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Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR (Senator Moore) —Good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming to our hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs. This morning is the third day of hearings for our inquiry into the implementation of recommendations of the Lost innocents and Forgotten Australians reports. I know many of you, and it is always wonderful to have people come to talk to our committee.

We have mood lighting here at the moment. I am not sure whether we are going to be able to make that any better during the day, but I apologise for that. I want to put on record that I am really pleased that we are using the Greek Club for our hearings. We have not done that before, and I think it is a very warm venue. I like it a lot.

The first witnesses are from the Forde Foundation Board of Advice. Good morning. I welcome Mr Terry Sullivan and Mr Errol Evans. I put on record that I have known Mr Terry Sullivan very well over many years. But I have not spoken with you, Terry, in this capacity, so that is a new one. Do either of you have anything you wish to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Evans —I am Deputy Chair of the Forde Foundation Board of Advice. I point out to senators that, because of the recent state election, we went into caretaker mode and our membership was not extended. Strictly speaking, I am a former member, but I have indicated my willingness to serve again.

CHAIR —Just to clarify: all the positions on your board are now subject to reappointment by the new government?

Mr Evans —That is correct. They lapsed in late February.

Mr Sullivan —The Public Trustee, on the advice of the minister, appoints the board of advice. Because of the circumstances, no appointment was made, so technically there is an interregnum. For the purposes of this activity, we believe that we are able to at least address the submission which was made towards the end of last year.

Mr Evans —The board continues to meet, even though it is informally.

CHAIR —I will just put on record that the members of the Senate who are here today are Senator Gary Humphries, from the ACT, and Senator Mark Furner, from Queensland. The small number of senators by no means reflects a lack of interest in this committee. We have an extraordinarily large number of committees meeting during this Senate, so members of this committee are attending other committee hearings. I assure you that the evidence received will be on Hansard and all the submissions will be considered by the whole committee. I just wanted to make people aware of that before we start. Would you like to make an opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Sullivan —Not really. Our submission was fairly simple and basic, and we would be happy to take questions from you. There are one or two elements which we see as being at the centre of it. These largely deal with the introduction of a health card in a similar vein to the veterans health card—or a redress card, as it is sometimes called. We believe that, if that could be looked at on a national basis, it would be a long-term and significant assistance to all former residents, who need help to get on with their lives. As they get older and as health issues become more significant in their lives, we believe that would be one of the greatest helps they could get.

Mr Evans —Can I just add to that. We discussed that at an informal meeting last week of the Forde Foundation Board of Advice. Can I make an opening statement?

CHAIR —Certainly.

Mr Evans —Health is a fundamental human right. The national government has an active leadership role in the pursuit of health structurally, collectively and at the level of the individual. This is particularly true where there is a powerful evidence of ongoing disability, disadvantage and discrimination. Forgotten Australians who have been subjected to past childhood abuse and injury and hurt by the community, by the state and by religious bodies require a special response. I believe there are precedents. Australia as a nation state, for example, recognises that it owes a specific debt to those who have made sacrifices in the defence of the nation. Veterans receive additional health services through the gold card, which significantly improves access to timely, quality health care. Many of our clients believe that a similar response is appropriate to their needs and circumstances. Such a response would recognise harm suffered through childhood neglect, abuse and disadvantage and address existing and ongoing health issues which have childhood health determinants. I would also add that universal health programs, while highly desirable, are not sufficient in themselves to fully address health inequalities in our clients.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thank you for your submission and for appearing today in this interregnum period when you are not quite sure what your status is. The arrangement for appointing the board is that the Public Trustee appoints the board on the advice of the minister.

Mr Sullivan —That is correct.

Senator HUMPHRIES —That is an unusual arrangement. It is normally the other way around, isn’t it?

Mr Sullivan —I think what has happened reflects the circumstances of former residents—that is, the state and the churches were seen as the abuser. Therefore, if a state department took the lead role with what we might call the more direct line—from the minister, through the department, to the client—it could be seen as the former abuser actually holding the purse strings. So a sort of distancing was required, and the notion of the Public Trustee doing the appointing was seen as one way of doing that. There is a double-sided auspicing effect—that is, instead of the funding coming directly from the department to the Forde Foundation, it goes through Micah. So there is this rather odd arrangement whereby, in the appointment and funding, there is an auspicing arrangement, yet there is a board of advice which is supposed to look at issues, offer advice and look at the day to day running of the office with the single staffer that we have. I must say that, from all my experience in 15-plus years of working in parliament and working at committees, I have never seen such an arrangement—and it does have its own challenges.

Senator HUMPHRIES —But you think it is appropriate given the nature of the issues being dealt with here?

Mr Sullivan —I think it may have been appropriate when it was established, but I think a review of that structure is probably worth while. It is probably the appropriate time to mention that there are also different views as to how the board of advice should work. There is what you might call the black letter law approach, which says that the deed of trust is there and the exact words are how it is to be applied. That is one view that is taken, but the board of advice actually believes that the spirit of why the board of advice was set up and why the deed of trust was established should be considered. There is, I think, a significant difference of opinion between the board, the Public Trustee and the department—and possibly some service providers—as to whether the black letter law approach or the spirit of the law approach should be taken with regard to the operation of the Forde Foundation Board of Advice.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Okay. Do you expect that issues like that might be addressed when the board has been reappointed?

Mr Sullivan —It could be. On the actual appointment process, one of the recommendations that came out of I think the November meeting of the board was that in fact this process should be looked at. My understanding is that neither the public trustee nor the minister at the time took up our offer of a review. It may be happening in the background. But technically the former board ceased operation at the end of February. We had brought to the attention of the minister and the public trustee late in the year that the time was coming up and asked what process was in place, and we were assured the normal processes would take place. Unfortunately appointments were not made and I believe they could have been made even post election.

Mr Evans —I anticipated that there could have been an election at our February meeting and alerted representatives of the department that action should be taken quickly to reappoint the board.

Mr Sullivan —You may also be aware that the state government has done a major review of some hundreds of boards and we were approached by the two people doing that for a comment and we have given that comment. Whether something will come out of that government-wide review of the structure of the board I do not know. But I think it is probably time to look at what was set in place immediately post the Forde inquiry and what was appropriate then and what is now appropriate having moved down the track 10 years.

Senator HUMPHRIES —How many members of the board are there?

Mr Sullivan —Seven normally. There have been some resignations from the board and no appointments, and because of the uncertainty of the year-long review that was being done replacements to that board were put on hold. The board has been a bit understrength but there have been some issues that have taken our attention that should otherwise have allowed us to get into those more substantive issues.

Mr Evans —There are four former members who have indicated their willingness to become members in a new board.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Without raking over all of that history, is it the process which has been controversial that has generated some anxiety? Is it the structure which has caused people some concern? I suppose the basic question is, are you engaging through the process with the needs of care leavers in Queensland, do you think?

Mr Sullivan —I think there are some structural problems simply because 10 years down the track circumstances change and the deed of trust which was established immediately after the Forde inquiry had an intention of dealing with the client group who were the subject of that inquiry. The wording of the deed of trust was written so that it became extremely wide and ongoing and has started to have some consequential impacts on the number of former residents and the groups of former residents who are strictly eligible for the Forde Foundation grants. What it was leading to was an absolutely exponential growth in possible applicants with no growth in funding. In fact, because the money is invested by the public trustee in the Queensland Investment Corporation, in these economic times the return on that fund will be less and therefore the amount available will drop. From one grant ground to another the number of applicants doubled. We had about 1,300 former residents registered with Forde. The Redress Scheme was announced on the very day that our board was appointed two years ago and since that time the number of people who have registered for the Redress Scheme, which automatically means they are registrable for Forde, has gone to over 10,000. So we recognised—

Senator HUMPHRIES —Sorry, can I just be clear. You say eligible for—

Mr Sullivan —A grant from the Forde Foundation.

Senator HUMPHRIES —By virtue of being registered for the Redress Scheme? Ten thousand people have registered for the Redress Scheme?

Mr Sullivan —Who are eligible. Not all have registered, but a massive growth has occurred. A practical point that has made this even more difficult is that we inherited a database that could not produce simple reports. While we had this massive growth in numbers, the former board had spent thousands of dollars trying to get an old database working. For two years it had not been done. We have tried, unsuccessfully, for two years to get it done. Part of the problem was the double auspicing arrangement where there was no direct stream of funding that we could approach to get it done. Then when the review was being conducted, the view was taken by the department, ‘Let’s see what the shape of the Forde Foundation will be after the review; therefore, we won’t update the database.’ In fact, it is a very unsatisfactory database to the degree that we believed we had 1,700 people on the database but, when it finally got interrogated for about the 10th time by an IT expert, they found there were so many blanks there that the number of people we had was about 1,400. The whole administrative basis for the work was flawed. We tried, unsuccessfully, for more than two years to get funding.

CHAIR —From the Department of Communities?

Mr Sullivan —From the Department of Communities, through Micah, to get the database issue addressed.

Mr Evans —We have one full-time employee to look after that client base.

Senator HUMPHRIES —How many grants have been made already by the Forde Foundation?

Mr Sullivan —In the past, two grant rounds were conducted each year. In the submission that we gave you—it might be in the accompanying documentation—there is a brief indication of the growth. It went from a couple of hundred to 500 or 600 over seven or eight years. In the last couple of years it doubled, from one grant round to the next, from 500 to over 1,100. We saw what the problem was going to be, we saw there was going to be a review and we indicated to former residents we needed to have a limited grant round. So the number who applied dropped in the last grant round. We have only had two grant rounds in two years. If the former structure had occurred, there would have been four grant rounds in two years. Both of those grant rounds were extremely difficult in terms of processing applications. We had to hire someone to do a totally separate database for grant round 11, which was the big one, and grant round 12 was a limited number and we were just able to handle it. We saw that these changes were occurring. That is why we asked for a review, but there was no funding for a review. The minister, to her credit, provided funding. The department, to their credit, provided administrative support and the review has been held.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Can you tell me how many grants have been made to date?

Mr Sullivan —No, I cannot. I will just check with our—

Senator HUMPHRIES —You can take that on notice if you like and get us that information later.

Mr Sullivan —We could get our executive officer to do that. It is probably appropriate to look at the style of grant. When you look at all the submissions you have about what the Forde Foundation does you will see it places a lot of emphasis on education, counselling and getting on with life. The reality is most of the grants go on household goods—white goods and furniture. While there are some benefits to former residents in receiving those things, what is written in terms of helping someone to get on with their lives and make a major change in their life, I believe, is not largely affected by getting a new fridge or a new bed. It is by education, counselling and other things that help one change one’s direction in life. Any objective reading of the grants scheme shows it was largely for household goods and furniture, with one exception.

The gentlemen on my left, Errol Evans, through his former work in the Queensland Department of Health’s dental services, oral health services, helped establish a dental scheme, which we fund, which gives priority access to former residents. I know from the way it works that we get more bang for our buck out of that $500 per grant to former residents than would be received through any other means. I congratulate Errol on what he has done. Quite frankly, if any former resident were to ask for dental care in their grant, 99 times out of 100 we would say yes. That has led us to very strongly recommend and support what has come from former residents and others over time that access to health services through a gold card or a redress card, similar to the veterans card, is really the way to go to make a big difference in the lives of former residents, particularly as they age.

Senator FURNER —Can I go to the substance of the feedback on your review sheet, based on your explanation about the number of grants going to white goods and furniture. What was the feedback from those recipients of the review in respect to what the grants should mostly be spent on?

Mr Evans —The response of recipients was a continuation of the Forde Foundation as it has existed for nine years. There was very strong identification with the Forde Foundation and its first chair, Mrs Leneen Forde. The vast majority of the 300 respondents to the survey strongly supported a continuation of the current grants—that is, individual grants to past residents.

Senator FURNER —But in respect to which area? Your review goes to the substance of education, health, personal development and other.

Mr Evans —A very strong support for continuation of white goods, fridges, washing machines, dishwashers.

Senator FURNER —What sort of percentage?

Mr Evans —About 40 per cent, I think.

Mr Sullivan —Part of the issue is if that is what people who have been closely associated with Forde have known for the past seven years and there have been benefits to receiving those goods then they would naturally want that benefit to continue. When you look at the words behind why this foundation and the grants scheme were established you will see that it puts greater emphasis on getting on with your life, and after having had the low trajectory start to life because of the care experiences this would help pick up the people and get them flying at a higher trajectory. That is why education, counselling and other services, we believe, would help do that, but obviously if people have been receiving household goods it has been a benefit and they would want that process to continue.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I do not quite understand. You say you have been steering the board for some time now, but the grants have mainly gone on white goods. Why has not the board engineered granting money for the things that get people back on track again? Have people not made the application for those things or has the board not had that focus before?

Mr Sullivan —It is up to the individual former resident to apply for the grant. We cannot direct them what to do. We send an individual application to them or put an ad in the paper for them, so it is up to the individual to make that request. By putting emphasis on access to dental health, we have been showing through our actions that basically if people went for a health outcome we would try to support them. But it is becoming increasingly difficult. Five years ago, people were asking for an $80 walking-stick. Then it became a $150 frame. Now it is a $11,000 motorised scooter. The original former residents who were the subject of the Forde inquiry are starting to approach the age group of our general population where the health needs become more intense and more expensive. When you look at the disadvantage that former residents suffer and the particular health needs that they have, you will see that is exacerbated to an even greater degree. In our short review questionnaire that we sent to former residents we asked questions—for example, ‘Should there be greater emphasis on health and long-term issues?’ We got a mixed response.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You see the board as having a future based around some reorganisation of its mission, in a sense, by virtue of focusing more on those things that will give people a chance to sustain their psychological wellbeing as much as their physical comfort?

Mr Evans —And the quality of life. The average age is about 60 and many people are past wanting to educate themselves. They are entering retirement age and have severe health problems, so they are looking for quality of life and enhancement of life through white goods and fridges, things that normal people aspire to.

Senator HUMPHRIES —When you give us that information about the number of grants, could you break it up into categories of brand—white goods or other sorts of help.

Mr Sullivan —Our executive officer can quickly provide a fairly simple summary to you. You did ask about the future direction. That is an interesting issue. After a year-long review the board of advice made some recommendations, produced a two-page summary or commentary on what had happened and delivered a report. We were about to put it on our website when the Public Trustee indicated to us that he and the minister owned the report and that none of those recommendations were to be put on the website. They have not been made public, our comment has not been made public and the report has not been made public. So, again, what is the role of the board? Are we a black-letter law group that can only offer advice on grants and do we keep our mouth shut about the context in which those grants are to be held? Or do we have a wider responsibility of looking at the atmosphere in which those grants are made and to ask: is the system correct or does it need adapting to the change in circumstances? The former board believed that the wider view should be adopted. The Public Trustee, the department and the minister took the view that the narrow view should be adopted and that is where things stand at the moment.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Another submission alleges that there are plans to wind up the foundation and kill it off. But, as far as you are concerned, they are not options that are likely to be pursued by the board itself or by the government?

Mr Evans —I think we have a problem with funding for the board. We have had indications that no further funding would be provided. Given the global economic crisis, we have seen our trust fund diminish from over $4 million to $2.7 million in the last 12 months or so. So there is a severe reduction in the trust funds that are available. We have had little response about getting funding from the churches over the nine years that the boards have been in operation, and we do not get a lot of support from the community. We have a diminishing funding base, an increasing population membership and registration base, increasing demands and ageing population which puts enormous pressure on the board, if it is to continue. It could continue for a period of seven years or so and maintain the current range of funds, based on the current funding if the economic situation does not improve. We typically give out about a quarter of a million dollars each funding round and, as our submission says on page 2, we have given out $1.6 million over the nine years.

Mr Sullivan —Which is a relatively small amount compared to the needs, particularly the growing health needs, of former residents. The state government, to their credit, implemented the last remaining unfulfilled recommendation, which was a redress scheme. While there is debate about whether it was big enough, there was $100 million, which puts into perspective our $250,000 per grant. Our funding is miniscule compared to that, but the ongoing needs of former residents are significant. That is why we believe access to health—general health, medical health, counselling, dental health, oral health—could be considered priority access for former residents because of the disadvantage they suffered at the hands of the state and/or the churches.

Senator FURNER —Thank you for your submission. I want to go back to the subject of the review. When was the review initially established?

Mr Sullivan —We had a working session in October 2007, and we brought down a report about 12 months later. As part of that report we had some public meetings around the state—in Townsville, Gold Coast, Brisbane’s south, Brisbane’s north and Toowoomba—from 19 to 26 June 2008. A consultancy group who have long experience in the social welfare area conducted the review. They provided some options and we commented on those options, made recommendations, commented on those recommendations and were in a position to put those documents and the general report on our website so that all former residents could see when the situation changed regarding whether or not the board had the ability to do that.

Senator FURNER —How was the questionnaire distributed? Was it done by mail?

Mr Sullivan —Yes, by mail for those for whom we had a mailing address on our Forde database. Lotus Place puts out a newsletter, so we put that in the newsletter. I think there also may have been an ad in the local paper for the Townsville one.

Senator FURNER —This is the database that you had problems with?

Mr Sullivan —Yes, and this is where we started to see that the database had generated something like 1,400 letters yet it appeared to say that there were 1,700, so we knew that there was a problem. We were looking for the missing 300 or 400 former residents, when a deeper interrogation found that there were in fact blanks in the database. We only had about 1,300 or 1,400 people registered, and we sent the questionnaire sheet, the feedback sheet and the list of meeting times to all of those who were on our register.

Senator FURNER —Do you have a copy of the results of that review?

Mr Sullivan —Yes. That is the report which we have produced. We have been told that it is not to be released publicly. Errol may have some ongoing information about that. I finished at the end of last year because my wife and I were away in February, so I was not available for the last meeting of the former board and Errol may have some up-to-date information.

Mr Evans —I have had further discussions with the department over issues concerning the release of the report of the board. A number of organisations who were key stakeholders and service providers were unhappy with aspects of the consultant’s report and sought leave to make corrections or amendments to the report. We agreed that they should be given that opportunity. To my knowledge, only one submission has been made that makes corrections to the final report.

Senator FURNER —Who will oversee those corrections? Will it be the board?

Mr Evans —Those corrections were to be submitted through the department and forwarded to the board.

Mr Sullivan —Just to add to that: HAN, the Historical Abuse Network, were asked whether the information should be put on the website, and they indicated that it should not at that stage. It was the board that was the only group that was suggesting that what we believed was an open and public review should go on the website for all to see.

Senator FURNER —In respect of the development of the review and the questionnaire, a submission to this inquiry indicates that ‘no scientific measurement was used in its development; indeed, it was worded in such a way that it would provide only the response the board, especially the chair, sought.’ What is your response to that comment?

Mr Sullivan —That is not correct. Did we include a copy of the questionnaire with the submission?

Senator FURNER —You did.

Mr Sullivan —Right. Understanding that the client group that we are dealing with often has difficulties with literacy skills—in fact, many of the applications for grants are filled in by the executive officer over the phone because people say they need a hand to fill them in—the wording of the questionnaire and the feedback sheet had to be in simple English. The scientific basis for the analysis, if you want, was in the hands of the professional consultants. Pamela Spall and Associates have had—both of them—30 years in social welfare and consultancy in that field. They are highly regarded. It was their skill that we were relying on to bring the responses together, and I believe they did an excellent job. The wording of the questionnaire, of necessity, had to be in plain English, and so I believe that that is an unfounded criticism.

We had no predetermined outcome. From the very first workshop we had at the end of October 2007, we said it could be anything from a do-nothing to an absolutely radical change. ‘All options thrown on the table and let’s see what occurs’ was the attitude that we took to the review.

Mr Evans —I add that the department recommended that we accept Pamela Spall and Associates as the consultant.

Mr Sullivan —I believe we were well served by that recommendation and by those consultants. I think they did a good job.

Senator FURNER —Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR —Mr Evans, can we get details of the dental part of the scheme? We do not have that in your submission, and the whole dental health area is of particular interest to this committee. We have done a fair bit of work in that area and we do accept that, certainly in the first round of this hearing, there were issues about ongoing health in which dental came up consistently. Could we get details of how that works, particularly regarding how it interrelates with the state system, because we know the issues with dental health services in Queensland—and everywhere else.

Mr Evans —I would be happy to do that. I am a former state manager of the dental service in Queensland—

CHAIR —We will talk, then, on other occasions! I think it is the first time that we have had particular information responding to that one need, so that would be useful.

Mr Sullivan —I think there may be some elements of the dental scheme that the Forde has that we could learn from and apply to other areas of health. I am certain Errol would agree that it is not perfect, but it has gone a long way to give priority access and treatment to people who otherwise would not have access.

CHAIR —The database thing jumps out—certainly from my background as a public servant: we consistently talk about data. Has there been any discussion about some kind of merging of databases now that we have the significant numbers of applications for the Redress Scheme? We will be talking to the government department that handles that later today. If they are going to be developing a more effective database to respond to that large need, is there any way that the two databases could then in some way be merged to create one for Queensland?

Mr Evans —I think that is certainly worth exploring. It makes sense for economies of scale and accuracy of information. We would be more than happy to look at that and look at the question of privacy.

CHAIR —Absolutely. But I shudder to think of the amount of money wasted on a flawed database over the years when money is so tight that we have had these issues.

Mr Sullivan —Technically, I believe, it is very simple. It is the administrative will to have a shared structure that would be the hurdle to overcome.

CHAIR —One point of clarification regarding the ownership of the review document: there seems to be some difference of opinion about who owns the review. The review was conducted for and by the Forde board?

Mr Sullivan —There is no simple answer to that question because of the double auspicing of the foundation. The Forde Foundation Board of Advice basically developed the questionnaire, it developed the direction in which it was going, and the department employed Pamela Spall and Associates to conduct it. However, when it came to ownership, the public trustee who appoints the board said that we have no authority as a legal entity to publish or speak, that our role is to offer advice to the public trustee on grants. We believe that included the structure within which the grants were held and the atmosphere and context of those grants, but there is a difference of opinion as to the broad or narrow approach to this. Technically, it could be argued that the public trustee and the minister own the report—and that raises an interesting question.

CHAIR —But the department coughed up the funds.

Mr Sullivan —The department, to their credit, provided the funding, the logistical support and the expertise of people to help get the questionnaire out and distributed so that we could have it in time for the public hearings and to then get it back so that we had something by the end of the year. They gave very good support for that.

CHAIR —It is the department and the minister who have determined that at this stage none of that information can be made public.

Mr Sullivan —The public trustee and the minister.

Mr Evans —The department have indicated an interest in producing a summary report form. Could I also make the point that I believe the ownership rests with the former residents, because it was done on their behalf by the Forde Foundation.

CHAIR —And their responses formed the basis of it. Is there any concern about the relatively small number of responses? I know there is difficulty with the database to determine how many people are affected by this process, but you said 300, Mr Sullivan? Normally, 300 is a good result, but when you think that there are well over 1,000—

Mr Sullivan —I would have thought that approximately 25 to 33 per cent of a group responding was extremely high.

CHAIR —It is relatively good but it always worries me, though.

Mr Sullivan —But if we look at other reviews where teachers, doctors or motorists have been, five to 10 per cent is often regarded as a good number. I would have thought that somewhere around the 30 per cent mark was a very high response.

CHAIR —I am sure there will be other questions and, if they do come up, we will be in contact. You always think of more things later. If there is anything that you think we need to know that we have not touched on, would you please be in contact with the secretariat. This report is due to come down at the end of June, so there is a little bit of time. We are very keen not to miss anything. We will also be talking to the department. We are very hopeful that the results of the review will be made public before that time, because that will create a whole range of knowledge and information that we would like to share in coming forward with our report.

Mr Sullivan —If I could just summarise one thing: if we get caught up in the detail of the grants, we need to remember that we are talking about less than a quarter of a million dollars per grant round. Compared to the really big issues of ongoing physical and mental health and other support, our grant rounds are very insignificant. This is why we have put the biggest emphasis on something which will have a long-term and significant effect, particularly on the health outcomes of former residents. It is a very large issue which has to be managed on a national basis, with the cooperation of the states. That is a billion dollar question, not a $250,000 question.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Sullivan and Mr Evans.

Mr Sullivan —Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

 [9.50 am]