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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6389

Mr ZAPPIA (7:55 PM) —I take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House, and in particular the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, issues raised with me by grandparents caring for their grandchildren. This is a matter that the member for Braddon raised in this place on 10 March. I will repeat some of the statistics he quoted on the night. These statistics go back to 2003 and may be well and truly out of date, but they are the best we have. There are some 22,500 families around Australia in which the grandparents are caring for their grandchildren. That equates to about 31,000 grandchildren being looked after by their grandparents.

Considering that those are 2003 figures, and therefore six years old, and considering that there has been a disturbing increase in the number of children that are being cared for by grandparents, I would expect those figures to now be much, much higher. There would also be many examples where children are being cared for by their grandparents and that is not recorded at all. So it is a prevalent issue in the community. Only last week I had grandparents contact me on three separate occasions to talk about the difficulties that they face as a result of having the responsibility of caring for their grandchildren.

I will summarise some of the matters that have been brought to my attention. Using figures that are available from Victoria, 52 per cent of grandparents caring for grandchildren are doing so because of a son’s or daughter’s substance abuse problem. If you consider that that statistic would probably apply across Australia, you start to understand some of the issues that arise not only from the caring but from the underlying reasons for the caring. The first issue is that, if the parents are victims of substance abuse of one kind or another, it is very likely that the children themselves have some serious health issues. Secondly, with the grandparents ultimately caring for these children, initially there was probably a custody dispute between the two parents. That in itself can be very traumatic for all parties concerned, including the grandparents and the children. Often, the dispute then flows over to the grandparents. So you have the two parents in dispute and then you have a further dispute between the parents and the grandparents who, at arm’s length, can see what is best for the grandchildren and who have tried to intervene and are then caught up in that dispute. So the grandchildren become the victims but the grandparents become the meat in the sandwich, and they need help.

They need help with the cost of looking after their grandchildren and they often need help with the cost of the legal battles that ensue. In one of the cases that were presented to me last week, something like $80,000 was lost by the grandparents in their efforts to do the right thing by their grandchildren. Again using some statistics that I have been able to source, 80 per cent of grandparents caring for grandchildren own their own home and therefore, if there is a legal dispute of some kind, they are not eligible for legal aid of any sort. They are inevitably referred to as asset rich and cash poor—cash poor because as grandparents they are more than likely simply living off the pension.

As carers they face enormous costs. If, however, they were given the same level of benefits as foster carers are given in states like New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia, it would make a significant difference to their ability to properly look after their grandchildren. So I bring to the House’s and the minister’s attention the need to raise this again at a COAG meeting and see if we can get some uniform laws across Australia, for the sake of the grandparents and, in particular, the grandchildren. Firstly, with respect to the support payments they get, the foster payment equivalent should be uniform throughout Australia. Secondly, where there are some legal battles to be fought, the legal aid system should take into account the needs of grandparents who are doing such a wonderful job in trying to pick up the pieces of broken families. The issue of broken families is one that I am sure concerns all members of this House and, if we can somehow address it, we would be making a huge step forward.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 8 pm, the debate is interrupted.