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Thursday, 22 August 1985
Page: 221


Senator GILES(9.07) —I welcome the opportunity of contributing to this debate on the tabling of the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare entitled `Children in Institutional and Other Forms of Care-a National Perspective'. I am particularly gratified that Senator Walters has had the opportunity to comment on this report. We have spent very many hours together on this reference and it is altogether fitting that she should contribute her impressions of the Committee's conclusions. I wish to highlight a number of the Committee's findings and then, as foreshadowed by Senator Elstob, discuss what the Committee found to be the most serious problem affecting the present and future development and implementation of Commonwealth and State welfare policies and programs, including those designed to improve the quality of life of children in institutional and other forms of care. Our greatest concern has been the lack of a co-ordinated approach in this country towards the planning, delivery and evaluation of community services that will promote the well-being of children and enhance the stability of families.

As part of its inquiry, the Committee examined the provision of substitute care services, particularly the practices of adoption, foster care and institutional care. With regard to adoption, three major issues were brought to the Committee's attention: The inadequacy of present inter-country adoption procedures; the implications of adoption for ethnic minorities, especially Aboriginal children; and the right of access to original birth records and personal documents by adopted persons. Most witnesses who commented on these matters were critical of the differences between the States in adoption laws and practices. The Committee agrees that such variations are unsatisfactory and has urged both government and non-government welfare agencies to seek greater uniformity in official adoptive policies and regulations throughout Australia.

The Committee found that foster care provides an appropriate form of substitute care for many children and, when compared with the cost of alternative forms of care such as institutionalisation, is highly cost effective. The Committee also considers that fostering has wider potential application than present policies and practices in most States would indicate. In this respect, it applauds the initiatives taken in South Australia through the development of the intensive neighbourhood care scheme which selects and trains foster parents to care for young offenders who would otherwise be committed to juvenile corrective institutions.

Two matters of special concern in this area were: Firstly, the variation in the value of foster care allowances between the States, notwithstanding differences in the cost of living; and, secondly, the overall inadequacy of the level of allowances. As at October last year, the base rate of the foster care allowance fell between the range of $30 and $55 a week depending on the age of the child and the State or Territory in which the child lived. Research by such organisations as the Children's Welfare Association of Victoria and the Institute of Family Studies has shown that in 1981-82 the cost of maintaining a child was $41 per week for primary school age children and $66 per week, which is $80 in 1985 prices, for teenage children.

Other evidence received by the Committee not only supports these findings but also shows that it is not uncommon for foster parents to be out of pocket through meeting the expenses of children in their care. Since the completion of the inquiry I have had an indication that the cost of repairs and replacement is also high for foster parents, bearing in mind that severely disturbed children can be very destructive. The Committee regards this as an untenable arrangement and considers that the value of foster parent allowances should reflect more accurately the real and increasing costs involved in providing proper care for a fostered child. In this respect the Committee has made a number of recommendations concerning the introduction of uniform and increased national foster parents allowances.

With regard to institutional care, this form of substitute care has long been the subject of criticism by those concerned with child care theory and practice. Much has been said and written about the disadvantages of institutional care and the detrimental effects it can have on the emotional, cognitive and social development of children. Conversely, it has also been demonstrated that, for some children, a good institution may be a more satisfactory environment for a child's growth and development than a poor home. Whether institutional care per se has a beneficial or harmful effect on children is therefore debatable. Recent reforms in both protective and corrective institutional care, such as the movement towards de-institutionalisation and the development of family group homes, have attempted with some success to redress negative aspects of this form of care. Overall, the Committee found that institutional care plays an important role in providing a form of substitute care for children with special needs, and may often be the best and most appropriate type of care for certain children at a particular point in time. In the Committee's view, institutional care is, and should continue to be, an appropriate alternative method of substitute care. It is, however, necessary to recognise the distinctiveness of its role within the wider spectrum of child care and community services and to ensure that it does not, as in the past, constitute the only choice because of the unavailability of alternative forms of care or the absence of adequate community-based family support services.

With regard to the provision of family support services, it became apparent to the Committee that there is a growing demand within the community for a wider range of such services than is presently available. In particular, local agencies and neighbourhood groups identified the need for more resources to be directed towards preventive welfare programs, such as those provided through the family support services scheme, including parent education courses, pre-marital and family counselling services, respite care services for families under stress, child abuse prevention programs, and homemaker services, which I believe are among the most cost-effective of all the forms of assistance that can be given to families at risk. In the report the Committee has argued that the Commonwealth should play a greater role in the development of such preventive services and has recommended that the family support services scheme should be continued and expanded.

During the inquiry it became evident to the Committee that the provision of child and family welfare services in this country, including the provision of programs and facilities for children requiring institutional and other forms of care, is an area in which there is little communication between the States and Territories and the Commonwealth, and that it is one in which service delivery is fragmented, lacking in design and cohesion, and leaving significant gaps in its coverage. At the local level, the Committee found that community services are often reactive, show little, if any, evidence of forward planning and tend to operate in isolation from other services. As a result the potential of many new initiatives in this area is not fully realised, especially in terms of their possible application in a wider context. Further, it is not possible to state with any degree of certainty whether financial resources now allocated, either by the Commonwealth or the States, are being used efficiently, effectively or equitably. The Committee believes many of these problems can be attributed, in part, to the fact that, despite its increasing involvement, especially through the provision of child care and family support services funded under the children's services program, the Commonwealth has failed to make any clear statement of national policy regarding its role and responsibility vis-a-vis the States and Territories in the long term planning and the delivery of community welfare services.

In the report the Committee noted that the Commonwealth has seen fit to legislate in the area of human rights through the Human Rights Commission, and in the area of family law through the Family Law Act 1976, which involves the regulation of family life as it relates to divorce and custody and maintenance of children. Action has been taken in these areas in response to certain changes within the community and in recognition of the need for a national approach. Similarly, the Committee believes that the Commonwealth should respond to other recent developments that have affected the welfare needs of the Australian community, and accept greater responsibility at the national level for ensuring that the overall framework within which public welfare policies and programs are devised is capable of both responding to changing social needs and facilitating a more rational approach towards the provision of welfare services.

The Committee has therefore recommended that the Commonwealth legislate for the establishment of a national body, to be known as the Australian Children and Families Commission, with responsibility first, for the development of policy and the provision of advice to the Commonwealth Government on matters affecting the well-being of children and the stability of families, and, secondly, for the promotion, through co-operation and consultation with the States and Territories, of a better planned and co-ordinated approach towards the delivery of community services throughout Australia. It is the Committee's view that a national body with this role should be independent of existing Commonwealth executive departments and thus be in a position to provide the government of the day with impartial advice on the welfare needs of children and families. During its deliberations on this matter the Committee questioned whether it would be preferable for the functions of this body to be carried out by an existing government department or agency, including the Department of Community Services. After long and serious consideration, the Committee concluded against this proposition. Its reasons for this decision are listed in the report, but they go very much to the question of independence of particular governments and of autonomy in making decisions that are appropriate and acceptable, not only to State government departments but also to the very wide non-government organisation network which is involved in the care of children.

The Committee envisages that as part of its function of promoting the stability of families the new body should be required to examine the means of maintaining the family entity as the fundamental group unit in society. This would involve the continuing review of the effect on family functioning. In this respect we use the term `family' to encompass households within which there are family relationships and not the narrower notion of a nuclear family. We include here the economic status of families in Federal and State legislation and family support programs.

With respect to the welfare of children, the new body would be required to develop a set of guiding principles to formalise national standards and goals for their well-being. It is envisaged that these would be based on the principles adopted in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child. As an ongoing function it would also have responsibility for assessing the needs of the Australian community for welfare services for children, particularly those whose needs may not be met through the development of policies and programs directed towards ensuring the stability of the family unit. Such special groups include children in institutional and other forms of substitute care, children who have offended against the law, homeless children, disabled children, migrant children, Aboriginal children and children who are victims of abuse. It may be useful in this regard to note that the Committee has interpreted `a child' as being one under the age of 18 years.

In carrying out this function, the new body would obtain a national overview of the adequacy of children's services and would be in a position to identify changing needs and gaps in service delivery. On the basis of such assessments, it would make recommendations to government concerning the need for special purpose programs that could be developed and implemented, either by the new body or by the most relevant Commonwealth department or authority, in consultation and co-operation with the States and Territories. We do not envisage just another commission. We envisage a body, probably quite small, which would carry out these functions and fulfill a crying need in the community in the way that the Schools Commission has demonstrated its utility. The proposed national body could also have the function of educating the community and acting as a public watchdog of government activity, for example, in relation to the effects on the family of government policy decisions concerning income maintenance, taxation, law reform, housing, education, health and employment. To assist the new body in its public watchdog role and other policy analysis, it is proposed that the Institute of Family Studies be subsumed as the national body's research arm.

Among the publications utilised by the Committee, research papers prepared by the Institute of Family Studies have proved to be of immense and unique value. Recent papers from the Institute of Family Studies include papers on the role of fathers in raising children, the problems of step-families, families and the taxation summit, family values of Australia's ethnic groups, a call for an improved level of child-family policy debate in Australia, the cost of children and divorce property law. These are all very much the concerns of this Committee and its terms of reference.

Finally, the Committee believes a national body of this nature-and I refer here to the Australian Children and Families Commission-could serve as an important point of central focus for community organisations and client groups as well as for government and non-government organisations directly involved in the delivery of child and family welfare services. It is becoming increasingly apparent that under existing arrangements the welfare needs of children have been gradually submerged by other competing interest groups seeking assistance from government. It has been estimated that of all children in Australia, a disturbing 15 per cent or approximately 800,000 now live below the poverty line compared with 8 per cent or approximately 250,000 when the Henderson Commission of Inquiry into Poverty carried out its inquiry in 1972.

Studies by the Department of Social Security, the Institute of Family Studies and others also reveal that children and their families now represent the new poor in this country and the Institute has pointed out that Australia's expenditure on child care and other family support services is well behind that of countries with which it is often compared-for example, Sweden, France, Germany, Denmark and Israel. The Committee believes that if Australia is to have a sound basis on which to build its future, the growing number of children living in poverty and the long term consequences of this for the nation as a whole must be addressed in a more comprehensive and forward-thinking way than has been the practice in the past. The formation of a statutory authority at the national level is seen as a mechanism through which greater effectiveness and equitability can be achieved in the distribution of the community's resources for child and family welfare purposes.

In making a recommendation for the establishment of an Australian Children and Families Commission, the Committee has stressed that it is not intended that the Commonwealth assume responsibility for the delivery and administration of community services for children and families. Rather, the proposal recognises the need to address child and family welfare problems at the national level and to ensure that, through consultation and co-operation with the States and Territories and the non-governmental organisations, the future provision of services through the present multiplicity of authorities is achieved in a more planned and co-ordinated manner across Australia. In this sense, the body would be similar in purpose to the proposed National Children's Commission for which legislation was passed in 1975 but which was never established.

Before concluding, I endorse Senator Elstob's remarks concerning the degree of co-operation and the level of assistance received by the Committee from all witnesses who gave evidence at the Committee's public hearings, and by others who contributed to the inquiry through written submissions. In particular, I acknowledge with Senator Elstob the contribution made by children to whom we spoke in institutional and other forms of substitute care, their parents or foster parents, and other individuals and representatives.

I also record my appreciation, and that of other members of the Committee, of the assistance and advice received from Ms Monica Darmody whose knowledge and understanding of the problems faced by children in substitute care, her long experience in that field, their carers, as well as those responsible for the administration of substitute care programs, helped clarify many complex issues for the Committee.

Finally, I give my personal thanks and those I am sure of the other Committee members, for the excellent service given us by the Committee Secretary and his very conscientious staff.