Opinion & Commentary
The madness of child protection policy in Australia
In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to take adoption out of the 'too-hard basket' and make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas.
The chief barrier to more local adoptions is the anti-adoption culture in state and territory child protection authorities. Legal action is almost never taken to free children for adoption, even for children who languish in Australia's ever-expanding out-of-home care (OOHC) system with little prospect of safely returning home.
Instead, the orthodox policy advice routinely given to state and territory governments is that too many children are 'in care' because child protection services need to be re-structured away from 'statutory' child removal towards providing 'less-expensive' prevention and early intervention social services to reduce entries into care.
It is a myth that the child protection system focuses too heavily on statutory intervention, and that children are too quickly removed into care without supporting families.
New financial data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that in 2012–13:
• Family support/preservation services accounted for at least 17.1% of the $3.8 billion national expenditure on all child protection services, compared to statutory (29.6%) and OOHC (53.3%) services.
• Real (adjusted for inflation) national expenditure on 'intensive family preservation services' (designed to prevent imminent child removals) grew by 316% between 2000–01 and 2012–13 (from $73 million to more than $300 million).
• This was almost one-third higher in relative terms than the still substantial increase in spending on out-of-home care (228.3%), and nearly twice as fast as the still substantial growth in statutory service expenditure (166.3%).
Child protection data for 2012–13 show that Australia's OOHC system remains under siege due to rapidly increasing spending on OOHC and increasing numbers of children in OOHC. Since 2000–01, the total real national expenditure on OOHC has more than tripled and the total OOHC population has more than doubled due to endlessly prolonged efforts to reunite children with their dysfunctional families.
High levels of 're-reporting' and 're-substantiation' of cases of child abuse and neglect, plus high levels of 'instability' (unstable placements) for children while in care, mean that increasing numbers of children are being damaged by the very child protection system that is meant to protect them
The bottom line is that increasing numbers of children are still ending up in OOHC despite the additional funding Australian governments are pouring into family support/preservation.
The 2012 Report of Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins report) found no evidence that the larger sums spent by Victoria on 'prevention' had protected children and stopped child maltreatment. Despite 'increased investment' (spending on intensive family preservation services increased by almost 900% since 2000–01), this strategy failed because 'high levels of re-reporting and re-substantiations over the lifetime of Victorian children' showed no 'marked change in Victoria in the incidence and impact of child abuse or neglect or overall outcomes for vulnerable children taken into out-of-home care.'
Nevertheless, the orthodox policy advice remains influential. The Newman government is implementing the major recommendation of the 2013 Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry (the Carmody report), which recommended increased spending on prevention and early intervention services to re-structure a child protection regime that allegedly 'focuses too heavily on coercive instead of support strategies.' This is despite the inquiry's (confusing and contradictory) final report establishing that the Queensland child protection system was heavily focused on family preservation-and was the reason for children lingering longer in care and blowing out the size of the OOHC population.
Australian child protection policy continues to resemble Einstein's definition of madness-doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The Abbott government needs to be aware that flawed family preservation policies and practices are the root cause of the systemic problems in the child protection system. To end the madness, the states and territories must be directed to take more timely statutory action to permanently remove children from unsafe homes and provide them with safe and stable homes by adoption by suitable families.
The Abbott government can provide national leadership and take adoption out of the too-hard basket by setting national child protection performance targets, including boosting the number of local adoptions from care to the equivalent of more adoption-friendly countries within the next 10 years.
National adoption targets would encourage other states and territories to emulate the prospective pro-adoption regime recently legislated by the NSW government, which is designed to significantly increase the number of adoptions from care by mandating strict time limits within which realistic decisions are made about the feasibility of restoration. Once it is determined that a child cannot safely go home, application will be made in the Supreme Court for an order to free that child for adoption by his or her new family.
If Australian children in care were adopted at the same rate as in the United States, there would be around 5,000 adoptions from care each year nationally instead of the current figure of less than 150.
The Abbott government's also needs to be aware of to the way the US adoption rate has been lifted by the Clinton administration's Adoption and Safe Families Act 1997, which rewards states that increase the number of adoptions from care with additional federal funding for social services.
Similar incentive-based funding arrangements (as an enhanced means of distributing existing federal funding for family and community services to states and territories) should be considered in Australia.
Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. His report, Still Damaging and Disturbing: Australian Child Protection Data and the Need for National Adoption Targets is available at cis.org.au