skip to content
PARLIAMENT OF NEW SOUTH WALES
ENGAGING WITH PARLIAMENT
The Speaker and other office holders
The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly
The role of the Speaker
Other Office Holders
All Members in the Assembly
Ministers in the Assembly
Shadow Ministry in the Assembly
Parliamentary Secretaries in the Assembly
Party representation in the Assembly
All members in both Houses
Full Ministry in both Houses
Salaries and allowances for Members
List of committees
Engaging with committees
Types of House papers
All by date
Daily business program
Votes and proceedings
Questions and answers
Tabled papers and reports
Statutory rules and instruments
Petitioning the Assembly
Petitions signed by 500+ persons
Sitting day routine of business
NSW Legislative Assembly Practice, Procedure and Privilege
Effective House membership
Further procedural information
Role and history of the Assembly
Role of the Assembly
History of the Assembly
Electing the Assembly
Electing the Assembly
The Clerk and other officers
Strategic and business plans
NSW Legislative Assembly handbook
Seminars and events
Legislative Assembly information sessions
Seminars and education activities
History of the Chamber
Visiting the Chamber
Chamber seating plan
The President and other office holders
The Deputy President
The Assistant President
The Usher of the Black Rod
All members of the Council
Ministers in the Council
Shadow ministers in the Council
Parliamentary secretaries in the Council
Party representation in the Council
Members in both Houses
Ministers in both Houses
Shadow ministers in both Houses
Salaries and allowances for members
List of committees
House Business Papers
All by date
Questions on notice
Statutory rules and instruments
Rules of the House
Standing rules and orders
Orders for papers
Petitioning the Council
NSW Legislative Council Practice
The House in review
Alphabetical list of Acts
NSW Parliamentary Record
Articles on the Council
Role and history of the Council
The role of the Council
The rationale for bicameralism
Electing the Council
The history of the Council
Information sessions for public servants
Chamber seating plan
The history of the Chamber
Strategic and business plans
The Working in the LC Program
Browse Members from both Houses
Full Ministry in both Houses
Shadow Ministry in both Houses
Current session bills
Assented bills 1997+
All bills 1997 +
Legislative process explained
In committees this month
List of committees
Both Houses by date
Legislative Council by date
Legislative Assembly by date
The history of democracy in NSW
System of government in NSW
Electing the Parliament
People in Parliament
Women in Parliament
Heritage and architecture
Contact your member
Make a submission to an inquiry
Petition the Parliament
Civics and citizenship links
Australasian Study of Parliament Group (ASPG)
Visiting and tours
Tertiary education programs
Public and community programs
Teacher professional development programs
A guided tour of Macquarie Street
Events at Parliament House
Both Houses by date
Legislative Council by date
Legislative Assembly by date
Legislative Council by date
10 April 2002
Standing Committee On Social Issues
Print selected text
Full Day Hansard Transcript
« Prior Item
| Item 36 of 51 |
Next Item »
About this Item
Chesterfield-Evans The Hon Dr Arthur
Rhiannon Ms Lee
Tebbutt The Hon Carmel
Cohen The Hon Ian
Forsythe The Hon Patricia
Jones The Hon Richard
Corbett The Hon Alan
Burnswoods The Hon Jan
Sham-Ho The Hon Helen
Tingle The Hon John
Oldfield The Hon David
Nile Reverend The Hon Fred
Fazio The Hon Amanda
STANDING COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL ISSUES
Reference: Department of Community Services Child and Family Services
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS
[3.28 p.m.]: I move:
1. That the Standing Committee on Social Issues inquire into and report on the child and family services of the Department of Community Services, with particular reference to:
(a) the adequacy of systems for dealing with notifications and reports of child abuse and neglect and requests for service,
(b) the availability of appropriate out-of-home care placements for children and families at risk,
(c) the effectiveness of departmental restructures carried out between 1988 and 2000 in attempting to improve client service delivery,
(d) the adequacy of resources and allocations by Treasury to provide child and family services,
(e) the staffing of the department’s child and family services, including:
(i) the impact on staff morale of recent departmental restructures,
(ii) the level of, and reasons for, staff turnover in client service positions,
(f) the implementation of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, and related legislation, including the level of consultation undertaken in developing and implementing the Act, and
(g) the role of research and consultation in developing legislation relating to child and family intervention.
2. That the Committee report in relation to paragraph 1(f) by the first sitting day in June 2002 and in relation to all other matters by the first sitting day in October 2002.
I moved a similar motion on 23 June 2000, at which time a small number of members had the opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter. The motion was not fully debated and a vote was not taken on it. In the intervening period the Government has had the opportunity to examine the matters outlined in the motion, but nothing has been done. In the 21 months since I moved a similar motion nothing appears to have changed either inside the Department of Community Services or outside in the real world in relation to this matter. Essentially there needs to be a proper bipartisan inquiry into the effectiveness of the Department of Community Services in the discharge of its duty of care to the children of this State. After eight attempts at restructuring in the past decade, after two Ministers and three directors-general in the past four years, it is time to assess honestly and thoroughly where and why things have gone wrong so consistently and so often.
Why are the children in the care of the State up to 40 times more likely than other children to end up in a Juvenile Justice facility, and later adult gaols? Why do so few complete their secondary education? Why do so many experience abuse in multiple foster placements or, even worse, placement at a young and vulnerable age in a refuge? Why can they not access publicly funded tertiary child psychiatry or counselling facilities to help deal with their emotional pain, including the trauma of coming into care? The Government will no doubt argue that there is no need for a committee to look into these matters. It would argue that the Community Services Commissioner effectively oversees the operation of DOCS. But honourable members would recall the difficulties we had in getting the commissioner that power. In an article in the
Sydney Morning Herald
of 15 July 2000 I noted:
In March, the Child Death Review Committee cited the cases of four-month-old Dillon, who died in the back seat of his mother's car, and Jordan, who was also aged four months, and died in similar circumstances.
Like many other deceased children identified in the report, both had been the subject of repeated notifications to a department unable to respond effectively.
The television program
last Sunday, 7 April, carried a similar story of two children who had been reported to the department as being at risk but who were now dead. That is unsatisfactory. No-one disputes that DOCS deals with difficult situations. But general demoralisation and difficulty need to be brought out into the open and addressed. It is not a matter of blaming public servants. I do not think it is even a matter of blaming the Government. It is a matter of identifying the problems, resources and procedures in an open way, adopting a whole-of-government approach to review what is done by DOCS, the Police Service, the Department of Education and Training and the Department of Health, and examining how those departments and the non-government sector interact. We must remove the mystery and make practical suggestions about how to fix the problems that are identified.
This House spends endless time debating penalty increases that will supposedly send a message. Who are we sending that message to? Presumably, it is to the people who are thinking about committing crimes. Supposedly, as they are about to throw a punch or shoot a gun, they think, "Gosh, I will go to gaol for longer now if I do this!" Of course, there are plenty of studies to show that that is not the thinking of people who are contemplating committing a crime, and that an increased penalty makes no difference. The cost of gaoling such people would be better directed to kindergartens, better child support services and so on. To the credit of the Minister for Education and Training, the Standing Committee on Social Issues has an inquiry into the possibility of early intervention where children have problems.
Obviously, the position that I have taken in this House, as I have stated on numerous occasions, is that the money being put into prisons should be directed to setting blueprints for children's lives and looking at research that says the younger the child the more basic to its nature are the impressions and influences on it. Thus, good child care, good parental role models and support at a young age will help to address those issues. But, while our gaols are expanding, community services are not. That is perhaps the essence of the problem. I do not claim to be an expert, but interlocking and holistic factors need to be analysed carefully, openly and publicly.
The arguments against having such an inquiry are the same arguments used by another New South Wales government—and rejected by the current Government when it was in Opposition—when it proposed the establishment of the Wood royal commission into the New South Wales Police Service. For the good of the children of New South Wales, those arguments must fail. A report of the child death review team late last year once again illustrated the inadequacies in DOCS. The review team found that of the 21 children who met violent deaths, 13 had been reported to DOCS as "at risk of harm".
The Commissioner for Children and Young People, Gillian Calvert, was reported as saying that case reviews had found there were inadequate risk assessments by DOCS once the child was reported to that department. She went on to say, "DOCS needs to look at what it is doing and make some changes to the way it is doing its business." That is the point of my motion. It is not a witch-hunt against the Minister or the Director-General of Department of Community Services. It is a review of the way DOCS does its business. I recognise that it is a difficult business but it is a very important business. If just one of those kids at risk can have a chance at life or a chance at a better life, then the inquiry will have been worthwhile. It is important that we go ahead with this inquiry and look into these matters openly and holistically.
I tried to have this motion taken up by the Standing Committee on Social Issues. Perhaps in my remaining idealism, I had a vision of this House agreeing with one voice that the matter would be referred to a Government-dominated committee that would say, "Yes, we acknowledge there is a problem; it is difficult, there have been many changes to the department; it is difficult to change a culture; each managerial reorganisation makes it more difficult; some of those reorganisations and changes happened before we were in government, or they were management changes of the previous government." In other words, it would admit that everyone was a bit at fault and would think to the future, rather than to point-scoring or to the past. But, despite the passage of 21 months since such a reference was suggested, the Government has not moved on the matter.
I informed the Government on Monday, just two days ago, that I wanted to bring on this motion in the hope that the Government would support it, because I believed this time I would have the numbers. But the Government could not make a decision to support my motion. I am very disappointed about that. I believe the Hon. Jan Burnswoods, from my dealings with her, has looked at issues fairly and ensured that report conclusions have reflected the evidence presented to committee hearings that she has chaired. It is worrying that the Government has not seen fit to accept this reference motion, even when faced with the reality of the numbers in this Chamber, and adopt a bipartisan approach. That the Government has been unwilling to do so is very discouraging.
The Opposition is keen to move an amendment to propose a select committee constituted by two Government, two Opposition and two crossbench members. As long as the inquiry is conducted fairly and properly, I do not have a very strong opinion as to which committee should conduct the inquiry. Fortunately, there is sufficient depth in the staff support for committees of this House that the selected committee does not make as much difference as one might at first believe. I believe either committee would be able to undertake this investigation properly. It is unfortunate that the delay in bringing on this matter has meant that it is being debated now within one year of an election. It gives me no pleasure to say that if the inquiry had been held when first suggested, in the middle of 2000, it would have been held at a less electorally-sensitive time and, hopefully, in the interim fewer children would have suffered from or been killed due to inadequacies in the system of managing them.
We have to be honest in our approach to problems in our society. Openness may not solve all the problems that we have, but it will solve a large number of them because intelligent co-operation becomes possible. This is one area in which such co-operation is possible. Although DOCS has a great number of problems because of the nature of the matters that it deals with, at the same time the subject that it deals with means it has a great deal of public sympathy. Everybody wants the children of our country to be brought up as happily as possible. Everyone wants them to have a good life. Nobody wants them to be criminals. Nobody wants them to fail at school.
If people are not good parents, others would like to help and contribute, and a framework is needed to enable that to happen. The idea that the community in general wants to beat up the Department of Community Services [DOCS] because of some generalised hatred of politicians, government and public servants is very cynical. Genuine goodwill exists, and discussion of problems—which may take the form of drug abuse by parents or a foster parent's need for anger management techniques as a result of bad upbringing experiences—may prevent the sins of the father being carried on to the children. The cyclical nature of these problems needs to be broken, and an open discussion of the problems is important.
I seek support for the motion, with or without amendments. I have discussed with members of the Opposition the nature of the amendments they are considering. Because the amendments retain the substance of the original motion, I believe they are in line with the adoption of a bipartisan approach. Unfortunately, I am not sure whether the Government supports a consensus approach. But whether the amendments are accepted or not, it is very important for this motion to be passed by this House, for the inquiry to be held, and for the children of New South Wales to get a better deal in the future than they are getting currently. I refer in particular to children who experience severe difficulties and who come to the attention of the Department of Community Services and other agencies that also deal with the management of children's problems.
Ms LEE RHIANNON
[3.41 p.m.]: The Greens are very pleased to support the motion moved by Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans and congratulate him on his initiative. The motion concerns a matter that increasingly is a worry to more and more citizens of New South Wales. During his speech Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans placed great emphasis on the need for a bipartisan approach to the issue—or perhaps a tripartisan approach would more correctly reflect the composition of this House. I hope that the Government will see its way clear and adopt a bipartisan approach. The proposal for an inquiry is not based on a desire for a witch-hunt or a desire to attribute blame to Department of Community Services [DOCS] workers or management personnel in any way; rather it is aimed at ensuring that the children who come under the care of DOCS from time to time or for long periods are provided with the very best facilities and services. I believe that the Government is committed to the provision of a high standard of support for children, but often the constraints of politics result in the adoption of an adversarial approach. I suggest that that occurs much too often.
I strongly suggest to the Government that this is a time for adopting a bipartisan approach so that members of all parties can come together to negotiate the establishment of very clear terms of reference and proceed with the inquiry. There is nothing to fear from holding an inquiry. Throughout life, we all review our actions as individuals, and organisations often examine their practices with a view to improving their modes of operation. The same is true for government departments. The time comes when a substantial review is required, and that is all that is being asked for by the motion. We need a review whereby DOCS can be thoroughly examined to ensure that it is working in a way that delivers the best facilities and services to children who come under its care. The figures are extremely alarming on what happens to children who are being cared for by DOCS. I recognise that many DOCS workers are stretched to a point at which they can no longer deliver what is needed to respond adequately to the many cases that come before them. Many individual DOCS workers have told the Greens that they concede that something has to change.
If the Parliament is given the opportunity of working with the department and if a positive attitude is adopted by the Government, a great deal can be achieved. Young people in the care of DOCS need their situation addressed, especially when it is acknowledged that children under DOCS care at some time in their lives are 40 times more likely than other children to end up in juvenile justice centres and adult prisons. Those figures must ring alarm bells in the minds of honourable members and signal that we have a responsibility to examine the matter, to find out why that trend has emerged and what needs to change to reverse it. Clearly something needs to change, and as members of this Parliament we have a clear responsibility to find a way forward. The establishment of a review creates a way forward for dealing with this problem. I continue the theme alluded to a number of times by Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, namely, the need for the adoption of a bipartisan approach. Honourable members have a chance by voting in favour of this motion to do some good and address these problems.
The Government is repositioning itself with a view to the election being held in the near future. That is understandable. And I understand the Government's fear of an inquiry at a time when we are well into the election part of the parliamentary cycle. However, the Government should bear in mind that the public is becoming fed up with politicians and their battles. This motion gives honourable members an opportunity to make it clear to the public that on certain issues politicians adopt a consensus approach and are willing to work with anybody who demonstrates the same commitment. It would be so easy for the Government to do so, thereby winning itself some brownie points instead of fearing that, if the motion is passed, the inquiry will be held too close to the election and will be misused by the Coalition. If establishment of the inquiry becomes an adversarial issue, perhaps it will be misused by the Coalition and the Government may be subjected to criticism as a result; but currently members of this House stand on the cusp of making progress with the problems sought to be addressed by the motion. It has not happened on many occasions in this place that honourable members have had the chance of pulling together.
On behalf of the Greens, I very much welcome the opportunity presented by this motion to support an attempt to resolve these problems. It would be very exciting if the motion is passed with the unanimous support of this House. In conclusion I emphasise that the underlying purpose of the motion is not in any way to conduct a witch-hunt of DOCS workers or management personnel. I recognise that DOCS workers are often placed in impossible positions. The Greens believe that as much as the inquiry will deal with the children who are under DOCS care, it will deal also with the conditions under which DOCS workers operate. I will be pleased to vote in support of the motion.
The Hon. CARMEL TEBBUTT
(Minister for Juvenile Justice, Minister Assisting the Premier on Youth, and Minister Assisting the Minister for the Environment) [3.47 p.m.]: The Government is concerned about this proposal for an inquiry into the Department of Community Services [DOCS]. As a result of a number of discussions I have had with the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans about his concerns I know that his motives in moving this motion are well-intentioned, but the Government remains concerned that in one of the most difficult areas of public policy an inquiry such as the one proposed in the motion will divert significant resources away from child protection work. DOCS already has more than 19 watchdog agencies overseeing its work; it is one of the most scrutinised areas of government.
Casework decisions must be reviewed and endorsed by the courts, and deaths are reviewed by the police, the Coroner and the child death review team. A lot of discussion and certainly some misinformation has been presented about DOCS workload and DOCS capacity to deal with child protection reports. The Government takes this opportunity to put some of the facts on the record. DOCS received 107,000 calls last year. Each and every one of these was assessed, but not all were child protection reports nor required further investigation. DOCS further investigated 55,000 alleged cases of child abuse and these investigations resulted in 10,000 confirmed cases of child abuse.
It is true that awareness of child abuse in the community has never been higher, and of course that is a good thing. Child protection reports are coming into the Department of Community Services [DOCS] in unprecedented numbers, with a 47 per cent increase last year. The Government has gone to enormous lengths to raise awareness in the community about child abuse and to ensure that it is reported. The Department of Community Services is investigating and confirming more cases of abuse than ever before. That is confirmed by reports from the Productivity Commission, the Council on the Cost and Quality of Government, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The one in 10 figure that has been touted by the Opposition on numerous occasions is complete nonsense. It has no basis in fact. It is disputed by the figures that I have already quoted and it is disputed by the figures in the annual report. Child protection services are being carefully monitored with the introduction of major reforms and a significant increase in reports. It should be acknowledged that the Government has provided significant additional resources for child protection services. That contrasts with the Coalition's record in government, when it abolished 1,000 front line jobs and closed 23 offices—statistics that honourable members should keep in mind. Where is the Opposition's motivation coming from on this issue, given its record when it was in government?
This Government increased the child protection budget to a record $121 million per year—more than two and a half times what it was when this Government came into office. We increased the child protection budget from $49 million annually in 1994 to $121 million this year. As I said earlier, that is more than two and a half times what it was when this Government came into office. We have provided an additional 190 case workers for the Department of Community Services in the past year alone. Not all calls to DOCS are child protection reports; not all reports require further investigation; and not all investigations confirm that abuse or neglect has taken place.
Many people know that DOCS cannot remove children from their parents on the basis of a phone call. The community would be highly outraged if it tried to do that. DOCS has to have enough evidence of abuse to satisfy a court that intervention is warranted. Although those reporting suspected abuse are usually well-intentioned and genuine in their concern for a child's welfare, the fact is that it may not be possible to justify the removal of a child on the evidence available after an investigation. That is not an indication of a failure on the part of DOCS. Quite the reverse, it shows that the system is working. It is a vital safeguard that our legal system requires clear evidence to justify State intrusion into the private lives of families in New South Wales. That is one of the checks and balances that ensures that DOCS does not overstep the mark and become overzealous in responding to child protection allegations.
Guided by the law and the courts and professional risk assessment tools, DOCS caseworkers make judgments on a daily basis about whether it is necessary and justifiable to remove a child. People realise that every DOCS caseworker wrestles with the difficult responsibility of whether a child should be removed from his or her family. It is an inherently difficult job. We do not often hear about the success stories—the dozens of children who are saved every day by DOCS workers; or the 8,000 children who sleep safely each night because DOCS has removed them from abusive parents—and nor do we hear the other side of the story when DOCS is criticised.
In one of the cases featured on
this week it was not reported that DOCS officers had been unable to substantiate abuse or neglect of the child and had in fact made more than 10 home visits and 17 phone calls to try to locate the family. Instead, it simply reported that DOCS failed to protect that child. As I have already indicated, the commencement of an inquiry will divert significant resources away from child protection casework at a critical time with escalating numbers of child protection reports coming in and new legislation and new systems being introduced. The impact and likely value of an inquiry at this point will need to be carefully weighed by members, especially considering the many avenues for scrutinising DOCS that are already in place.
The Government is committed to open and accountable services and DOCS is no exception. It is already one of the most closely scrutinised areas of government. The Government believes that there are multiple avenues for monitoring and reviewing the performance of the Department of Community Services. If honourable members are serious about achieving a real outcome and they want to support an inquiry—if their claims for bipartisanship are genuine—they will support a reference of this matter to the Standing Committee on Social Issues, the best committee to undertake such an inquiry.
If such an inquiry is to occur, it should be undertaken by the Standing Committee on Social Issues, which has the expertise, the experience and the history of dealing with issues in this area. On numerous occasions that committee has produced reports on related issues. The Government has closely considered those reports and taken on board the committee's recommendations. If there is to be some debate—and I understand there may well be—about where such an inquiry should be conducted, if one is to occur, it is the Government's view that the Standing Committee on Social Issues is the best committee to undertake that task.
The Hon. IAN COHEN
[3.56 p.m.]: The Greens support the motion by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans and we congratulate him on his work in this area. The Department of Community Services [DOCS] is faced with a crisis. It has been faced with a crisis for a long time. I listened with interest to the contribution of the Minister. She said that many vulnerable children in our community are protected by the Department of Community Services—a statement that I believe is worth acknowledging. However, this motion is not an outright attack on the Department of Community Services, but it acknowledges that the department is in crisis and has been in crisis for a long time.
Children have died unnecessarily and there is a severe shortage of resources and front line workers to deal with the huge increase in child abuse notifications stemming from the establishment in 2000 of the DOCS phone helpline. Every year the Child Death Review Team publishes a report on child deaths in New South Wales. Every year risk assessment by DOCS is identified as a problematic area. The last Child Death Review Team report, which was published in November last year, contains some shocking information.
For example, Ainsley, a four-year-old child—the only child in a family—died from multiple injuries inflicted by her widowed mother's de facto husband, who had a criminal history and suffered from mental illness. Ainsley's extended family reported its concerns about her safety and wellbeing to DOCS on five occasions before her death. Department of Community Services officers failed to investigate the reports or visit her home.
Molly, a seven-year-old, had been exposed to multiple abuse and spent time in foster care to escape family violence. The Department of Community Services had seven volumes of files on repeated domestic violence in her family, as well as reports of parental drug and alcohol abuse and sexual assault. Her father had a history of violence and criminal activity and had been charged with sexual assault of a teenage girl. Molly was meant to be in supervised care, yet she was found battered and dead. Conner, the 10-month-old son of heavily drug-dependent parents, was on the high-risk files of DOCS, the police, the parole service and the local hospital. His father, who was on bail for serious criminal offences, had a history of violent behaviour, grievous bodily harm and breaches of apprehended violence orders. Conner's bruised body was found in the lounge room where the couple was staying. All these deaths could have been prevented by proper investigation, risk assessment and appropriate steps to protect the child. Gillian Calvert, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, said at the time the report was released to the
Thirteen of the 21 children who died of abuse or neglect had been reported as "at risk of harm" to DOCS. As in previous reports, the case reviews found there were inadequate risk assessments by DOCS once a child was reported to them. DOCS needs to look at what it's doing and make some changes to the way it is doing business.
What went so terribly wrong in these cases and in similar cases? Lack of resources, inadequate procedures, or a range of other things? An independent inquiry could get to the bottom of that kind of thing. An inquiry could make recommendations for change, as suggested by Gillian Calvert. An inquiry could make recommendations that could help save children's lives and prevent others from being exposed to unnecessary and devastating violence. If the inquiry were to save one life or even prevent one injury, that would be a good thing and, for that reason, it should be supported.
Another issue that keeps raising its head and should be addressed by this Government, but seemingly never is addressed, is staff shortages. In late March this year the Public Service Association again focused on that issue. It claimed that less than one in 10 child abuse cases were investigated as Department of Community Services workers struggled to meet a 100 per cent increase in child abuse reports. This was backed up in the
report that was aired last Sunday.
The union estimates that 700 new caseworkers are needed to restore service levels to those existing prior to the establishment of the DOCS helpline. The Government should take child abuse more seriously than it does. If it were truly serious about the issue, it would immediately employ a significant number of new caseworkers to deal with the massive increase in child abuse notifications. I commend the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans for moving the motion. The Greens hope the inquiry will lead the way forward to deal with the current crisis in DOCS and that it will save the lives of young people and create a better quality of life for vulnerable young people. Hopefully, the inquiry will address the appalling lack of adequate DOCS staffing, and that will have a flow-on effect in many other areas.
The Hon. PATRICIA FORSYTHE
[4.01 p.m.]: As has been indicated by a number of members, the Opposition intends to move a detailed amendment to this motion to allow for the establishment of a select committee to inquire into and report on the Department of Community Services. I wish to address some of the points raised by members in the debate. Firstly, I acknowledge the work of the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans in moving the motion. I also acknowledge his contribution to the debate, as well as the contributions of other members. This House is about wanting to move forward, and wanting to be positive and proactive in the support of the Department of Community Services.
Ms Lee Rhiannon spoke about not wanting to see a blame game and not wanting to see the department simply attacked. I am sure the Government would agree with that. We want to find a way forward. When the Minister said that since coming to office the Government had increased the department's budget by 2½ times, she stated the very reason why we need to establish this inquiry. Treasury officials would be the first to say that the Department of Community Services must not be allowed to be a black hole. Treasury would say that it is a black hole, that no matter how much money is given to it, more is always sought. I believe that we as a Parliament have an obligation to undertake a review of the department, its work and its systems, to see whether we can find a more effective and efficient way of using its resources. Governments cannot go on simply increasing the resources of the department without being able to assure themselves that the funding is being spent appropriately and efficiently.
I was surprised to hear the Minister say that this would mean diverting resources at a critical time. What critical time? Why is this a more critical time than any other time? When will it not be a critical time? Perhaps the Minister meant that it was critical not to do it in the year before an election. To properly assess the work and role of the department, I believe it is appropriate that this inquiry be established. It is a question not of diverting resources but of supporting the Parliament in its endeavours to better understand the adequacy of the Department of Community Services' systems and support network, the appropriateness of home care placements, and the adequacy of the resources available to deal with the many reports that come to the department.
One need only look at the annual reports of the department to understand that in 2000-01 child abuse reports to the department increased to 107,000, compared with 33,000 in 1995-96. The Minister gave an explanation about this, saying they were not all abuse cases, that ultimately there were only 10,000 confirmed cases. But the fact is that many cases were initially defined as child abuse reports. If the Minister is correct in saying they were not all child abuse cases, the impact of the 1998 legislation, which increased the number of bodies that had to make mandatory reports, should be the subject of review. The impact on schools and teachers of the guidelines and what needs to be reported to the department, the Children's Commission and others as a consequence of the definitions of child abuse should also be part of such a review. It requires a specialised select committee to look at the vast number of issues.
The Minister said that the figures that are being used are not correct. Our sources include officers of the department, including front-line officers, officers of the union that supports these workers, and officers of DOCS. The Government may say the figures are wrong, but the reality is that people are providing us with that information. Indeed, three weeks ago at an alternate dispute resolution conference conducted by the department, it was said that 39 out of 40 cases are not being investigated. The figure was later denied, but subsequently, in an email addressed to staff some days after the initial denial, the figure was confirmed. If we are debating complex issues and definitions of which case fits into which category, how many cases there are, and how many are going unreported, is it not appropriate that we have this select committee? Governments cannot afford to continue to provide resources without properly testing the validity of many of the underlying assumptions that are made.
Whether today or yesterday in the other place, the Government refereed in its defence to actions of a government 14 years ago, in 1988. After seven years, if the best the Carr Government can do in its own defence is to rely on actions taken 14 years ago, it is damned by its own words. If after seven years the Government believes the department was underresourced, it should have taken the appropriate action. If the Government says that a 250 per cent increase in the budget amounts to action, why are we not seeing a 250 per cent improvement? Why are we seeing so many more cases reported than at any time in the past?
Why do we have the sort of figures that Ms Lee Rhiannon quoted about the future for young children who are in substitute care? Why is their future so problematic? Why are these additional resources not providing them with the adequate security and support that would enable them to prosper and flourish in the way we would wish for all our young people? Why are so many of those young people becoming statistics in the juvenile justice system? Why are so many of them homeless? Why are so many of them dropping out of school? Why are the levels of care being provided and the support systems simply not appropriate?
These are enormous questions. I agree with the Minister that they are among the most complex issues of public policy. The best thing we can do is not to go down the blame path but to recognise that everyone in this Chamber, and I suspect right across Parliament, wants a better outcome for young people at risk in their families and in their communities, and for young people who have been removed from their communities and families. That is the big responsibility that the Department of Community Services [DOCS] accepts in its role of child protection. On any criteria one has to say it does not get it right. Last weekend the Director-General of the Department of Community Services effectively shifted blame from her department to the families who report on children at risk. That was one of the greatest derelictions of duty I have ever seen from a senior government official in this State. She does not deserve the title of director-general of the department.
She was effectively calling on people to kidnap children. Until she used those words I had been watching that
report and thinking to myself that we have to find a better way to manage our young children at risk, that as a community we have to reassess our priorities, and that involves more than the department. Last year 21 children who died in New South Wales had been known to a government agency to be at risk. Year after year there has been that sort of figure, and it cannot continue. A select committee of Parliament is the appropriate way to deal with the issue. I agree with my colleagues that we do not want this to be just a blame game. This is in the interests of not only this Government but also the next Government. Therefore I look to this inquiry as being positive and beneficial to the future of governments and their policies. I urge the House to adopt the motion as amended as proposed by the Opposition. I move:
That the question be amended by omitting all words after "That" and inserting instead:
"a select committee be appointed to inquire into and report on the following aspects of the Department of Community Services:
(a) the adequacy of systems to receive, investigate and assess reports of children and young people at risk of harm,
(b) the ability of systems to receive and respond to requests for assistance concerning children, young people and families,
(c) the availability of appropriate out of home care placements for children and young people,
(d) outcomes for children and young people in out of home care,
In respect to matters (a)-(d) above, the Committee is to examine:
(i) the training and morale of DOCS employees
(ii) the adequacy of resources allocated for child and family services
(iii) the role of research and consultation.
2. That the Committee table an interim report by 26 September 2002 and a final report by 5 December 2002.
3. That the Committee consist of the following members:
(a) two Government members nominated in writing to the Clerk of the House by the Leader of the Government,
(b) two Opposition members nominated in writing to the Clerk of the House by the Leader of the Opposition,
(c) two crossbench members nominated in writing to the Clerk of the House by the crossbench.
4. That the Committee have leave to sit during any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, to make visits of inspection within New South Wales, and other States and Territories of Australia with the approval of the President, and have power to take evidence and to send for persons, papers, records and things, and to report from time to time.
5. That the Chair, Deputy Chair or other member acting as Chair at a meeting of a Committee has a deliberative vote and, in the event of an equality of votes, a casting vote.
6. That should the House stand adjourned and the Committee agree to any report before the House resumes sitting:
(a) the Committee have leave to send any such report, minutes of proceedings and evidence taken before it to the Clerk of the House,
(b) the document be printed and published and the Clerk forthwith take such action as is necessary to give effect to the order of the House,
(c) the document be laid on the Table of the House at its next sitting.
7. That on receipt of a request from the Committee for funding, the Government immediately provide the Legislative Council with such additional funds that the Committee considers necessary for the conduct of its inquiry.
8. The above provisions have effect notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the standing orders.
This amendment is a reasonable one that will help the Department of Community Services. It provides for the committee to examine all aspects of the assessment of children at risk of harm, the ability of the system to respond to requests for assistance and the availability and appropriateness of home care places for children and young people. It will address issues to do with the training and morale of DOCS employees and the adequacy of resources. This amendment has been moved, as crossbench members have said today, to find solutions to what has become an almost intolerable problem in our community. Each year we are getting in excess of 100,000 notifications. Notwithstanding the work of the department, notwithstanding the resources that have been provided by governments, too many young children slip through the net and, sadly, too many of them die.
The Minister said that this department, more than any other, is reviewed and overseen by other agencies. She cited the Child Death Review Team as one example. For all of the reviews, we still do not have it right. Perhaps we have not brought together the evidence from all the groups and tried to develop a comprehensive plan for the future of young children at risk of harm in the State. That is what this is about: addressing the long-term, systemic problems that seem to place at risk the work of the Department of Community Services. Staff morale seems to be low all the time. In the years that I have been dealing with this department I do not believe that anyone has said that staff morale is good. It is always low. There are always departmental officers willing to share with oppositions information about problems. Senior management and front-line staff often seem to be in conflict, and that is not in anybody's interest. We have to find a way to lift the morale of the staff and give them better support.
This is not about blame shifting, unlike what I thought the director-general did the other night when she tried to put the blame on the families who reported concerns about two children who had died. Many families do not have such a capacity to do more and I think it was an enormous injustice to the families of those two young children, when they had made allegations and sought support from the professionals in the field. I have been conscious of the sort of comments that have come from both the past and present Community Services Commissioner. I conclude with some words from the present commissioner, Robert Fitzgerald, who criticised the Government's failure to proclaim sections of the 1998 Act by saying:
The failure to proclaim these sections significantly disadvantages children with disabilities in residential care and other children in voluntary care placements. It also significantly hampers the work of the Children's Guardian.
The Community Services Commission also has serious concerns about the capacity of the current system to adequately deal with the alarming rise in care and protection orders.
So does this House. We have to find a way for the department and the community to deal with the alarming rise in care and protection orders. We must get the system right. Too many young people are dying and too many young children at risk are not being supported adequately. It is not about this government department of itself; it is about many complex issues. However, at the heart of the matter is that the Department of Community Services must take responsibility because it has been charged with the responsibility and it has a duty of care. It has a responsibility to protect and support young children at risk of harm and young children in substitute care. The department has enormous responsibilities, and we must ensure that it is able to carry out those responsibilities more effectively and efficiently than it has hitherto. I strongly urge honourable members to support the motion as amended by the Opposition.
The Hon. RICHARD JONES
[4.20 p.m.]: I support the motion calling for an inquiry into the Department of Community Services [DOCS]. Major concerns relating to the adequacy with which the department deals with notifications and reports of abuse and neglect have been raised by honourable members in this place and in the other place and by people in the wider community for some time. We can no longer ignore their calls for action. The problems experienced by DOCS that have been publicised recently are unacceptable. It is obvious that there are grave and systemic errors of practice occurring. Despite recommendations directing the department to change, it seems that little has happened.
In 1982 Professor Laurence made numerous recommendations regarding the death of a young child, Paul Montcalm. Among those recommendations were the proper training of staff, offering staff a career structure to progress through and making staff feel valued by giving them more input into decision making—recommendations that we read in report after report. Sadly, these recommendations go back a long way. Laurence also made a recommendation about keeping better records. He said that the system in 1982 was absolutely ad hoc and led to unnecessary deaths. Yet children continue to die at alarming rates. Some 729 children died in New South Wales from 1 July 2000 to 30 June 2001; 78 of those children had been reported to DOCS as being at risk, or had siblings who had earlier been reported to DOCS.
Nigel Spence of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies said that if troubled families were better supported, fewer at-risk children would die. Gillian Calvert from the Child Death Review Team said that there was inadequate risk assessment by DOCS once a child was reported to it. The review team's report also found that police and health officials fail to recognise the impact of parents' behaviour on children. Obviously, DOCS should be protecting children. It is quite clear that the department is not protecting children; in fact, the department is in crisis. Reports detail that inadequate child abuse investigative procedures and systemic failure across government departments have contributed to children's deaths.
On 3 April Helen Syme, the Senior Deputy Chief Magistrate, criticised the State's child sexual assault investigatory procedures, claiming that "proper training appears to be the exception rather than the rule" among specialist child abuse investigation teams. In addition, figures revealed to 73 child and family caseworkers attending a DOCS conference in Sydney indicated that 39 out of 40 child abuse reports are never investigated. Last year in New South Wales 21 children died after being reported. They should have received the assistance and attention of DOCS or other agencies. It was clear that they were at risk. One-third of those children were known by DOCS or another human service agency to be at risk. In the past year there has been a 45 per cent increase in child abuse reports, to 107,000. It is quite clear that the Government has failed to intervene and prevent child abuse.
The simple fact of the matter is that up to 90 per cent of all child abuse reports never get investigated because of a lack of resources. Only 30 per cent of cases needing immediate investigation are responded to. Cases for which a response is needed in 48 to 72 hours may be attended to if time permits, and cases for which a response is required in between three and 10 days are not followed up at all. Some 16 per cent of calls to the DOCS helpline are never answered. This means that another potential 30,000 child abuse and neglect reports do not get action. In 1995-96 there were 33,000 child abuse reports, there were 107,000 last year, and there may be up to 130,000 this year. In relation to the 21 children who died last year, many of their parents abused drugs and alcohol, had been involved in domestic violence and crime or had mental health problems. The children were aged between one month and seven years.
The Association of Children's Welfare Agencies [ACWA] and the Council of Social Service of New South Wales [NCOSS] support an inquiry. They have advocated that the Government refer the issues of concern to the Community Services Commission [CSC]. Quite frankly, the Community Services Commission is not in a position to do this, and it knows that. The CSC has told my office that the Government has not referred anything to it in more than a year, and that the Government has also failed to fix the jurisdictional problem allowing it to oversee DOCS. There is a jurisdictional question mark hanging over its head which the Government has not been prepared to rectify. It says that the inquiry should focus on children and young people at risk, requests for assistance and the capacity of DOCS and other agencies to respond effectively.
ACWA and NCOSS say that the inquiry should investigate the capacity of DOCS to receive, investigate and assess reports of children and young people at risk of harm; the factors contributing to the increased numbers of reports and requests for assistance; the capacity of DOCS to receive and respond to requests for assistance concerning children, young people and families; and the extent of the follow-through and the effectiveness of the response made by DOCS, other relevant government departments and community agencies to reports of children and young people at risk of harm and requests for assistance. The terms of reference I have seen outlined by both the Hon. Patricia Forsythe and the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans effectively address these criteria. I support the motion.
The Hon. ALAN CORBETT
[4.25 p.m.]: I support an inquiry into the Department of Community Services. I support the move to try to provide solutions to some very ingrained problems. I have spoken to the Children's Commissioner, Gillian Calvert. Surely she would be one of the first people consulted on this issue. Gillian has recommended that the inquiry should be undertaken by the Standing Committee on Social Issues for a number of reasons. First, she mentioned the expertise of the members of the committee. I have investigated the sorts of inquiries undertaken by the social issues committee. The committee has conducted one inquiry into juvenile justice, children's advocacy, parent education and early intervention for children with learning difficulties, and a number of inquiries into adoption.
Currently, the committee is undertaking an inquiry into disability services. Members of the committee have a long history and a depth of experience which may not be seen in members appointed to a select committee. Secondly, Gillian made the point that the social issues committee has high status in the community and therefore the report may carry more weight. It is important that a bipartisan approach to this matter is adopted. The Government has made it clear that it will co-operate with and be involved in a bipartisan way if the inquiry proceeds. We also have an established committee structure. I simply wanted to put on the record that members of the social issues committee have a lot of good experience.
The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS
[4.28 p.m.]: The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans has moved a motion to ask the Standing Committee on Social Issues to inquire into and report on child and family services of the Department of Community Services. The honourable member feels very strongly about this issue and has worked on it for a considerable period. I will move an amendment to the Opposition's amendment because the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans has assured me that the Opposition's amendment would improve the wording of the terms of reference of the inquiry he has in mind. However, my difficulty is that the Opposition's amendment seeks to have the inquiry conducted by a select committee, rather than the Standing Committee on Social Issues, as proposed by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.
For a number of reasons that I will explain, I believe that any inquiry into the Department of Community Services should be undertaken by the Standing Committee on Social Issues, as originally proposed by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans. The honourable member is a member of the social issues committee, which I have the honour of chairing. I move:
That the amendment of the Hon. Patricia Forsythe be amended as follows:
No. 1 Paragraph 1. Omit "a Select Committee", insert instead "the Standing Committee on Social Issues".
No. 2 Paragraphs 3 to 8. Omit the paragraphs.
I believe that the Standing Committee on Social Issues is the appropriate committee to conduct the inquiry. I note that the Hon. Alan Corbett, who spoke briefly, pointed out why he believes the social issues committee is the relevant committee to conduct the inquiry. The Hon. Alan Corbett mentioned a number of inquiries in relation to children conducted by the committee which produced excellent and unanimous reports, an important point that needs to be made. I also serve with the Hon. Alan Corbett on the joint parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People.
Together with the Hon. Peter Primrose we have spoken at some length with Gillian Calvert, Commissioner for Children and Young People, about her role in relation to these issues. I know that Gillian Calvert on a previous occasion expressed her belief that the social issues committee is the appropriate committee to deal with issues of this kind. The members of that committee have taken note of a number of points made by Gillian Calvert as children's commissioner about this very vexed and difficult issue of deaths of children. Gillian chairs the Child Death Review Team and has tried on a number of occasions to correct the frequent misunderstandings that exist about the truly terrible statistics on the death of children. Several times in this debate so far Opposition speakers and the Hon. Richard Jones, and on previous occasions particularly members of the Opposition, have pointed out deaths of children known to the Department of Community Services [DOCS].
Today we have been told about the 21 child deaths for which the Opposition claim DOCS is responsible. Gillian Calvert has made the point many times, and I will repeat it specifically in relation to these 21 children, that the House is being seriously misled. Of course DOCS deals with the overwhelming majority of young children who die because it is the department that deals with high-risk families. These families in almost every case have had contact not only with DOCS but with the health department and other health bodies, the police and welfare agencies, non-government as well as government. To argue, as some honourable members who have spoken to this motion have tried to do, that DOCS is somehow solely responsible for these deaths because it has known about the cases is seriously misleading. DOCS has a huge workload, about which I will say more later, but it cannot solely be blamed. The report states:
The most that can be concluded is that the Department of Community Services by the very nature of its work and its statutory responsibilities has contact with the most vulnerable socially and economically disadvantaged families in New South Wales. These families have a higher incidence of violence, alcohol and drug use and disruption than families in less disadvantaged circumstances.
A major point of discussion has been which committee will deal with the matter. It has been suggested that almost any existing committee might do so or that a select committee of one kind or another should be established. I notice that the media release issued today by the Association of Child Welfare Agencies [ACWA] and the Council of Social Service of New South Wales [NCOSS] in fact does not support the motion moved by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans. Of all the non-government agencies with which our committee deals they are most informed about the issues in relation to looking after vulnerable children, and specifically children's deaths, and they should be listened to. The last clause of today's media release states, "We do not support a parliamentary inquiry at this stage." I make it clear that what ACWA and NCOSS are supporting is an inquiry but, in their case, they want it conducted by the Community Services Commission.
I stress that they do not want the inquiry conducted by a parliamentary committee because of the amendment moved by the Opposition that it be conducted by a select committee rather than the Standing Committee on Social Issues. ACWA and NCOSS argue that it is incredibly important that the inquiry should not: be an inquiry into DOCS in general; be an inquiry into the helpline alone; have a major focus on out-of-home care; be used to delay reforms to the out-of-home care system; and have the intentional or unintentional effect of delaying the implementation of the out-of-home care chapters of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998—chapters 8 and 10. All honourable members should seriously take note of the concerns raised by ACWA and NCOSS.
This inquiry could have the effect of putting DOCS under increased pressure. Indeed, when this motion of the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans first appeared on the notice paper 21 months ago and was moved, I think the Hon. John Tingle said he could not support it because it would actually make the existing problems in DOCS worse by putting DOCS under pressure. If we claim to be concerned about morale in DOCS we must ask whether this kind of inquiry will help. The Minister pointed out that DOCS is already subject to 19 separate watchdog bodies. No government department in New South Wales is as watched, monitored, looked over, examined and inquired into as DOCS. If there is to be an inquiry—and by the mood of the House there is no doubt that will happen—it must be conducted sensitively. Without being immodest, given that I am the Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues I think I can say that our record proves that we are able to do that.
The Hon. Doug Moppett is an excellent Deputy-Chair, and the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, the mover of this motion, is our other non-Government member. The committee has a mix of people that I believe can deal adequately with an inquiry such as this. Probably more importantly, we have an excellent staff with qualifications directly related to the issues about which we are talking. The staff work specifically for the social issues committee and have dealt with a number of inquiries that touch on some of these issues. In particular, we are in the process of completing two inquiries: an inquiry into disability services, which has dealt to a very large extent with children with intellectual disabilities; and an inquiry into intervention for children with learning difficulties. That has involved us dealing with all of the departments that deal with children.
In the past, as the Hon. Alan Corbett pointed out, the Standing Committee on Social Issues has produced reports on parent education, children's advocacy and adoption. The other crucial point about those reports that needs to be made is that they have all been unanimous. Despite the varying nature of the membership of the committee and the representation on it of different parties, the social issues committee, with the help of its excellent staff, has found it possible to produce unanimous reports. I believe the Government takes note of those reports. Not all of our recommendations are accepted, but I think we have a good track record in having the matters on which we report dealt with. Our reports are listened to, taken note of, and action does follow. If an inquiry of the kind proposed in the motion is to be undertaken, I believe the Standing Committee on Social Issues is best equipped to do that.
It is perhaps unfortunate that this motion is being considered at this time. It was moved some 21 months ago and was debated last year, but that debate lapsed for lack of support for the motion. That was due, at least in part, to a feeling that an inquiry into DOCS might have unintended consequences and that an inquiry might do more harm than good. Now, of course, we are faced with having an inquiry at probably the worst time of the electoral cycle, that is, the period immediately leading up to an election. For instance, if the Standing Committee on Social Issues had embarked on this inquiry 21 months ago, or even a year ago, there may have been less tendency on the part of people to play politics, with at least half an eye being kept on the forthcoming election.
Now that we are only 11 months out from an election, a standing committee with a membership that dates back to the beginning of the Parliament, and with a staff specifically credentialled to work with it, is much more likely to be able to deal with difficult political issues than perhaps an ad hoc select committee, which would find it far more tempting while dealing with the issues to focus more on the election than on the seriousness of the issues themselves. Finally, as I have said before, the Standing Committee on Social Issues is in the process of concluding its inquiry into disability services—a reference given to it by this House. The most controversial part of that inquiry was that part which had to be done in 1999. That was the inquiry into the Government's decision to tender out the operation of DOCS group homes.
The fact that the social issues committee was able to produce, in the necessary 10 weeks, a unanimous report on an issue as politically fraught as that one was I believe is a very good recommendation for the social issues committee to undertake an inquiry into DOCS in the most proper, thoughtful, considered and sensitive way. I fear that a select committee would find it much more difficult to deal with such an inquiry and to have members with the necessary expertise. It would be much more difficult for the Clerks to find staff with the necessary expertise to serve the committee. Also, it would be much more difficult for such a committee to try to deal with issues in a way that is not dominated by the forthcoming election.
Might I conclude by noting that, since the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans himself regarded the Opposition amendment to the terms of reference as an improvement, my amendment would keep the terms of reference as suggested by the Opposition but would be a return to the proposal originally put forward by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans of having the Standing Committee on Social Issues, of which he is a member, conduct the inquiry.
The Hon. HELEN SHAM-HO
[4.44 p.m.]: I intend to be brief, and therefore will not canvass the substantive motion. However, I want to express my support for the motion originally moved by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans on 20 June 2000. I canvassed those matters at that time, so I will not do so again now. I support also the Coalition amendment of the terms of reference proposed by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, because I regard the amended motion as much tighter and perhaps more up to date, as well as containing the correct date.
I support also the amendment moved by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. I agree with the honourable member that the Standing Committee on Social Issues is the more appropriate committee to deal with this reference. I am not commenting on the substantive terms of reference, because I totally support the inquiry; I just want to say that on the last occasion when I spoke in favour of the motion I said that the Minister was doing a great job. At that stage she was a relatively new Minister. However, down the track I have to be honest and say that I became a little bit disappointed because the same issues continue to crop up. I think this sort of inquiry would help to speed up processes to address those issues. Even though it is now late in the political cycle, whatever party is elected, whatever Minister assumes this portfolio, will have a recommendation on which to act. So it is beneficial at this time to have such an inquiry regardless of the timing of other aspects of it.
I fully support the inquiry—there is no doubt about the need for it—and I will now turn to whether a select committee or a standing committee is better equipped to deal with it. It is not because I am a former member of the Standing Committee on Social Issues that I say I think the social issues committee would be a more appropriate choice. The Hon. Jan Burnswoods has given the House her opinion on that matter, and I certainly agree. From my recollection, that committee's recommendations have always been bipartisan and had little, if any, party political content.
I have great faith in the committee Chair, the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. I think she has been doing a great job over the past few years, as did previous chairs the Hon. Max Willis, the Hon. Dr Marlene Goldsmith and the Hon. Ann Symonds. They all did a great job. All of them, regardless of their Coalition or Labor background, have been substantially impartial. But I want to say a few words about the other members of the committee: the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, the Hon. Amanda Fazio, the Hon. Doug Moppett and the Hon. Ian West. I have every faith in the committee membership, particularly having regard to the committee's good track record. They have shown their ability and good standing in conducting their inquiries.
At this time we do not even know the membership of the proposed select committee. We know that it would constitute two Coalition members, two Government members and two Independent members but, with great respect to all of my colleagues in this Chamber, sometimes members have special interests, particular idiosyncrasies and distinctly different skills and expertise. I am not talking about the Hon. Malcolm Jones, who is interjecting, or any other member for that matter, because we do not know who will constitute the select committee. I favour the social issues committee, not because I do not have faith in other honourable members but because we know how that committee is established, we know its membership, and we know that it has demonstrated its expertise, interests and skills.
We should allow the social issues committee to continue with this inquiry as part of its functions merely because it has demonstrated that it can do a good job. A select committee could be constituted by some members in whom I do not have the greatest faith, notwithstanding whether they are members of the Coalition or the Labor Party or are Independents. There is also the infrastructure of the committee itself. The social issues committee was established by a Coalition Government. It is the most pertinent committee to look into social issues. It has the proper resources, expertise, skill and knowledge to look into these kinds of matters. That would make good use of the expertise those people have. I am not suggesting that a select committee is not given the same staff and resources as provided for a standing committee.
Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile:
But you have to find them.
The Hon. HELEN SHAM-HO:
That is the point. I know that many standing committee inquiries and other investigations are under way. It will take up a lot of resources to establish another select committee, and that is another matter that should be taken to account. People have told me that one of the factors in favour of a select committee is that the Government is obliged to respond to a select committee's recommendations within six months, but that is not true: The Government is also obliged to respond to standing committee recommendations within six months. Perhaps only honourable members of this House understand the difference between a general purpose standing committee, such as the Standing Committee on Social Issues, the Standing Committee on Law and Justice and the Standing Committee on State Development, and a select committee. People also think that because a committee comprises two Government members, two Coalition members and two Independent members, it is not Government controlled. As I have pointed out on previous occasions, the committees are not controlled by the Government because the committees adopt a non-partisan approach—at least that is the case with the Standing Committee on Social Issues. In conclusion, I indicate my support for the motion and for the amendments.
The Hon. JOHN TINGLE
[4.51 p.m.]: Let us be very careful of what we are doing because this may be one of the most important decisions that this House has to make in terms of what we decide and the effect of that decision. For a long time I have believed that there has been an urgent need for an inquiry into the Department of Community Services [DOCS], but my belief goes back even further than the establishment of the Government's current community services organisation. In my journalism career I was aware that Family and Community Services [FACS], Youth and Community Services [YACS] and various predecessors of DOCS experienced the same types of problems that are being experienced now, but perhaps not in such sharp focus and not in the public arena. Perhaps they were happening and people did not know about them. We have to be very careful to ensure that we do not politicise this matter; it is much too important to become a political weapon with which to bludgeon the Government about the head, or by which anyone attempts to score points. It is not within the province only of the present Government that the crucial problems of child abuse and maltreatment of children generally exist.
If members of this House get this right, we will have a chance to do something that will bring the problems gradually to an end. That will not happen overnight, but in order to achieve that outcome the inquiry will have to engage in much more than witch-hunting and it will have to do much more than find out who is responsible for certain actions, who let the system down, who did not follow up reports, and who did not do his or her job. In the end result, the important outcomes are deciding how we stop these problems from occurring again and determining what safeguards are needed to be built into the system to protect children who are basically vulnerable and defenceless without the provision by us of bulwarks to prevent treatment of them in the manner discussed in the media over the past few weeks. My feeling is that a mindset has developed in DOCS—it also existed in FACS and YACS, as some honourable members may recall—and the mindset is a siege mentality. DOCS workers seem to feel that, whatever they do, they cannot win. If they do, they are damned, and if they do not, they are damned.
I have spoken to many of them and I think that the present DOCS organisation has had the problem compounded by the fact that it has no fewer than 19 watchdogs looking over its shoulder. The various departments and agencies to which DOCS has to report and be responsible to include the Coroner and the various children's accidental deaths teams. In any one case involving child abuse or the death of a child there may be five or six different agencies to which DOCS workers have to account. I believe that if nothing else is achieved by this inquiry, we should look for a single funnel through which DOCS workers can report back to all the agencies that appear to have a legitimate reason for looking into what DOCS does and what is happening to children. I have no quarrel with that process, but let us cut some of the workload from DOCS. When that has been done, we will be able to say, "There will be no more excuses such as being so tied up in paperwork that you cannot do your job." I believe that the great majority of people who work in DOCS do so because they really care and because they want to do something to protect and defend children. Our job is to find out whether they are not able to do that as effectively as they should, simply because they are overworked, the system does not work properly, or somebody has let somebody else down.
I do not know what the answers are, and I think that not many honourable members of this House do, but this has been a burning issue for me for many years. A couple of years ago, when the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans first suggested an inquiry of the nature proposed by this motion, I drew up a proposal for an inquiry of my own because I felt that his proposal was too narrow. I do not think that such an inquiry should be narrow. It should look beyond the political scene, beyond the repercussions for the Government and the Opposition, or anybody else, and it should just think about the children. That should be the only thing that honourable members are concerned about—finding out ways to erect a bulwark around the children. Like the Hon. Helen Sham-Ho, I have a problem deciding which committee is the correct one to which to refer this inquiry. I make no apology for my belief—I thought of this in the original proposal I submitted a couple of years ago—that the inquiry should be conducted by a select committee. I would have preferred a joint select committee, but I know that we will not get away with that. The reason I believe the inquiry should be conducted by a select committee is that the committee should comprise members who have some background in, knowledge of, experience in and some feeling for, what we are trying to do. I really believe that the committee should be an assemblage of the good minds and relevant backgrounds and experience that can be brought to bear to address this problem.
The curious part about this is that I am also persuaded that the Standing Committee on Social Issues has many of the required talents among its membership—there is no question about that. The members of the committee also have the necessary experience. For most of the day I have been absent from the Chamber attending to a legal matter and while endeavouring to catch up with the debate I have asked myself whether the membership of a select committee would be any more expert and any better able to conduct this inquiry than is the membership of the present Standing Committee on Social Issues. And I am not sure that it would be. I have to make my decision on which committee is the best one and which type of committee will have the best people to do the best job in accordance with the terms of reference. I still think that the terms of reference are too narrow and that the terms of reference could be expanded to cover other matters, such as the DOCS mindset, the history of the problem and why it has arisen. However, it is too late to change the terms of reference. All that remains is for honourable members to agree upon the committee to which the matter is to be referred.
As I have said, I would prefer the matter to be handled by a select committee. Perhaps the Standing Committee on Social Issues is as good a committee as we will get anyway, but the questions I put to the Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues, the Hon. Jan Burnswoods, are whether, given the current workload of the committee, the committee will be able to pick up this inquiry and run with it fairly quickly, and whether the committee can report back within the time frame that is allowed. This is not a matter that can be put off until all the other business of the committee has been concluded.
The Hon. Rick Colless:
You have got to have the will.
The Hon. JOHN TINGLE:
I would like to think that every honourable member of this House has the will to do something about this matter and I would be shocked if they did not, particularly after the highly colourful segment that was shown on the television program
last Sunday night. Many people have suggested that the committee should report by December at the latest to be able to obtain a response from the Government. This may be heresy, but I do not give a damn about the response from the Government because that is not what I am looking for. I am looking for a finding, a report, recommendations and some concrete idea of what can be done to end what is an obscenity in our community. I believe that the committee, however constituted, must be able to tackle those issues almost from day one, and having tackled those issues from day one, it should not hurry the procedure. Children are dying and therefore there is an element of urgency about the inquiry.
But let us not spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. Let us not under any circumstances deal with this matter in such a way that we feel we have to hurry because this Parliament is coming to an end. Certainly it is important for an interim report to be presented by September, and that may pave the way, if the inquiry is not concluded before the Parliament ends, for a committee to investigate the matter in the next Parliament, pick up the ball, run with it and complete the role that the committee has set out to fulfil. I have to be honest and declare that, failing some answers being provided by the Government, I still do not know which way I will vote on this issue. I still like the idea of the inquiry being conducted by a select committee but, as I said, perhaps the Standing Committee on Social Issues is the best committee we will get. If it is, would it be able to start the inquiry immediately, would it be able to complete the inquiry in time, and would it be able to put other work aside to concentrate on this inquiry and get the job done to give kids a little bit of protection and peace?
The Hon. DAVID OLDFIELD
[5.00 p.m.]: I support the motion moved by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans. I support also his bid for this matter to be referred to a select committee as opposed to the Standing Committee on Social Issues.
I understand that the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans is now of the view that this matter should be referred to a select committee. I am sure he will make his views clear when he replies to the debate. We must ask whether things are wrong in the Department of Community Services [DOCS]. Is the Department of Community Services handling its workload? Are children suffering needlessly and are they dying tragically? An appropriately run inquiry will certainly answer these and other important questions in the community. The 2000-01 report of the Child Death Review Team reveals that there were 21 deaths among children who were known to DOCS or other government agencies. Eight of those dead children were specifically in the care of the Department of Community Services.
It has been suggested that the child death figure for the last 12 months may be as high as 40. The 1995-96 Department of Community Services annual report shows a shocking 33,000 reports of child abuse. But the 2000-01 report shows over 107,000 reports of child abuse. These figures do not indicate that the situation is under control. It has been suggested that child abuse reports for this year may exceed 130,000. According to the Minister, the helpline receives between 3,400 and 6,800 calls a week—somewhere around 170,000 and 350,000 calls a year. We are not really sure. The figure that has been referred to is somewhere between 170,000 and 350,000 calls a year, which is a hell of a gap. I refer to an advertisement that I ran in 1999 at my own expense. That advertisement, which cost me over $3,000 back in 1999, was run to assess the need for a public inquiry into the Department of Community Services. The advertisement reads:
Department of Community Services (DoCS)
Abuse or Neglect?
One Nation... is assessing the need for a full public inquiry into DoCS.
I remind honourable members that this was an advertisement that I ran at my own expense in 1999 and that it cost me over $3,000. The advertisement continues:
WE WANT INFORMATION FROM YOU
If you know anyone who has been harmed while under the Department of Community Services, or if you worked for DoCS and have any relevant information, please let us know.
All submissions will be kept confidential.
Please write a one page summary of your experiences with DoCS. Attach any supporting material and post it to:
The relevant address and phone numbers are then listed.
The Hon. Richard Jones:
What did you get?
The Hon. DAVID OLDFIELD:
I received a number of submissions and a number of phone calls. Many people wished to remain anonymous. I was able to meet with some people. I intended, through running that advertisement, to solicit people so that I could assess whether there was a need for a public inquiry into DOCS. It was clear during that assessment period, which went on for quite some time, that members of the community have many concerns about DOCS. I have already referred to the number of child deaths, the number of reports that are received through the helpline and the listed number of reports of child abuse in the annual reports of the Department of Community Services.
Regardless of the advertisement that was placed by me and what is known by many honourable members in this House, it is quite clear—and it is to be hoped—that an inquiry will delve into these issues and resolve community concerns one way or the other. Nothing will be resolved without an inquiry. Nothing will be resolved if we have a toothless type of inquiry without resources, within which members do not resolve to come to a truthful conclusion rather than one which is politically based.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE
[5.04 p.m.]: The Christian Democratic Party supports the motion moved by the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans in the following terms:
That the Standing Committee on Social Issues inquire into and report on the child and family services of the Department of Community Services, with particular reference to—
The motion then lists a number of issues to be dealt with by that committee. Honourable members would be aware that the Opposition is seeking to amend the motion to refer the matter not to the Standing Committee on Social Issues but to a select committee. The Christian Democratic Party supports the amendment moved by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods to abbreviate the committee's terms of reference. The only issue on which we disagree is whether the issue is to be referred to a select committee or to the Standing Committee on Social Issues. A strong argument that was put forward at the crossbench briefing this morning—the argument was put forward also by other people—was that the committee must make its report to the Government within six months.
After speaking to the Clerks and after examining the Legislative Council standing orders I have established that there is no requirement for a select committee to respond to the Government within six months. However, such a response is required if a standing committee is to report to the Government. Those honourable members who want this matter referred to a select committee have everything back to front. As I said earlier, a standing committee has to make its report to the Government within a six-month period. That is why I support a reference to the Standing Committee on Social Issues. If general purpose standing committees or standing committees such as the Standing Committee on Social Issues or the Standing Committee on Law and Justice investigate matters that are critical to the Government or they recommend improvements or changes to government policy, it has been my experience that the Government, in the main, treats those recommendations with respect and implements them.
Standing committees conduct inquiries and base their recommendations on evidence, not on any conditions or on the biases of individual committee members. The staff members who have been working with the Standing Committee on Social Issues, the Standing Committee on Law and Justice and other standing committees, and who have a great deal of expertise, assist those committees to operate efficiently and assist committee members to produce reports as they are required. Opposition members, Government members and the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans have all accepted that the committee that is required to inquire into this matter must produce an interim report by 26 September and a final report by 5 December. Because of the imminent State election I am sure that an interim committee report on 26 September would be a most important and critical report.
It would be difficult for the Government to respond to a committee report that was delivered on 5 December as it is not likely that the Parliament would be sitting at that time. The Chairman of the Standing Committee on Social Issues, the Hon. Jan Burnswoods, would have to determine from this motion the priorities with which that committee would deal in its interim report. Subparagraphs (a) and (b) of paragraph 1 of the motion refer to some of the priorities that should be dealt with in the interim report. Even though there is disagreement about which committee should undertake this investigation, all honourable members agree that there is a problem. There has been some breakdown in the reporting of cases of possible child abuse. It is recognised that there have been child deaths. However, I do not believe that that is the fault of the Minister.
This motion should not be seen as an attack on the present Minister for Community Services. The committee should not be permitted to conduct a witch-hunt or to try to nail somebody as a result of the inquiry. The committee should try to come up with recommendations to enable the Department of Community Services to operate more efficiently for the safety and protection of children in this State. If somebody in the management area of the department made a mistake two years ago which resulted in the death of a child, that fact would have been established by the Coroner or by other inquiries that were held. I support the amendment moved by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods, which will retain the Opposition's terms of reference and the same timetable but will omit the words "select committee" and replace them with the words "Standing Committee on Social Issues".
We could spend a great deal of time discussing what we have heard over the years about the Department of Community Services and the problems within that department. However, in view of the time I do not think that that is necessary in this debate. Those issues have been covered by other honourable members who have also referred to the membership of the Standing Committee on Social Issues. The Chairman of that committee is the Hon. Jan Burnswoods and the Deputy Chairman is the Hon. Doug Moppett—both of whom are experienced committee members.
The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, who is the initiator of this debate, is a member of that committee. I think we would all be confident that the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans would be a valuable asset to that inquiry. The two Labor members of the committee, the Hon. Amanda Fazio and the Hon. Ian West, would also be valuable assets to the inquiry. From my observations those members have efficiently assisted other committees to carry out their functions.
As I have said, the main issue for debate is which committee should hold the inquiry. It seems that the Standing Committee on Social Issues would be preferable. The Opposition may argue that it is a government-controlled committee, and I suppose it could be argued that that is a fact. From my observation, however, standing committees have always acted in honourable fashion, and I do not see any reason why that state of affairs should change.
The Hon. CARMEL TEBBUTT
(Minister for Juvenile Justice, Minister Assisting the Premier on Youth, and Minister Assisting the Minister for the Environment) [5.11 p.m.]: I wish to speak briefly to the amendment moved by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. Members have raised a number of concerns about the timely way in which the Standing Committee on Social Issues could deal with such a reference. I thought it worthwhile, therefore, to advise members that it is the Government's preference for such an inquiry to be conducted in a timely fashion—I am sure that would be everyone's preference. Indeed, it is clearly reflected in the Coalition's amendment with regard to the committee's reporting dates.
I am advised by the Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues that the committee currently has four inquiries under way, two of which will be finalised by 1 June: one on Internet censorship and the other on disability services. I have been advised that should this motion be carried the Standing Committee on Social Issues would certainly be able to complete the inquiry by the dates required by the Coalition's amendment, that is, by 26 September for the interim report and by 5 December for the final report. It is my understanding that the process for the calling of submissions, which is the initial step in any committee inquiry, would commence immediately. The committee has assured me that it would be able to meet both the interim reporting date and the final reporting date.
I wish to address a matter raised by the Hon. Alan Corbett. Any member may attend a hearing of a standing committee to ask questions. A member who has a particular interest in an inquiry before a committee but who is not a member of that committee may attend to ask questions. Although the Hon. John Tingle indicated that it was not necessarily the Government's response that he was particularly concerned about, on behalf of the Government I indicate that the Government's formal response to the committee's report would be done in a timely manner. We would make every effort to respond within the six-month requirement.
I reiterate my comment that if members of this House are genuine about wanting an inquiry that will achieve real outcomes and provide a process that can grapple with the very difficult issues that members have raised and are concerned about, the appropriate committee to conduct the inquiry is the Standing Committee on Social Issues. It has conducted a number of inquiries into related issues, and its members have vast experience and understanding of these issues. We do not yet know who would be the members of any select committee that may be appointed. There is already in place infrastructure and a secretariat to support the Standing Committee on Social Issues. Its members also have the necessary experience, knowledge and understanding of this very difficult issue, which certainly has the potential, through an inquiry process, to become a political football. I believe that everyone genuinely does not want that, and in my view the best way to ensure that that does not happen is by having the Standing Committee on Social Issues conduct the inquiry.
The Hon. AMANDA FAZIO
[5.14 p.m.]: Before debating the substantive issues I would like to place on record my regret that this very important issue, which concerns most people in the community, has only been seized upon as an issue in response to a segment on the television program
, a program that I do not hold in very high regard. We are dealing with emotional issues concerning children, where failures are blown up by the tabloid media. I use the term "tabloid" not just in relation to the print media but also in relation to programs such as
I note the length of time that this motion of the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans has been on the business paper, but we must ensure that there is not a knee-jerk reaction to this issue. Many speakers in this debate whose contributions have been valuable have said that the one thing they do not want is for this issue to become a political football. They want the focus of any inquiry that is held to be the identification of any improvements that can be made to the way DOCS deals with issues. They do not want the focus simply to be on the failures that occur within the system.
I concur with the comments made earlier by the Minister for Juvenile Justice that only the failures of DOCS are highlighted. We do not hear about the success stories and the good work the department does with families in keeping them together and in managing to ensure that the supports that are often lacking in the community today are put in place to ensure that families stay together and children are brought up in reasonable circumstances. We only hear about the sensationalised issues that are latched onto by programs such as
We need to be aware of the circumstances in the community these days. The pressures that families now face are greater than they have ever been. I am talking not just about economic pressures, but about the fact that we live in a seven-day-week society. No longer is the time of parents taken up only from Monday to Friday and on Saturday morning for the shopping, leaving the rest of the week for them to have a break and an opportunity to recharge their batteries and spend some good, quiet time with their children, building a bond and providing quality parenting. These days people are very lucky if they have that. The majority of people are stressed, they are pushed, and they are busy seven days a week. Parents are lucky to be able to make available adequate time to care for their children. We need to recognise that often the needs of nurturing children are put aside when all these other stresses are taken on board.
In order to stop some of these failures occurring in DOCS, we also need to support the measures that have been put in place to strengthen families in general. Through programs such as Families First I am sure that in the future we will be able to reduce the number of families in crisis that have problems parenting, involving allegations of child abuse and notifications to DOCS. But we cannot simply latch onto the sensational side of things.
I have been involved with this issue for almost 20 years. I was appointed by a former Minister for Youth and Community Services, the Hon. Frank Walker, to the Ministerial Advisory Council on Family and Children's Services. At that time there was a particularly sensational case involving child abuse in which a mother had locked her child in a house in Woolloomooloo and set fire to the house. At that time an inquiry was held into the way in which child abuse allegations were dealt with. We need to recognise that this is an ongoing issue.
Apart from the stresses in the community about which I have spoken, there are also issues of family breakdown and insufficient extended families to help with the provision of support and care. Twenty years ago the reporting mechanisms for notifications for child abuse were totally unsatisfactory. We now have the technology to log and record calls. In some ways, I do not know whether that creates a vexed issue, because we now know the volume of calls coming in. But there is no real way of knowing how many of the cases are serious and how many notifications, when investigated, are found to be valid.
Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile:
It is the same for the police, with the police line.
The Hon. AMANDA FAZIO:
Yes, I agree with Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile. It is not a measure by which we can judge the demands placed on front-line staff. Calling for a select committee rather than referring this matter to the Standing Committee on Social Issues is a recipe for disaster and will ensure that the issue is politicised. Opposition members have been saying that they are concerned about children's welfare. Where were their voices in their caucus when, under the Greiner and Fahey governments, the resources of the Department of Community Services were slashed? Where were they when 23 community service offices, almost one-quarter of the total number in New South Wales, were closed? Where were their concerns then?
They were members of a government in which the current Leader of the Opposition worked as a ministerial adviser. That government axed 77 child protection worker positions throughout New South Wales. They did not care because they were then working on an economic rationalist model and wanted to cut government spending. The cost to the community of those cuts was immaterial to them. It has taken a long time to build up the system and recruit people to bring us back to square one. The Hon. Patricia Forsythe stated that these issues have existed for 14 years, since 1988. That is not correct. Those cutbacks were not all made in 1988.
The current Government has committed record funding to the community services budget. We now spend $121 million a year. We have improved the number of front-line staff: 90 specialist staff are dealing with these issues. If everybody in this Chamber is genuine about making a non-political attempt to investigate the problems that may exist in DOCS and may impinge on the ability of front-line workers to manage child abuse effectively, the best way to do that is to refer the inquiry to the Standing Committee on Social Issues.
By referring it to a special select committee the Opposition is showing that it wants this to become a political football in the run-up to the next State election and that its real concern is political point scoring and not the care of children at risk in our community. It is disingenuous of Opposition members to claim otherwise. It needs to be recognised as well that before the Labor Party under Bob Carr was elected in 1995 the Coalition Government was cutting and squeezing the public sector until the bitter end.
The other matters I would like to refer to have been raised in part by other honourable members, but I would like to mention the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies and the Council of Social Service of New South Wales joint press release that came out today. The release noted that the Community Service Commission undertook an inquiry into out-of-home care in 2000, and that a further inquiry would largely duplicate that work. The current priority is to implement the out-of-home care sections of the Act and give these reforms a chance to take effect. They are saying that any inquiry into this area should not be an inquiry into DOCS in general, should not be an inquiry into the help line alone, should not have a major focus on out-of-home care, should not be used to delay reforms to the out-of-home care system and should not have the effect, intentional or unintentional, of delaying the implementation of the out-of-home care chapters of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act, chapters eight and 10.
I stress that these two independent bodies whose main concern is the provision of community welfare services in New South Wales, to children in particular, have asked us to consider their learned opinion that they do not support a parliamentary inquiry at this stage. Judging by the comments of other honourable members during this debate I expect that that request will not be acceded to and that we will have an inquiry. Therefore, I urge honourable members to make sure that the inquiry is an effective inquiry and does not make a political football out of this harrowing issue.
The Hon. Patricia Forsythe said we needed a specialised committee to look at this. We already have a specialised committee in this Parliament to look at these issues: the Standing Committee on Social Issues. I also point out to honourable members that if they vote to have a select committee deal with the issue, we will have the same resources servicing that committee. That committee will comprise members of this Chamber, and they will still have to make time available. There will be no magic fund of money to support the committee, so the resources of the existing committee staff and secretariat will be cannibalised to support this committee. Rather than this matter being dealt with by the Standing Committee on Social Issues secretariat, whom I consider to have highly developed and specialised skills, it will be dealt with by people who, in the past, may have been dealing with regional development issues or law and justice issues. That is another reason to reject the call for a select committee.
Last year the DOCS help line received 107,000 calls. Each and every one of those was assessed but not all were child protection reports or required further investigation. DOCS did investigate a further 55,000 alleged cases of child abuse, and those investigations resulted in 10,000 confirmed cases of child abuse. So, we need to be aware that this problem is being exploited for potential political advantage by the Opposition. We need to look at the facts behind some of the cases referred to in the media and raised in the
program. One example of what was not said is set out in a letter dated 5 March from the Ombudsman to a family member. The Ombudsman said:
Our assessment was that (DOCS) review was thorough, had considered the appropriate issues, and had reached reasonable conclusions … there was insufficient evidence to suggest the department had acted inappropriately. The department responded with home visits until the child and mother were seen and had then concluded there was insufficient evidence at that time to warrant further significant action.
Further to this, the grandmother of the child in question has contacted DOCS and confirmed her support for the actions of DOCS in this case. Another matter about which we need to set the record straight has been bandied about by a few people. That is the claim that the Director-General of the Department of Community Services, Carmel Niland, said that people should start kidnapping children if they think they are at risk. I think she was saying that the community needs to have some responsibility for children at risk and that as individuals we should act on our concerns about children whom we know or come across.
Sometimes it takes a bit of effort and courage to do that. I do not get scared very often but a couple of years ago in my then line of work I spoke to a woman who I thought was taking the discipline of her child a bit too far. I ran into a shop and closed the door because I did not want to be belted in the head by the mother in the same way she was belting the child. That is the sort of thing that Carmel Niland was talking about. You do not stand by and tut-tut if you see somebody abusing a child or if you know of a child being abused. As a community member you have a responsibility to do something about it.
If you feel that immediate intervention is needed, you say something to the parent. If you think it can wait a while, you report it to DOCS or the police or some other appropriate authority. There was no general request that people start some vigilante kidnapping campaign but, rather, that as community members we reconsider how we respond to these issues. I would still intervene in a case like that, although I would now make sure that I was well out of arms-length when I did so. As I said, we have responsibilities. It is no good saying, "It's none of my business. Seeing a child in that state made me feel uncomfortable but I don't want to get involved. It crossed my mind and I wish I had done something." We can do something.
Collectively, members of this Chamber can do more for the children of New South Wales who are at risk. We can ensure that any problems relating to abuse allegations are investigated and reviewed by this Chamber in an impartial and professional manner. This is not the time to make this issue a political football. Law and order has been on the agenda during previous State election campaigns, and I would hate to think that child abuse will be trotted out during the next State election campaign in order to sway voters. The issue is beyond that, and as members of Parliament our response should also be beyond that. We should be saying that this issue is important.
I do not quite agree with the trigger for the timing of this debate, but that is only my opinion. However, if we want to help the families of New South Wales, and if we want to conduct an inquiry that will result in positive recommendations that can be implemented in a way that will ensure greater quality of life for young children in our community, we should refer the terms of reference to the Standing Committee on Social Issues. As the Minister said, that committee has the capacity to conduct such an inquiry. Any members of the House who are interested in this issue can attend hearings and ask questions of witnesses. They can have input in that way or simply talk to members of the committee. In the past the committee has always been open to discussion with other members during inquiries. I think the best way to proceed is to refer the matter to the social issues committee.
We would be serving the families and young people of New South Wales badly if we did not use this opportunity to conduct an impartial inquiry into the Department of Community Services, and I think the social issues committee can do that. A select committee would simply kick the issue around and sensationalise it once again. Therefore I urge honourable members to support the amendment moved by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. As a member of the Standing Committee on Social Issues I look forward to inquiring into this issue. I hope that any recommendations will be unanimously supported, as are most of the committee's recommendations, and will have a lasting impact on the wellbeing of young people in New South Wales.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS
[5.32 p.m.], in reply: I thank honourable members for their contributions and their overwhelming support for an investigation into the Department of Community Services [DOCS] by the Parliament. After 21 months of trying to get such an inquiry, I think it is wonderful that honourable members recognise the need for it and are willing to proceed with it. I first became aware of problems in DOCS when there was a fuss over the Children of God. That was a very long time ago; I am not sure whether it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
The department has undergone a number of reorganisations, from Family and Community Services to Youth and Community Services and now the Department of Community Services. Once great changes are made, it is often difficult to achieve an objective. Perhaps we need to move outside the department and look at the whole thing in a broader social context. I hope that can happen.
The Hon. John Tingle has taken a great interest in this matter because of his background in talkback radio. For all the faults of talkback radio, people do talk about their lives. Sometimes there is credibility in the rawness of that, although I do not think that should be the total determinant of social policy and decisions. I have had problems in attempting to establish this inquiry. When I tried previously the Hon. John Tingle wanted the terms of reference to be broadened. I remember that Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile wanted the terms of reference to be narrower so that the inquiry would not get out of control. Some members wanted the International Convention on the Rights of the Child to be referred to in the motion; other members did not, saying they would not vote for an inquiry if the convention were included. In the end I fell two votes short, which was extremely disappointing.
I make no apology for keeping this matter on the notice paper. Although this may sound horrible, I thought I would reactivate the matter if a crisis arose or there was some publicity. Again,
was the trigger on this occasion. I am sorry if that is politically cynical, but I thought it was what I had to do. I have to take action when the opportunity arises. In the past the Council of Social Service of New South Wales [NCOSS] was not keen to go ahead with an inquiry. However, I note that it is now keen for it to go ahead, but not a parliamentary inquiry. It wants an inquiry undertaken through the Community Services Commission. However, I do not agree with Alan Kirkland on that. Suffice it to say that an inquiry is necessary. A parliamentary inquiry has powers to subpoena and so on that another inquiry might not have.
Social problems have been exacerbated by globalisation, the rising gap between the rich and the poor and the change from full employment and larger families in the 1950s. If parents were unhappy or disturbed or one parent was missing from a family, more extended family members were available to look after the kids. There was more of a sense of community in those days. Now unemployment, structural poverty and the incidence of drug-affected parents are increasing. Unemployment is becoming institutionalised; there is no family memory of parents working. Gambling problems are rising, and there are problems with violence, particularly among fathers, which are sometimes alcohol related. These days boys lack male role models, especially when their mothers are the single parent. Paedophile inquiries have meant that men are no longer working among young children; therefore children who do not have a natural father have difficulty in terms of finding male role models.
The importance of kindergartens is increasingly being recognised, as shown by the Standing Committee on Social Issues inquiry into early intervention in education. I am coming to the conclusion that the younger children are, the more important it is that they be given resources, stability and role models. It seems that more basic things are imprinted first and other things are imprinted later. If by the age of five, children do not know who they are or have uncontrolled aggression it will be very difficult to address that later. Disturbed children may become disturbed adults, and I am afraid we are quick to demonise them, to call them monsters, to increase sentences and so on.
Recently I was asked about bullying in a suburban school in Sydney. Of course, the child being bullied needs support. The school is trying to enforce no bullying in the school. It turns out that the bully comes from a family without a father, and aggression is rewarded in the group with whom he has grown up so he does not have good behavioural norms. He also needs counselling to ensure that he does not continue bullying other children and go down a bad path.
I have raised these subjects because of my interest in preventive medicine and preventive social policies and to show how all these social factors, which are broader and more holistic, fit into the department's operations. These issues are not directly controlled by DOCS, and an inquiry must not become a witchhunt into the department. It must be a systemic look at the problems of children and the care of children. As such, when I drafted the terms of reference I included the role of research and consultation because we need long-term studies on what makes kids grow up well and what does not, the idea of flexible out-of-home-care placements, the mechanics of notification procedures within the department, and the relationship between DOCS and the Department of Health, the Police Service the Department of Education and Training and the non-government sector.
I have had a lot of support for my motion. I am disappointed that the Government is still making excuses but it has been pointed out to me that it is doing so because it does not want the inquiry. I am encouraged that the Hon. Jan Burnswoods is now keen to conduct the inquiry. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on who controls committees and whether this matter should be referred to the social issues committee.
After the last election when standing committees were set up I said that committees should reflect the composition of the House and should not simply be dominated by the Government. It might be highly idealistic to say that committees should look at matters in a bipartisan way and not politicise them, but in a proportional representative Parliament a committee should have proportional representation so that there is a range of opinions to compromise and negotiate for the good of society. In that sense I have no problem with a select committee attacking the Government but I would rather say that it reflects the composition of the Parliament. I note that the Opposition's amendment establishes a select committee to deal with the matter.
I thank Kath McFarlane, who is now an assistant to Brad Hazzard, for drafting this motion. I also thank Brad Hazzard for his input in simplifying my motion and stratifying it into three stages, which is quite valuable. I support the Opposition amendment as being consistent with the general thrust of my original motion. The Opposition's change is not huge but it is for the better. I believe that the welfare sector had a lot of input, and that is very important for credibility.
I am not concerned whether the inquiry is conducted by the social issues committee or a select committee. I am on the social issues committee and I anticipate that I would be on the select committee. It is not my intention to gain political advantage out of this matter, because I have been trying to bring it on for debate for 21 months, so it is certainly not my fault that it is now just a year before an election. I think it is more important to deal with the matter than to score political points.
I make a plea to all parties to think of the kids, because that is what we are here for. I ask honourable members to support my motion. The Hon. David Oldfield asked me to point out that he spent his own money on this matter in 1999, so there has been a wide basis of support for this motion. As I said, it does not matter which committee deals with the matter, but that will be determined by the amendments. I ask honourable members, whatever happens with the amendments, to support my motion.
Question—That the amendment of the amendment be agreed to—put.
The House divided.
Mr Della Bosca
Mr M. I. Jones
Mr R. S. L. Jones
Order! There being 19 ayes and 19 noes, there is an equality of votes. If the amendment of the amendment were agreed to, the motion would revert to its original form. Therefore, I cast my vote with the ayes in order to preserve the status quo.
Amendment of amendment agreed to.
Amendment as amended agreed to.
Motion as amended agreed to.
Petitioning the Assembly
Role and history
Electing the Assembly
Seminars and events
House business papers
Rules of the House
Orders for papers
Petitioning the Council
Role and history
Current session bills
Assented bills 1997+
All bills 1997+
Legislative process explained
In committees this month
List of committees
Both Houses by date
Engaging with Parliament
Visiting and tours
NSW Budget papers
Copyright & conditions of use
Authorised user login