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Community Affairs References Committee
Out-of-home care

MacDONALD, Miss Marney, President, Australian Legislative Ethics Commission

Committee met at 08:59

Evidence was taken via teleconference

CHAIR ( Senator Siewert ): I declare open this public hearing and welcome everyone here today. We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay our respects to elders past and present. This is the seventh and final public hearing for the committee's inquiry into out-of-home care. The committee has held public hearings in Perth, Hobart, Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin and Canberra, and obviously now we are in Brisbane. We have received 101 submissions to the inquiry. I thank everybody for their submissions and the evidence to date.

Welcome. We have your comprehensive submission. Have you been given information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence?

Miss MacDonald : I have, yes.

CHAIR: I invite you to make an opening statement, and then we will ask you some questions.

Miss MacDonald : Sounds good. My speech is around 15 to 20 minutes, so bear with me. I am not a professional speaker and did not have a team to write my speech, so I am probably going to slip up once or twice.

Good morning Senate committee. It is with great honour I am here today. First of all I would like to take the opportunity to thank you all for allowing Alecomm to participate in this public hearing.

The Australian Legislative Ethics Commission is a recognised Australian charity. Our motto is 'working for the betterment of both government and community'. The majority of our resources are currently spent in the child protection industry, auditing casefiles for compliance, advocating for parents, providing some limited legal expertise and personal support to those affected by the system and working strategically in various areas to enable positive change so that children and families can have better outcomes. We aim to show the Senate under the various terms of reference why there is such an increase in children entering the out-of-home-care system, why the system is continuing to cost more yet cannot show better outcomes for children and the impact of having children removed and what it does to the families. We receive no funding, so we are not dictated to as to how we may react or respond by any party and can show a complete, bipartisan understanding of the out-of-home-care system in Australia.

At Alecomm families know they are not alone and they are not being singled out to have their children removed because of who they are. It is because of what the system is and has been allowed to become. We give our clients strength and knowledge, compassion and understanding, and we are there to ensure that they do not take their own life whilst fighting for that of their children. Some staff are on call 24 hours per day.

So, firstly, I would like to thank all the co-contributors to our submission: the 150 parents, children and family members who went into great detail to explain their personal experience, which has enabled us to provide a much broader system overview than we could have hoped; and the National Ethnic Disability Association, Canada Court Watch, UK MP John Hemming and our board, who worked tirelessly for months to be able to provide you with what we have and include former board member Mary Moore. I would like to thank them all for their contributions, which have enabled us to be here today as a voice for the family and children of those affected by the system.

What is community services? Community services is an act of help or assistance. This is what it means, not humiliation, degradation, belittling, controlling and minimising. Community services is supposed to be that. Helping, assisting, bettering, enabling and healing—and the list goes on, but none of that applies here, because, in the governments own words, 'We don't have to abide by policies or procedures; they are a guideline only,' and 'We don't have to follow international human rights treaties, because, although we have ratified our agreement with the UN and have a human rights commission et cetera, we refuse to enact the appropriate legislation.' To sum it up, there has been no bigger myth perpetuated upon society than the 'we do not remove children unless all other options have been exhausted, and we only do it as a last resort' statement. Anybody that has experienced this system knows this is just not true.

Caseworkers seem to spend more time on Facebook and support sites seeing what has being written about them than investigating cases and providing support and intervention as a first response. If the taxpayers knew that their hard earned cash was being spent supporting caseworkers rummaging through Facebook, they would be outraged—and they should be. National privacy legislation and international freedom such as freedom of speech has gone out the window so caseworkers can punish parents they deem to be tarnishing their good name. However, if they were doing their job properly in the first place, there would not be so many people posting comments about them in the first place.

Newborn babies are being removed from hospitals at 20 minutes of age—no intervention, no support, not a peep from caseworkers until the minute they walk into the labour room and take the newborn from their mother's breast. These babies are being denied their mothers' colostrum. It is well documented that colostrum forms a vital part of the child's immunity that it requires for life. Dogs, horses and other animals are not separated from their mothers until they are weeks old, yet an innocent human being is treated less than a dog and being denied such valuable nutrition. This is not right and it needs to be addressed.

Older children are ripped screaming from their parents arms by police officers armed with weapons because a DoCS worker has filed a piece of paper, ticking all the boxes that purport that the children are at an immediate risk of harm. If you have read our submission and that of those affected by child removal, you will have before you the hundreds of issues that affect child welfare and children in out-of-home care. You will know where many of the issues lie, and it is not a lack of funding, a lack of staff or that staff need more training. It is in fact the complete opposite. It is a complete and total failure of all parties concerned in the welfare of children to actively follow the law, the guidelines and policies and procedures. This is further trumped by a failure of our oversight agencies to ensure that legislation, policies and procedures are being abided by and, when they are not, to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those who are breaking it.

Caseworkers routinely remove children without investigating the accusations and allegations first. Judges rubber-stamp removal orders for caseworkers without ensuring caseworkers have abided by their legal requirements. Lawyers are ultimately the middlemen in the trafficking of our children. Did you know that most of the time the children's lawyer never meets the child client? This was recently acknowledged by the Australian Institute of Family Services. How can they be expected to act in the best interest any child? On the rare occasion they do meet them, they ignore the child's wishes and human rights and work to appease the department. Yet the lawyers in child welfare take an extremely huge portion of the child protection budget and send innocent children to total strangers where that child has a much higher chance of dying, being sexually assaulted, being physically assaulted and having a lower life outcome in general.

The government has had endless inquiries and royal commissions. It changes its names frequently and spends millions of dollars obtaining reports and then millions more telling the world how it is going to be better through another program. Whether it be Keeping Them Safe, Stronger Families or In Safe Hands, it will never work, and children in out of home care will continue to have poor outcomes until it does what every other successful business in the world does.

I have never seen any system so arrogant as the child protection system. It is the only system that does not take feedback from end users to enable itself to continue to improve both efficiently, financially, morally and ethically. It is the only system that continues to ask its stakeholders what should they do to improve it. They are asking the people that benefit by keeping children in care and yet expect to improve the system. Do you think Steve Jobs—rest in peace—asked his suppliers how they can make their iPhone better? I don't think so. He asked his customers what he could do to make their products and services better, and the results you see today are astounding. It is not because he went and asked his stakeholders what to do. But not child protection.

Not in a century has child protection asked or really listened to its end users to see how it can perform better and what they can do to make the user experience better. Instead, they continue to ask the people who profit. They are the case workers, the lawyers, the judges, the court reporters, the out-of-home care providers, the foster carers and those who have alternative agendas, such as Deborra-Lee Furness with her pro-adoption campaign—somebody who does not have a clue on the realities of the child-protection system but has the influence to push for a 50-year set-back for our children and families by paying for adoption. Please, do not misunderstand me. We have tried numerous times to discuss with Ms Furness the issues surrounding the current child-protection system and explain how this is the reason many children are available, so to speak, for adoption. She has never responded.

With research and inquiries designed to suit the agenda of those who profit, you are not going to get an improved system. It will not happen. You will continue to get a system that costs more and more and takes more children than ever—which it is, no matter what name you give the system or what new fandangled program you spend another hundred million dollars on. The rate of children removed will continue to rise at an exponential rate, and the rate of children dying, both in and out of home care, will continue to rise also.

Unfortunately, accurate figures of children dying in care have been hidden from the public, because Pru Goward made accountability of children dying in care extremely difficult to monitor by mixing children who died in care with those who were known to the system. This is the minister who used Fairfax Media to campaign and tell Australia how thousands of children will be returned home under her care. It is the same minister who has seen another 20,000 children taken from their families. A large proportion of those were women affected by domestic violence. She is the same woman who is now the New South Wales domestic-violence commissioner who reintroduced forced adoption for this generation while, similarly, apologising to the last generation for exactly the same thing.

Parents must be provided with support and services, with intervention and compassion, to enable children to safely remain at home. Case workers must be forced to abide by every single piece of legislation, policy and procedures set before them or they must be punished and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. All cases must be audited for compliance with child protection and other legislation, and we are prepared to assist with this to ensure that only children who have been removed lawfully stay removed. But any child who has been removed without lawful authority must be returned immediately—with 1,000 apologies and an unlimited amount of resources supplied until the family has recovered and healed, as best they can, after what they have experienced.

You need to get rid of the junk science in child protection and the loads of court reporters and lawyers—all on the gravy chain—because they do not represent the best interests of any children. As a care worker, you soon realise that people do not get over child protection after they have intervened in their lives. They are never the same. They do not think the same and they do not feel the same. Many parents are afraid to answer their phones and are afraid to answer the door, and children are equally traumatised, with children screaming when they hear that knock, afraid they are going to be kidnapped again. It is horrific and largely due to inadequate investigations.

People should not have to live like this. A smart man once said, 'The government should be afraid of its people—not the other way around.' There is no agency concerned with the lack of ethics and morals and blatant continuous violations of law that happens each and every day in the best interests of the child. We have detailed many suggested changes, based upon our many years of experience in the system and the continual auditing of those involved in child welfare, and we strongly urge this Senate committee to take them with the seriousness our children deserve.

If these changes were implemented and if oversight authorities were forced to prosecute employees who break the law, children and families would have better outcomes and the cost of the system would be billions of dollars per year lower than it currently is, and children would not continue to be removed unnecessarily from their families and displaced into a foster-care system that sees them as an extremely lucrative and expendable commodity. They could remain at home—safely—and parents could reach out to child protection and community services if they had an issue.

Currently, nobody in his or her right mind would seek help from the department that views seeking help as self-reporting and uses this engagement as an excuse to remove the children. Instead of punishing the perpetrator, our system chooses to punish the victims. As a victim of domestic violence now, if you seek help you will be punished by the state and could have your children removed.

A large proportion of women who have lost their children to the state have had this happen because they sought safety and help from a system that is rigged to work against them. Many of the NGOs receiving hundreds of millions of dollars per year by keeping children away from their families are those exact same NGOs that are still under investigation, by our own government, for atrocities committed upon children decades earlier. Why would any government resurrect the giving of innocent children to those who have already exploited, abused and killed children in the past? Common sense must dictate that the only way to protect children is to ensure they are not commodities. As the government is the only organisation, basically, not for profit, they must do this task themselves and stop outsourcing children.

Why would any organisation try to benefit a child or restore them to their parents when they are receiving at least $40,000 per year to keep that same child away from their parents? Where are the incentives to help the families? Why is the child-protection budget triangled top-heavy with foster-carer litigation when best-practice principles continue to show better outcomes for children when they are helped to stay with their families? Why does the government continue to listen to Jeremy Sammut's spiel that children are needlessly suffering because of the government's will to keep families together when the government's budget shows this is an outrageous lie? No government in Australia—or, for that matter, in the Western world—is truly working to help children and families. It is the same here as it is in the United Kingdom and the United States.

You can keep telling yourself they are, or you can listen to the real experts and the millions of families affected by the system worldwide who are all stating same thing—that is, the system is a failure and is corrupt. It will continue to abuse and fail children and families until it brings about true accountability and listens to those who do not profit from the system. Thank you for providing us with this incredible opportunity. I hope that on behalf of all the families suffering due to failures of our government and out-of-home care system today they are finally given a chance for the better outcomes they deserve, with thanks to this inquiry.

Senator LINES: Thank you very much for your submission and introduction to the committee. Earlier this week it was Youth Homelessness Matters Day, and one of the appalling statistics about youth homelessness is that if young people become homeless they are likely to stay homeless until they are in the early 50s, as shocking as that is. The report also said that children who have been in any kind of foster care are at a greater risk of becoming homeless. Do you have any information on that, which you could share with the committee?

Miss MacDonald : I think the statistics are about 40 per cent of children who leave the foster-care system end up in jail, on drugs or pregnant and/or homeless within the first 12 months of leaving out-of-home care.

Senator LINES: Why does that happen?

Miss MacDonald : It is because they are just dumped after they turn 18. Nobody is getting any money for them. Nobody wants to keep them.

Senator LINES: What does your organisation advocate, instead of removing children? What do you say needs to happen?

Miss MacDonald : We do recognise that in circumstances there are children who need to be removed—

Senator LINES: Yes, of course.

Miss MacDonald : however, a large proportion of children do not. Provide the services that need to be provided, intervene and investigate. Many children have been removed on false allegations, including hospitals falsely diagnosing or mistakenly diagnosing an injury to a child when it is later found out it was something the child had developed or was born with, instead of returning the children—not to just keep fighting to keep them in out-of-home care. There is no acknowledgement when they do something wrong to fix the mistake. They would rather spend more money covering it up. This is where accountability needs to be truly brought in.

Senator LINES: What are the sorts of services you are particularly advocating?

Miss MacDonald : Whatever the family needs. The fact of the matter is if you drop all the litigation. If child protection were mandated with very strict penalties for not complying to intervene and provide what the family needs first, there would be no need to move a lot of children. Some parents do definitely need a kick up the bottom, so to speak, and a wake-up call, but you should not just go in and remove the children.

Senator LINES: As the first response.

Miss MacDonald : That is right—and investigate because there are a lot of malicious people out there who want other people's children. This has happened. Respite carers have made false accusations against a mother so that respite carer could get the child into their care. This does happen.

Senator LINES: Are you able to shed any light on why there is a high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care?

Miss MacDonald : I guess they are from lower income groups and cannot afford the legal representation that they need to fight the department. The department has an unlimited war chest. I see grandmothers having to go to the Supreme Court to try to see their grandchildren who are in hospital. It should not be allowed. You must stop child protection from litigating—full stop. It is supposed to be the least formal as possible. That is what the standards are. How can it be the least formal when it is a court setting straight up?

Senator LINES: Thank you.

Senator SESELJA: I have read through some of the survey results that you have and some of the claims that you have made. Are these results from all around the country or particular states?

Miss MacDonald : I think about 47 per cent were from New South Wales. The figures were mentioned in the beginning of the submission. The vast majority is New South Wales because that is where I came from before I moved to Alice Springs. We had a larger client base there, but it is national.

Senator SESELJA: The thing I am struggling with in your evidence is it is suggesting almost a conspiracy amongst child protection workers around the country and around the various agencies to act unreasonably in taking children away. That is broadly the allegation.

Miss MacDonald : Absolutely, and I will say it loud and clear.

Senator SESELJA: I guess I am sceptical. Maybe you can convince me as we discuss it. I read through some of the claims that have been made by individuals. To play the devil's advocate, if you were in a situation where there had been child abuse or neglect and your children were taken away, there would be a strong incentive to make claims about those who are taking the children. We have seen cases all over the country, unfortunately, of shocking instances. We saw the case last week of the coroner's report in South Australia where in fact child protection workers bent over backwards and were criticised for being too supportive of the parents and not supportive enough of the children. So there would be a strong incentive in those cases for the individuals to say, 'The child protection workers lied' or 'They did not comply with the law.' What do you say to that? There could be a strong bias in some of these claims?

Miss MacDonald : Unfortunately, I would never have believed the things that I have seen in the past decade if I did not see them firsthand. I did have trouble believing that there was a difficulty dealing with child protection with a particular client of mine who was more so involved in family law. It was not long thereafter that I realised that what she was saying about how it is corrupt was actually true. Just when you think there is nothing you have not seen child protection do, they go and do something else. Caseworkers in so many instances seem to do what is completely illogical to what a normal person would do. I cannot rationalise that. I do not know whether caseworkers are on a bit of a control trip or maybe were damaged as children, which is why they have gone into the system. I do know that a lot of good caseworkers have left the system or have been run out of the system because they refuse to participate in corrupt activities. I am sure you have received some submissions from ex-caseworkers. They come through our organisation.

In the case of Chloe it was illogical. Where was the support for the child? I agree completely. The grandmother made numerous calls. Then you have the complete opposite with other cases where you get some outrageous accusation and DOCS just jumps straight in and takes the child. I cannot explain why they do what they do, but I can say that, if they were made accountable and if the minister, the ombudsman or ICAC for that matter started auditing what they are doing and saw the massive amount of non-compliance with the cases that they handle, it would make a major difference. Caseworkers would not step out of line. They would not lie and commit perjury in court. They would be too scared. Put a couple of DOCS workers in jail and watch staff toe the line. With all due respect, that is what needs to happen.

Senator SESELJA: I am struggling to accept I guess the broader conspiracy allegation—

Miss MacDonald : I am not saying it is a conspiracy.

Senator SESELJA: I put it to you at the start and you endorsed what I had said, but even if we do not use the word 'conspiracy'; widespread corruption—

Miss MacDonald : Absolutely.

Senator SESELJA: breaking of the law and inappropriate behaviour. I can believe that there would be isolated cases of people acting completely inappropriately. I am sure there would be some times when that does happen. I would be interested to know if this has been tested in the courts at all. Have we seen any test cases that would back up the claims? Has it been tested and cross-examined? As I said, we have a number of statements from individuals. Some of those individuals would have a heavy bias. Many of those individuals may well believe exactly what they are saying, but that does not necessarily mean that the caseworker acted inappropriately if they had a genuine and reasonable belief that the child was in danger. Has it been tested anywhere in any sort of independent process—any tribunal that you can point to—that would sort of back up this claim of this widespread inappropriate and illegal behaviour?

Miss MacDonald : It would probably be a lot easier if the oversight authorities did their job. Maybe you could ask the ombudsman or someone else just how many complaints they get per year about child protection workers and how many they act upon, because they refuse to intervene. They will say they will not touch the matter while it is in court and then a couple of years down the track when the court proceedings are over they say it is too long. It is very difficult to be able to prove using what you would deem appropriate as an authority or someone like that backing up what we are saying. We audit the case files full-time.

Senator SESELJA: Yes.

Miss MacDonald : It is not about what he said or what she said; it is about using the paperwork that we obtain—affidavits, court reports, court proceedings et cetera. You can tell whether the caseworker is doing their job properly or not. You can see if they have lied in one affidavit because they say something else in another affidavit. It is very easy.

Senator SESELJA: That is an independent look at it. You talk about it going through the courts. What you seem to be saying—and correct me if I have misunderstood—is that the courts are effectively backing up what the child protection workers are doing.

Miss MacDonald : Absolutely. They rubberstamp whatever DOCS want.

Senator SESELJA: A court is an independent process. Our judges would take a look at this independently, I would have thought.

Miss MacDonald : I thought so too until I had seen it first hand. Combine that with parents getting legal aid and the legal aid lawyers most of the time telling the parents to agree to work with the department. It is called consent without admissions and what you are saying is, 'Yep, I did something wrong but I'm not going to say what it is.' But you are not told that. What you are told instead is: 'If you do it this way, you'll get your child home quicker.' So you trust your lawyer and he ultimately gives child to the department, because that is not what happens: you don't get your child home quicker; in fact, you don't get your child home at all.

It does not matter how many hoops you jump through, DOCS will continue to add more things that you need to do. I am sure you read in the submission about how many parents were told what they needed to do and they went and did it, and this happens. Parents have their children removed for whatever reason and some of them do have problems—don't get me wrong: I am not saying that the parents are perfect-but it just seems to be a never-ending control system for the case workers: 'Oh, you've done this. I'll make you do that now.' And they waste all these services that they spend on parents, because they know that they are not going to let the children go back home. They have no intention of it.

CHAIR: Miss MacDonald, some of the evidence that we received when we were in Darwin suggested, particularly for Aboriginal parents, that they are told by the court that the kids are in care for two years. They understand from that process that they basically have to wait for two years before they have any further contact or if they sit tight and don't cause a fuss that their kids will come back to them. Then we heard that the child protection or the relevant agency turns around and says, 'Well, you haven't done anything for two years, so you can't have your kids back.' Have you come across that?

Miss MacDonald : All the time. Even if the parents do everything the department asks, the department will then say, 'The children are settled in the foster care place, and we don't want to send them back home.' All the time.

CHAIR: I have got some follow-up questions, Miss MacDonald. While we are on some of the evidence we received in Darwin, some of it was about domestic violence and the impact of domestic violence. We heard about women who have been subject to domestic violence being labelled as 'enablers', because the children were also being subject to domestic violence and the women were being accused of not doing anything about that.

Miss MacDonald : Not protecting the kids.

CHAIR: Not protecting the children; failure to protect but being labelled enablers. Then yesterday when I was asking in Canberra, we were told of examples where women are becoming homeless, because of domestic violence. They end up living in cars and their kids end up getting taken into care, because they are homeless. I have heard similar examples. Have you seen similar examples for a start?

Miss MacDonald : Yes, we have.

CHAIR: How widespread is that in the work that you have done? Are we hearing about isolated instances—and I am not for a minute excusing that—and the outliers or, from your experience, how widespread is this issue?

Miss MacDonald : I think there is a large proportion of women who have had their children taken, because of domestic violence but, unfortunately, as I stated earlier, there is nowhere to go. You go and ask the department for help and what you are saying gets turned around and twisted. They get told they are not protecting their children.

We tried a little test case two years ago. We rang the department of housing asking for emergency accommodation for a mother who had left the household with her young child and required emergency accommodation, because she was currently living in a car. The department of housing wanted to know the exact details of what was happening in the home—domestic violence. Instead of providing the service to the mum and the child who did need accommodation, they proceeded to question the mother about the violence, what was happening and how was this and how was that. The mother was not prepared to divulge that information, because she knew that that information could be sent to DOCS. She stated that, and then the department of housing people said 'Well, we cannot give you emergency accommodation.' The mother said, 'Great, I'll have to stay in the car' and the department of housing said, 'We'll have to report you to DOCS.'

When you try and leave domestic violence, there is no support. You cannot go anywhere. You get punished if you reach out for help and you ask. And that is why so many women are dying as a result of domestic violence—because there is no way out. Instead of taking children and litigating and punishing the mother, it would be so much cheaper to provide that mother with a house in an area, pay for the bond, even pay for furniture—$10,000 is nothing for the department. They spend that in a couple of days litigating to keep the child in foster care. It would be so much cheaper and a better outcome for everybody. Take an AVO on the perpetrator. Punish them for a change.

CHAIR: I am looking at the reasons for removal outlined on page 12 of your submission: neglect, poverty, domestic violence. In the 75 cases of removal for risk of emotional harm, 65 related to domestic violence.

Miss MacDonald : Correct.

CHAIR: That is actual cases where the children were removed?

Miss MacDonald : Yes. So it is a high proportion of the children that are removed.

CHAIR: In the example that you just outlined, where people have reached out for help and have been unable to obtain it, have you managed to drill down further on that?

Miss MacDonald : We do. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, by the time people get to us there is so much court paperwork, so many affidavits with allegations, contact workers writing that the parents did this wrong and that wrong, that there is no chance that you can help them get the children back, unless accountability is going to be put into the system. It is just not possible at the moment. So the best we can do is provide long-term support for these people and help them deal with their situation as best as possible.

CHAIR: Thank you. I might come back to that if we have time. I want to go to the issues with the child protection workers. I may have misheard you or not quite understood what you said earlier when you were talking about training for child protection workers. I thought you said, 'It is not about that.' Did I misunderstand what you said?

Miss MacDonald : No, I do not think you did. It is the blatant inability to abide by the law. They know what they are doing when they are doing something wrong. They know that if they are ticking a box that says, 'The children need to be removed because they are at immediate risk of harm' that it is not true, that they have not investigated or that they just have three or four pieces of paper and that looks good enough to take the child and to get it before a judge. Could you repeat that question? I have got a little bit lost.

CHAIR: I might repeat it and expand on it. We have heard a lot of evidence about under-resourcing of departments, issues around acceptability of risk—and that is where I want to ask you about one of your recommendations—and the pressure that child protection workers are also under. I am also wondering whether the training issue is part of it as well. I realise I am only looking at one part of the system at the moment, but I am just trying to unpick that a bit. I understand what you are saying about inappropriate decisions being made, but I am also looking at the system in which people are working.

Miss MacDonald : Sure. There is no point giving staff training to make them better in their jobs when, from the top down, the system is not working. Nobody is enforcing them to do their jobs properly. It just gets covered up. You can train a caseworker all you like, but if they are not going to be forced to follow the law and their policies and procedures, it will not make a difference. And they are not under-funded; they just spend too much time writing affidavits, playing on Facebook, criticising and cruelling parents who are trying to do their best to get their children back. They should be concentrating on the cases that really do need attention—the kids that need attention before you need to remove them, and whatever else needs to be done. The whole thing is lopsided. You are supposed to help the child and the family. I do not see that. I see nothing but ridicule, criticism, lies, corruption. And it is not a one-off instance, and it is not just in Australia—it is the whole Western world, because children have become commodities. You can put more money into the child protection system, or you can rip away all the stuff that is unnecessary and only further enhances the department's strengths and saves billions of dollars a year. And children will be better off.

CHAIR: What you are also talking about, then, is putting resources into the front of the system where you are supporting families and children.

Miss MacDonald : Yes. Currently only about 10 per cent of the money goes towards support and intervention. As you have seen from the submissions, most of those supports and interventions were a waste of time because even though the parents did all that the caseworkers asked, they still did not get the children back.

CHAIR: So there are two places for the investment—once you have already identified a family that is potentially at risk, but also the step before that—before you even get to the point where families are identified for intervention. In other words, taking a more universal approach to early intervention and support.

Miss MacDonald : Absolutely. But parents need to know that they can approach the department for help and that the department is not going to turn around and say: 'Right—we are going to take your children now.' That is quite often what they do. It was called 'community services' for a reason years ago. It is supposed to be assisting and helping.

CHAIR: What programs have you seen that are most effective in that early intervention and support? I think we need a better term for 'early intervention'.

Miss MacDonald : I am sure that the early intervention programs are great. They just need to be given out appropriately to help parents to keep their children, not to be given to parents as a punishment while their children are kept in care.

CHAIR: Going to point 4 on page 60 of your submission: 'do not forcibly remove any children unless there is sufficient evidence to warrant a charge of criminal abuse or neglect.' To me this then goes to the issue of acceptability of risk. Given some of the evidence that we have received—particularly, if I recall, in one of the submissions from Western Australia, where we were talking about the pendulum having swung much further in terms of lowering attitudes to risk—that seems to be the experience we are getting from around Australia.

Miss MacDonald : No, I do not agree with lowering the attitude towards risk.

CHAIR: Sorry, they are increasing the threshold; so they are allowing less risk.

Miss MacDonald : I do not think that it is going to make a difference unless it is worked out properly and unless there are guidelines that are going to be abided by. Like I said, you can bring in any new program or change a department's name, but unless you are going to enforce what you come up with it will not work. And there will not be successful outcomes.

The KPIs, the key performance indicators, for child protection are based around how many children they take, how many cases they win in court and how many children are in out-of-home care. How about making the key performance indicators based around how many families they assisted, how many mothers they helped escape domestic violence and how many children in foster care finish their HSC so that you could see an improvement in the system and give caseworkers a better goal to aim towards? Currently, they aim towards winning, winning and winning because that is what their key performance indicators are based on. They need to be changed to helping; that will help change the system and the outcomes.

CHAIR: Regarding your last comment about the key performance indicators, obviously that is not what the agencies have told us their key performance indicators are. On what basis do you make that comment?

Miss MacDonald : As far as our recommendations go or the key performance indicators?

CHAIR: The comments that you make about the agencies—whether it is DOCS; obviously they are called different things in different states. On what basis do you say that they are their KPIs?

Miss MacDonald : In their reporting systems and in the reports that are available on their websites. I am happy to find them for you and send them over so you can view that information. I did not realise it would come up, so I am happy to send it.

CHAIR: That would be appreciated. Obviously, they outline how many kids are going into care and how many kids are coming out of care, but, as to KPIs, I would be very interested to see that. I agree: it is very concerning if that is the way that they see their role.

Miss MacDonald : Absolutely, it is concerning and it needs to be addressed and altered to suit the concept of community services and better outcomes for children. You cannot say you are achieving them if there is no reporting system available to show that they are actually happening.

CHAIR: I would like to return to the domestic violence issue. In a number of the other inquiries that we are carrying out now, we keep coming back to services being in silos and not working holistically. I would like to know a bit more about your experience with domestic violence and the fact that we have kids being taken—the evidence that we are getting indicates that kids are being taken as a direct result of domestic violence, and that is certainly the evidence in your submission. In your experience, how are agencies working holistically to provide support services? Your own evidence indicates that housing is talking to DOCS in one way, but what about in providing services to the people who are being affected by this?

Miss MacDonald : We do not have a great deal to do with domestic violence agencies in general, so I cannot really comment there. All I can say is that most agencies are funded by the department and a lot of the time what the department wants the agencies do when it comes to dealing with people who escape domestic violence; otherwise they are threatened with losing their funding—and it does happen.

CHAIR: Do you mean if the agencies are not going to DOCS?

Miss MacDonald : If DOCS want something to happen through the agency that they provide funding to and the agency does not want to do this, then DOCS child protection agency threatens to remove the funding from the domestic violence shelters and other agencies. I feel that sometimes they probably would like to do more and maybe provide a more holistic approach, but the issue is where they get their funding from. If the funding systems were changed and the funding did not come from child protection, if it came from another boat somewhere, then maybe that would give the agencies more leeway to be able to assist families in need.

CHAIR: Okay. If it was not tied to DOCS—

Miss MacDonald : Yes.

CHAIR: That is the last of my questions. Do you have anything else you wanted to add?

Miss MacDonald : Not that I can think of. I tried to put it all in my speech earlier.

CHAIR: And your submission is very detailed; there is a lot of information there. In terms of your outreach process for the research you undertook, could you quickly go through the process you undertook to do your survey?

Miss MacDonald : Sure. About five years ago I developed a basic form on our website for people to use for complaints about different state child protection agencies. We also created other complaints registers for employers and caseworkers et cetera. Over that time you get a better understanding about the issues and where problems arise from listening to the things that come from people's experiences.

When you guys announced the inquiry, we decided to put all of what we had originally created with the other forms and databases that we had to create as big an area as possible to show where the issues lay in child protection, what things were working, what things were not working. It was a combination of growing and developing over a long period, and having dealt with many families over that time, and seeing where things can be improved and what needs fixing. I used that to put into the database that was created to create the submission.

We then put a lot of the basic part of it out to Facebook and to our clients and to other people to find out what they felt was missing or how we could improve the submission. Various other agencies and people from other agencies had some input, like NEDA. They played a big role in outlining all of the emotional and psychological effects on people. It was a pretty big collaboration between a lot of people over a long time that actually enabled the whole survey part to be created to then go into the submission form, from which the submission—a submission had already been created; it had been growing and developing also for the past few years. That is pretty much it.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence today. The committee will be back in contact about that issue you took on notice for the KPIs.

Miss MacDonald : That will be fantastic.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your substantive submission and also for your time today.

Miss MacDonald : Thank you very much for letting us speak. It was a wonderful opportunity.