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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
06/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —Welcome. As public servants you will not be asked questions that are about political opinions. Sometimes I cannot guarantee senators will not ask them, but you will not have to answer them. This is basically an information process. I want to thank the department for appearing today, and also the government for sending in the initial response. Do either you have an opening statement?

Mr Francis —Yes. Thank you for the invitation and opportunity to speak at this hearing. By way of an opening statement, I and the department would like to acknowledge the determination of former residents in Queensland and beyond to be heard and to have their experiences acknowledged and valued. We would also like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of our non-government organisation partners at Lotus Place and members of the Historical Abuse Network who together have worked tirelessly to support thousands of applicants to the Redress Scheme and to support former residents more generally. We commend them for that effort.

With more than 10,000 applications to the Redress Scheme, it has surpassed our original estimates and has certainly had an enormous impact on the lives of many Australians and their families. It is both a privilege and an enormous responsibility to be part of such a significant and, for many, life-changing process. We would like the committee to note that, due to the confidential nature of the level 2 claims process for the Redress Scheme, it is not possible for us to discuss issues relating to this phase of the scheme’s operation at the meeting, although we can talk in global terms about that.

CHAIR —Sure.

Mr Francis —We want to outline a few facts with respect to the Redress Scheme. As committee members may be aware, this scheme was established through a $100 million funding allocation in 2007 and was the Queensland government’s response to recommendation 39 of the Forde inquiry. The scheme is administered by the Department of Communities and provides ex gratia payments to people who experienced abuse or neglect in Queensland children’s institutions, whether church or state. It provides two tiers of payment: in the first level, a payment of $7,000 to people to meet basic eligibility criteria; and in level 2, a payment of up to $33,000 to people who suffered more serious abuse or neglect.

Applications for a level 2 payment are assessed on a case-by-case basis by a panel of experts in a non-adversarial setting. Level 2 payments are made from funds remaining after all level 1 payments have been finalised. Eligibility for payments is limited to people who were placed in an institution covered by the terms of reference of the Forde inquiry, were released from care and had turned 18 years of age on or before 31 December 1999 and had experienced abuse or neglect, and self-identify as having experience that. Design aspects of the scheme were undertaken in consultation with former residents. In particular, the design and content of the application form and guidelines reflect advice on the need to limit the adverse impact on the individual of that process of applying and being assessed.

Applications for the scheme opened on 1 October 2007 and initially closed or were projected to close in June 2008, but this was extended because of the number of applications we were still expecting and feedback from both former residents and the Historical Abuse Network. We made an extension of a further three months, to 30 September 2008, to enable as many people as possible to apply. During that three-month extension we got an additional 3,000 applications. The scheme received a total of 10,216 applications from across Australia and overseas. If you are interested, we can provide a breakdown of where we got applications from.

CHAIR —That would be very useful, thank you.

Mr Francis —While not all applicants are eligible, the response rate is certainly far higher than we had anticipated and modelled. This is perhaps a sad reflection on the standard of care provided through time in many Queensland institutions during the past century. Of interest, over 15 per cent of all applications were from people in the priority group—that is, people aged 70 years or over, or with a life-threatening illness. The oldest applicant is 99. In the unfortunate event that an applicant dies before he or she accepts the payment offer and signs a deed of release, the minister has a discretion to contribute to funeral costs of the deceased applicant. A number of payments have been made to family members in these very circumstances.

The department commenced making level 1 payments in December 2007 and is currently working to finalise all outstanding level 1 payments. To date, more than 6,000 such payments have been made to eligible applicants.

Assessment of level 2 applications commenced in August 2008 and is currently ongoing. Applicants for level 2 payments were given until 27 February 2009 to provide any additional information they wanted to in support of their claims of harm. Under the terms of the scheme, applicants are not required to provide either medical or psychosocial reports or any evidence on the matter to support their claims. Instead, applicants have discretion to provide whatever material they believe best supports claims. A broad range of information has been received from applicants, including freedom of information documents, handwritten statements, declarations of harm, letters of support from family members, various reports be they medical, psychiatric or counselling in nature, reports from police and statements made before the Forde inquiry itself. As the level 2 process is currently ongoing and, as I indicated earlier, because of the confidential nature of the claims we cannot really talk in great detail about that phase of the scheme. However, it is a complex undertaking but it is critical to the overall success of the scheme to get it right.

The second initiative that I would like to discuss and end on is integrally connected to the Redress Scheme and it relates to the provision of services and supports. It is fair to say that as a result of a high level of interest in the scheme the community based support services have been extended beyond what we envisaged. Staff at the Esther Centre, the Aftercare Resource Centre, the Forde Foundation itself and members of the Historical Abuse Network are truly to be commended for the assistance and support they have provided to many hundreds and possibly thousands of people who have sought help from Lotus Place through the course of the Redress Scheme. This assistance provided, as you have no doubt heard already, includes information and referral, practical assistance in completing applications for the Redress Scheme and preparing declarations of harm, advocacy with past residential care providers, individual counselling for people adversely affected by trauma and childhood abuse, therapeutic group activities, opportunities for reconnection with family and friends, drop-in activities, literacy and numeracy courses and access to those, advocacy and referral for people at risk of homelessness in crisis or with mental health issues, advocacy with government and peer support activities. It is quite an extensive range of support.

Given the breath of those services and the experience of service providers in working with people at various stages of the healing journey, the forthcoming completion of the Redress Scheme provides an ideal opportunity for the department, for service providers and most particularly for former residents to review what we have achieved together and plan for the future. In closing, I would like to comment that the department remains interested in working with other states on the recommendations of the Forgotten Australians report, particularly those that have a cross-jurisdictional relevance. Our experiences make it clear that the needs of the forgotten Australians are many and varied, and that there is a need for a well coordinated and integrated service response.

CHAIR —Thank you. Ms Eltherington, did you want to make any comment at this stage?

Ms Eltherington —No, thank you.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I start by commending the Queensland government, through you, for having established the Redress Scheme. As you know, there are some states that have not yet made that decision. I say ‘yet’ in an optimistic tone. I commend the Queensland government for having done that. I would like to clarify something that I am not clear about. The legislation originally provided for level 2 payments of up to $40,000. That is the maximum possible payment. But you talk about making payments of up to $33,000 as a result of the current process.

Ms Eltherington —I can clarify that. It is not legislation; it is an administrative scheme and $40,000 is the maximum total of level 1 and level 2 payments. So up to $33,000 is for the level 2 process.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thank you; I should have read it more closely. I would like to ask you about the effect of the waiver arrangements that you have. In obtaining, I assume either a level 1 or a level 2 payment, the applicant has to sign a waiver of any further legal action against the state of Queensland. Does that exclude them from taking legal action against a non-government provider in whose care they were?

Mr Francis —No.

Senator HUMPHRIES —It is only against the Queensland government that they sign away their rights.

Mr Francis —That is correct.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I see that there is a freedom of information review panel that was set up last year to look at FOI. Does it have terms of reference and if so do they explicitly include looking at the issue of access to records by those who were care leavers?

Ms Eltherington —That is the right to information legislation that was referred to. There is work currently ongoing in relation to that.

Mr Francis —The release of information ever since the Forde inquiry—certainly for a long time now—is covered by a particular process within the department, and departments as it has been relevant over time, to enable people to get facilitated access to their personal histories and personal records. That is at no cost. It is not covered, if you like, by the ordinary strictures of freedom of information. The matter that you have just spoken about lies outside that and will not negatively impact on that process.

Senator HUMPHRIES —The issue that was raised not only here but also in Victoria was the question of people accessing records in a meaningful way, particularly getting access to records about siblings and other close relatives. FOI laws make it relatively easy to get your own file but not those of other people who might have shared an experience with care or been in other institutions. There is a compelling case that has been made for the rules that militate against invasion of privacy to be relaxed in the case of these sorts of applications.

Ms Eltherington —I am aware that both the Department of Child Safety and the Department of Communities do lot of freedom of information applications because they relate to both young people who were in detention centres and those who were in institutions, foster care and those kinds of arrangements. They are very much aware of that so where possible they look at releasing information administratively at times. While they fit within the scope, certainly of freedom of information, they try to look at being a bit more sensitive in how some of that information is provided. Where possible, if we know people are part of sibling groups we try to get permission from people together so that a complete application has been received and the information has been provided in total.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Permission from whom?

Ms Eltherington —From each of the siblings where possible.

Senator HUMPHRIES —That is fine where you know the siblings or where you have access to them and you can ask them questions. The issue is when you do not know the siblings. That is the issue that has been raised with us.

Ms Eltherington —It is hard for us to comment on the logistics of all of that but I do take that on board. Certainly, I have heard from former residents of their need for information about their families and their backgrounds. Sometimes information is whited-out and it may relate to a sibling. Then, what is the impact? That has had a significant impact for them. I am certainly aware that our freedom of information areas try to work very hard with that but there are times when they do have to make that call in terms of privacy.

Senator HUMPHRIES —We may well recommend something about that for you to look at in due course. There are another couple of issues I would like to touch on. When you set up the Redress Scheme I understand there was a recommendation in the original Forde inquiry that the churches and non-government institutions which provided care over the relevant period be invited to take part in and contribute to the cost of the scheme. What was the outcome of that recommendation? Was an approach made to the non-government providers to take part in this process?

Mr Francis —Yes, indeed there was. This recommendation and the action that followed on from it in essence led to the creation of the Forde Foundation and the trust fund that it administers. As part of that process the then Premier and ministers had a number of meetings with churches and invited contributions. If my memory serves me correctly, that resulted—

Ms Eltherington —In not a great deal; fairly minimal.

Mr Francis —a donation of around $90,000 from churches which went into the scheme.

Senator HUMPHRIES —$90,000 altogether?

Ms Eltherington —It was a congregational offering.

Mr Francis —In toto. The churches have long held to the view, as expressed to us, that they have a separate individual focused process. I make no comment on that. They have a view that that they have an individual process for dealing with people’s claims and they want to preserve that capacity. Over time we have had a number of subsequent follow-up meetings with significant church members and have sought to engage them further in, for example initially when the Redress Scheme was proposed, aligning their processes with the Redress Scheme, perhaps even going so far as to making a financial contribution to the pool of funds that the Redress Scheme had—$100 million. Again we were met with the same response.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You do not have any information, I assume, on the operation of the churches’ or non-government organisations’ own compensation schemes in any way so that you can make any meaningful assessments of how well they cover it.

Mr Francis —No.

Senator HUMPHRIES —The original Forgotten Australians report also recommended a national apology and a national redress scheme. If the second of those things were to be engineered or taken up, is there a view on the part of the Queensland government about (a) whether that would be a good thing and (b) what implications it might have for the operation of the Queensland scheme?

Mr Francis —That is a matter I cannot comment on. That would be a policy consideration for the government of the day.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Can you tell me what, in your view, the future of the Forde Foundation is?

Mr Francis —There has been a review of the Forde Foundation. I believe you are aware of that fact. The recommendations were shared with the then minister for communities. The new Minister for Communities and Housing, Karen Struthers, has not as yet been briefed on those recommendations. The intent is to consider them in conjunction with the Redress Scheme itself and, as I indicated in my opening remarks, to make a considered response to the Forde Foundation board review on the future of that scheme, along with the future of service provision, in a way that would make sense and recognise the progress that we have made to date but recognise the new landscape that will exist beyond the Redress Scheme.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I will ask a more general question: how would the department rate the performance of the various Lotus Place facilities to date?

Mr Francis —Can you be a little bit more specific in your question? What do you mean by ‘rate the performance’?

Senator HUMPHRIES —I do not want to single out individual agencies or components of that, but do you feel that the Lotus Place concept has been effective and worthwhile? Has it worked to produce good outcomes generally in the case of those people who have approached it or would it be fair to say that the government would put those sorts of issues very much on the drawing board as far as these sorts of services are concerned?

Mr Francis —We have not made a particular assessment, if you like, of all the service delivery. We are aware that, in the establishment of Lotus Place, there would have been what I would call some teething issues of systems and integration of systems amongst a number of different service providers. We think that there is a benefit in having a one-stop shop, but we would note matters like the fact that it is in South-East Queensland, that this is a broad geography and that there are not similar one-stop shops in other locations. There may be a need for that. These, though, as I say, are matters that we would turn our minds to coming towards the end of this calendar year, when we anticipate that the Redress Scheme will conclude. We would bring together a number of voices to provide some advice to government about the future arrangements, including for former residents.

Ms Eltherington —I will just make a comment. For the department’s implementation of the Redress Scheme, having Lotus Place as a one-entry portal providing consistent information and assisting people has been outstandingly successful. I think the service system has been challenged by the enormous number of people who have taken up the opportunity to connect with that and with service providers there and to seek assistance. We are talking, often, about people in the stages of talking about abuse for the very first time and disclosing horrendous past abuse that they have not spoken to family about, so they are very emotional and very angry about what has happened, so it has to juggle that. It has been a challenge for former residents who have been engaged in our service system for a long time; Lotus Place had become home, in a sense, and had been predictable, and they felt it was their place. I think that for them—I do not mean to speak for everyone, but this is just my perception—it has been a significant change and that, with the number of people, as a service system and a department we need to work with them to talk about what we can learn from that and what we need now that there so many more people who have connected. The benefits of that have been amazing and, I think, often understated by people. Just to be able to connect with someone who was in a home similar to theirs and to share some experiences has a much greater benefit than we ever anticipated, or even note at times.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Okay. I have one last question. One of the things that this committee heard in its forgotten Australians inquiry was the rather chilling assertion that the things that we were examining in a historical sense have not ended—that there were still undoubtedly and perhaps quite widespread cases of abuse of children in the current environment, which is foster care based rather than institution based. This is a bit outside the terms of reference of this inquiry, but can you give us some assurance that the Queensland government has robust mechanisms in place to ensure, as much as it possibly can without being in individual homes every day of the week, that the sorts of things that happened to children in care in the past are much less likely to occur?

Mr Francis —That is a matter outside of my direct remit. It is a matter that is associated with the previous Department of Child Safety, which, in recent machinery-of-government changes, has become part of the Department of Communities; I would like to acknowledge that. We have made significant efforts to ensure that people who are unfortunately victims of abuse by their carers are afforded every bit of information about their rights, especially when they leave care—their ability to take out victims of crime compensation, for example.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You will appreciate I was not asking about redress or access to complaint mechanisms; I was asking about prevention.

Mr Francis —Certainly, and I am answering you as best I can, which is to say these things. I do not administer, nor am I involved in administering, the child safety service system, so I cannot answer that part of the question.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Furner.

Senator FURNER —Can I just return to the subject of access to information. Your submission indicates that the proposed Right to Information Act will improve ‘accessibility to information and better transparency’. How will that be achieved?

Mr Francis —One of the fundamental tenets of the new arrangements is that information, rather than being kept from the public, is made available automatically to the public. The focus of government decision-making turns from ‘which information should be released’ to ‘what information should not be released, and why not’, if you understand the distinction I am drawing. The onus is to release unless there is a discrete reason why not. That is the focus of the new policy and directions that will be enshrined in the legislation.

Senator FURNER —Okay. Thanks.

CHAIR —I have a couple of questions. We heard this morning about the limitations of databases that are currently in the system to look at this area. The Forde board database was actually described as completely inadequate; it had been patched up a couple of times but was clearly not working. In terms of the redress process, have the data and information services of the state government been focused on making that a better system?

Ms Eltherington —I can speak a little bit about that. It is database purpose-built to capture the information. It actually replicates the application form and the collection of information from that. Certainly there is a wealth of information that is there. As you would imagine, people have provided copious amounts of supporting information, which it does not collect. There is an electronic database and there will also be files with individual records.

CHAIR —Was there anything involved in the collection of that data which would allow it to be used for the purposes of a standard database on this issue in the future?

Ms Eltherington —Probably not.

Mr Francis —I do not know that we can answer your question. The database is built on the most modern of platforms with the most modern of information technology principles, which means that it has some degree of interoperability with other information systems. It therefore has the potential to be used for other purposes or connected with other databases or to be used for a different purpose and built upon.

CHAIR —Under the Privacy Act you can collect data for one purpose but are limited in using it for other future purposes. It is quite worrying, 10 years after we began getting things in place in the state around these issues, that we do not have a common use, accessible, reliable database of people who have indicated they want to be in the system. It is not like people have been placed on that without their knowledge; these people have accessed the system. I am interested in how you are building this platform and whether people have thought: into the future, are we going to make this our standard platform? I just want to put that on record. It is something that I think will tease people’s minds for a while, but it does seem to be at least the beginning of a better system. People coming forward and saying, ‘I was in care,’ was a start.

Mr Francis —Agreed and acknowledged.

CHAIR —I am also interested in how the system will work in with redress. I understand that people put forward their application for round 1, and that is what you are working through now. I also understand that there is a sliding scale for people to be eligible for payments in the second area, but that only comes into place after all the first round have been completed. Does that mean there is a cap on the number of people who can receive payment and the level of payment in round 2?

Mr Francis —The quantum of funds available for round 2 clearly will be that which remains after level 1 payments have been made and after the associated individual costs associated with making an application—legal fees et cetera—have been covered. As a consequence of that, the work within level 2 will have to be guided by that overall quantum. I suppose a number of scenarios are yet possible. The panel that is dealing with level 2 is a panel of experts. They are independent, so we can only speak of what they might do, not what they will.

CHAIR —Who is on that panel?

Mr Francis —There are a range of people with backgrounds that include——Can we get that on notice, because it is not in the information we have. We had extensive evidence from the Western Australians last week about how their system works. They were talking about the same thing—the people that were assessing it—and the legal implications of that and were also saying that the decision-making aspect of that is certainly at the legal level.

Mr Francis —Their scheme has taken more of an actuarial, compensation bent than ours. The panel of experts that I mentioned—and we will provide you some information about them—is going through and doing the best job it can to categorise people into relatable impacts of harm and will then determine what payments can be made in that context. We would anticipate that there will be some people who will get the additional $33,000 and so in aggregate get a $40,000 payment. There will probably be a larger number of people who get only a small additional payment above the $7,000. At this point it is hard to speak with any confidence about those matters, given that the process is still underway.

CHAIR —Is that an appellable scheme? If someone gets a decision that they are not happy with, is there a process of appeal?

Ms Eltherington —They can go through a judicial review in terms of the decision and also to the ombudsman’s office.

CHAIR —Okay, so there is that process. In terms of the closing date for applications, it would certainly be a political decision as to whether that would need to be extended. Is the department aware of any applications that have been made after the closing date?

Mr Francis —Yes.

CHAIR —I think we called it a ‘waiting list’ or something like that in WA. Do you keep the records of people who have applied after the closing date?

Mr Francis —Yes.

Ms Eltherington —There are people who have indicated that they would have liked to have applied.

CHAIR —It is well after the event now, but are you confident that the way in which you advertised the scheme was done to the best of everyone’s ability and that people across the country were aware of the scheme and its application?

Ms Eltherington —We have the breakdown.

CHAIR —I thought you would have that information.

Mr Francis —We had quite an extensive advertising campaign. In answer to the question ‘Could more have been done?’—

CHAIR —Always.

Mr Francis —that is a bit of an imponderable question, but perhaps the answer is ‘always’. Of the slightly over 10,000 applications, we had 13 from the USA, 12 from the UK, one each from France, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Italy and Malaysia. We had seven from New Zealand, one from the United Arab Emirates and 71 where no fixed address was provided. There were 92 from Western Australia, 84 from the Northern Territory, 65 from South Australia, 28 from Tasmania, 31 from the Australian Capital Territory, 153 from Victoria and 448 from New South Wales. I think you would agree that is a fairly extensive spread.

CHAIR —That means that somehow the network has had a wide reach.

Mr Francis —Yes.

CHAIR —I am just trying to remember the questions we asked the Western Australians about their scheme to make sure that we have asked you the same things. If I have missed any questions, I will get back to you, and the Hansard will also be available. The committee has received a number of submissions about problems with access to services for people living interstate. People who are currently living in Queensland who received their care in another state and people who received their care in Queensland who are now living elsewhere experience an inequity of access to services. We have had mixed messages from people who are from interstate and who are now living in Queensland about their experiences in trying to access Queensland funded services. What are the department’s guidelines on entitlement to services in Queensland for people who are living in Queensland who received their care in another state?

Ms Eltherington —The services that the department funds are for Queensland former residents. For people who were in care in Queensland that is the direct service delivery. So, if you want to access brokered counselling, you need to have been a Queensland state ward. You do not need to be living in Queensland but you need to have been in care in Queensland. Information and referral services are provided to anyone, no matter what state they have come from. It is my understanding that service providers try to work with other jurisdictions to link people with appropriate services. As to the issue of reciprocal arrangements, I was involved in some working groups after the forgotten Australians report. From Queensland’s perspective, we were certainly willing to pursue that with the other states. Because we had the one-stop-shop service system which people were coming to as an entry portal, it made sense to look at how we could streamline those reciprocal relationships and arrangements.

CHAIR —So, as yet, no agreements or memoranda of understanding have been signed?

Ms Eltherington —No.

CHAIR —Another issue is to do with the 1800 number that is run by CLAN. They have made a number of requests to the Queensland department and government to have reciprocal funding for that. Is it still the current position that there is no Queensland funding for that information line?

Mr Francis —As we sit here today. yes.

CHAIR —There is something else I want to ask which I just cannot remember now, but there is provision for questions on notice, and that applies too from your perspective. Thank you very much for attending today, and we are looking forward to getting some more information from you about the scheme. There is one thing I would like to check now. When are you expecting to have the payments under the current system completed? What is the time frame in the department for having at least round 1 of Redress completed? I think you said in your submission about 60 per cent of them have been done.

Ms Eltherington —Round 1 is fairly close to being completed. For level 2, it is difficult to know at this stage. We are certainly working to finalise it as quickly as possible because we are very aware that the longer the waiting period, the more anxious people become about it.

CHAIR —One other thing has popped into my mind. We heard evidence from a person who was very concerned about abuse that had been done within the semi-prison system in Queensland as opposed to in the church based care areas. What is the department’s process if someone comes to the department and says, ‘I have a complaint about the way I was treated in one of those places’? What is the process in the department for handling that?

Ms Eltherington —When you talk about a complaint, are you talking about the person wanting compensation for that?

CHAIR —It is a person who has a genuine complaint—this is on the public record in Hansard—about treatment at the Sir Leslie Wilson Centre. It is about brutality and abuse by the police in that case, and it was clearly said on the record today that there would be many people who had this kind of issue. What is the process used by the department from the time someone contacts the department and says, ‘I have a complaint’?

Ms Eltherington —It varies, on a case-by-case basis obviously.

CHAIR —Sure, but the general stuff you would say.

Ms Eltherington —Some are very historical. We have a Complaints and Prevention Unit that we would work with in terms of what needs to happen with a particular case.

CHAIR —This is about a child in care but it is also particularly an issue with police. Is there any interaction between departments? Is there a link between the Department of Communities and Police and Corrections? In an instance like that, where it crosses over, do you have a process for interdepartmental consideration?

Ms Eltherington —Our complaints area would, yes, and we would work with them because that is their area of expertise. For the benefit of clarification, Sir Leslie Wilson Youth Centre was a detention centre, not adult corrections, so that would be something within the scope of the Redress Scheme and the department’s responsibility.

CHAIR —It was definitely there, but there were ongoing issues with police, so there is that crossover. I am certain that people will read about that in the Hansard. But that would be a way that someone could come forward?

Ms Eltherington —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your evidence.

[3.42 pm]