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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2207

Senator ZAKHAROV —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Social Security. I understand the government has been negotiating with state governments on improved arrangements for homeless young people. Can the minister advise the Senate of the outcome of those negotiations?

Senator CROWLEY —I am pleased to be able to advise the Senate that there has been significant agreement with the states to further enhance the services to homeless young people. At the community services ministers' conference in Perth earlier this week, detailed referral and notification procedures for claimants of the young homeless allowance were agreed, which is a very important step in implementing the 1993 management protocol in this area.

  The agreement clarifies the roles of the Commonwealth—particularly the Department of Social Security and the Department of Employment, Education and Training—and the state and territory governments, through their community service departments. It means that children under 15 years of age, and other children in legal care of a state or territory, who apply for income support, will be referred to the relevant state or territory welfare department. The state welfare departments are the most appropriate bodies to meet all the needs of such young people—needs which quite clearly go beyond income support.

  Where there are grounds for believing that there is an imminent threat to the young person or to the young person's siblings, particularly through physical or sexual abuse, relevant information will be released to the state and territory welfare departments. That will ensure that the cases are handled by appropriate authorities, particularly authorities and workers who are trained and experienced in managing this area. In particular, this makes it clear that it is not the job of the Department of Social Security social workers to investigate such allegations.

  Youth homelessness has always been, but is particularly now, a very important national issue. I am pleased that the federal government has been able to sit down with the states and territories and work out the detail of the allocation of responsibility between the states and the Commonwealth. It is not easy because each of these cases needs to be judged on its merits on an individual basis, and simplistic solutions simply will not cover the complexity of most of them.

  The government is not in the business of encouraging young people to leave home prematurely, nor is it in the business of approving income support without thorough consideration. Every claim, therefore, is subject to verification to ensure that the young person concerned cannot be expected to go on living at home.

  The important issue of family involvement is also under consideration in this agreement. It is particularly important that we do not ask young people to return to homes where they will continue to be placed at risk. The agreement also asks that family mediation be considered as a very important aspect of helping young people in distress. Young people need to be provided with assistance and support to remain at home and in education. Quite clearly, it is a matter of judgment because often there is a fine balance between the rights of the young person and that young person's interests, and the rights of the family to know and have a responsibility for the care of their child.

  What we have here is a very significant improvement on what has been happening for young homeless children in Australia—a clarification of where the responsibilities lie between state and territory. I believe that this will be a very significant step in giving effect to that protocol to further assist our young homeless.