrast, between FY07 and FY15, expenditure on intensive family support was $358 million, or only 8% of total national expenditure on child protection services[iii].

We need to be bolder than ever and ‘invert the pyramid’, that is, put more funding into early intervention than tertiary services as soon as possible and without compromising the welfare of children in the out-of-home care system or at risk of harm. Positive change could be achieved by a substantial boost in place-based investment underpinned by stronger accountability mechanisms. 

‘Bottom-up’ long-term, community-driven, place-based targeted supports. Integrated, long-term investment in families experiencing vulnerability is needed to address and prevent root causes, especially in housing, health and education. A new place based model should be devised. Under this model we need to encourage far greater uptake of universal services (for example, health and education) by vulnerable groups and ensure that the services are delivered in timely, appropriate, responsive and destigmatising ways.

Most importantly what is required is a new form of Commonwealth, State/Territory and civil society partnership to fully utilise the collective resources available to support families and children in a more coordinated and purposeful manner.

Multi-year place-based support programs should be jointly planned and delivered by all levels of government and community organisations. Communities must drive these processes. In line with the SNAICC Family Matters campaign, there needs to be stronger focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities.

‘Top-down’ accountability and mainstreaming. Stronger national accountability arrangements are needed. This would involve rigorous target setting and monitoring, a radical enlargement in co-design and collective responsibility across government departments and non-government agencies, and making this a top COAG priority.

Policies should be based on the central principle that they are good for children. Commonwealth funding leverage should drive a fundamental realignment of child and family-related activities funded by the States/Territories to obtain real increases in State/Territory funding for early intervention and targeted family support programs and less to residual services over a specified time frame.

The shape this might take
A major step-change is needed in the way the nation cares for and values children and young people. A multi-jurisdictional, multi-generational investment approach is required, rather than short-term budget-cycle funding.

A business case should estimate the quantum, nature and duration of resourcing required to produce major shifts in child wellbeing and safety. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 and other initiatives, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, could be seen as precursors to a far-reaching national initiative for children in the 2020s.

New initiatives such as the integrated model described above could well be funded out of a newly-established sovereign wealth fund. To date, the Commonwealth has established five such funds to invest for the benefit of future generations of Australians: the DisabilityCare Australia Fund ($6 billion), the Medical Research Future Fund ($5 billion), the Future Fund ($130 billion), the Education Investment Fund ($4 billion), and Building Australia Fund ($4 billion)[iv].

A Future Fund for Australia’s Children could, for example, have at its heart a revision to the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children or establish an overarching national agenda in the form, for example, of a National Plan of Action for Australia’s Children or a National Plan of Action for the First Thousand Days for a Child, both of which are driven by the importance of family strengthening through preventive measures and valuing children and young people.

Dr Brian Babington
23 August 2017

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[i] Australian Institution of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia, various years.

[ii] Australian Government Productivity Commission 2017, Report on Government Services 2017, Chapter 16, Child protection services, retrieved from http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2017/community-services/child-protection/rogs-2017-volumef-chapter16.pdf.

[iii] Ibid. Note that intensive family support services expenditure increased from $123 million in FY7 to $358 million in FY15.

[iv] Future Fund, retrieved from <http://www.futurefund.gov.au/>.