Monday, April 28, 2014

The madness of child protection policy in Australia

In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to take adoption out of the 'too-hard basket' and make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas.

The chief barrier to more local adoptions is the anti-adoption culture in state and territory child protection authorities. Legal action is almost never taken to free children for adoption, even for children who languish in Australia's ever-expanding out-of-home care (OOHC) system with little prospect of safely returning home.

Instead, the orthodox policy advice routinely given to state and territory governments is that too many children are 'in care' because child protection services need to be re-structured away from 'statutory' child removal towards providing 'less-expensive' prevention and early intervention social services to reduce entries into care.

It is a myth that the child protection system focuses too heavily on statutory intervention, and that children are too quickly removed into care without supporting families.

New financial data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that in 2012–13:

* Family support/preservation services accounted for at least 17.1% of the $3.8 billion national expenditure on all child protection services, compared to statutory (29.6%) and OOHC (53.3%) services.

* Real (adjusted for inflation) national expenditure on 'intensive family preservation services' (designed to prevent imminent child removals) grew by 316% between 2000–01 and 2012–13 (from $73 million to more than $300 million).

* This was almost one-third higher in relative terms than the still substantial increase in spending on out-of-home care (228.3%), and nearly twice as fast as the still substantial growth in statutory service expenditure (166.3%).

Child protection data for 2012–13 show that Australia's OOHC system remains under siege due to rapidly increasing spending on OOHC and increasing numbers of children in OOHC. Since 2000–01, the total real national expenditure on OOHC has more than tripled and the total OOHC population has more than doubled due to endlessly prolonged efforts to reunite children with their dysfunctional families.

High levels of 're-reporting' and 're-substantiation' of cases of child abuse and neglect, plus high levels of 'instability' (unstable placements) for children while in care, mean that increasing numbers of children are being damaged by the very child protection system that is meant to protect them

The bottom line is that increasing numbers of children are still ending up in OOHC despite the additional funding Australian governments are pouring into family support/preservation.

The 2012 Report of Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins report) found no evidence that the larger sums spent by Victoria on 'prevention' had protected children and stopped child maltreatment. Despite 'increased investment' (spending on intensive family preservation services increased by almost 900% since 2000–01), this strategy failed because 'high levels of re-reporting and re-substantiations over the lifetime of Victorian children' showed no 'marked change in Victoria in the incidence and impact of child abuse or neglect or overall outcomes for vulnerable children taken into out-of-home care.'

Nevertheless, the orthodox policy advice remains influential. The Newman government is implementing the major recommendation of the 2013 Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry (the Carmody report), which recommended increased spending on prevention and early intervention services to re-structure a child protection regime that allegedly 'focuses too heavily on coercive instead of support strategies.' This is despite the inquiry's (confusing and contradictory) final report establishing that the Queensland child protection system was heavily focused on family preservation-and was the reason for children lingering longer in care and blowing out the size of the OOHC population.

Australian child protection policy continues to resemble Einstein's definition of madness-doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The Abbott government needs to be aware that flawed family preservation policies and practices are the root cause of the systemic problems in the child protection system. To end the madness, the states and territories must be directed to take more timely statutory action to permanently remove children from unsafe homes and provide them with safe and stable homes by adoption by suitable families.

The Abbott government can provide national leadership and take adoption out of the too-hard basket by setting national child protection performance targets, including boosting the number of local adoptions from care to the equivalent of more adoption-friendly countries within the next 10 years.

National adoption targets would encourage other states and territories to emulate the prospective pro-adoption regime recently legislated by the NSW government, which is designed to significantly increase the number of adoptions from care by mandating strict time limits within which realistic decisions are made about the feasibility of restoration. Once it is determined that a child cannot safely go home, application will be made in the Supreme Court for an order to free that child for adoption by his or her new family.

If Australian children in care were adopted at the same rate as in the United States, there would be around 5,000 adoptions from care each year nationally instead of the current figure of less than 150.

The Abbott government's also needs to be aware of to the way the US adoption rate has been lifted by the Clinton administration's Adoption and Safe Families Act 1997, which rewards states that increase the number of adoptions from care with additional federal funding for social services.

Similar incentive-based funding arrangements (as an enhanced means of distributing existing federal funding for family and community services to states and territories) should be considered in Australia.


Mandate on ethanol fuel costs drivers dearly: study

NSW'S E10 unleaded fuel mandate is a "debacle" and is costing the state's motorists millions, according to an international study.

The Texas Tech University research found motorists had a "significant aversion" to the ethanol blended product.

With the push for E10 reducing the availability of regular grade unleaded, motorists had instead flocked to the more expensive premium petrol because of concerns about E10's potential engine damage as well as fuel efficiency.

"The effect was so pronounced that premium grade gasoline became the No.1 selling grade of gasoline," said the report's authors Michael Noel and Travis Roach.

The mandate was a debacle which had cost motorists "$345 million and counting", said Professor Noel, from the university's department of economics.  That figure calculated the price difference between regular unleaded and premium.

"In 2010, one out of every three consumers forced off of regular switched to premium instead of E10," Professor Noel said.  "Now six out of 10 consumers are. It is costing more and more for less and less."

While the mandate is hurting motorists, the push to premium is a win for petrol retailers.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission research, Australian fuel retailers enjoy an average profit margin of 3.69¢ a litre of premium fuel sold, compared with 1.77¢ a litre of regular unleaded petrol.

Greens MP John Kaye said the mandate was not working for consumers or the environment.  "Motorists who had been using regular unleaded have been faced with the choice of a fuel they don't want and a fuel that is much more expensive," Dr Kaye said.

"While per litre it [the E10 price] looks better, you have to burn more of it to cover the same distance, and you get more air pollution and more CO2 emissions.

"There's no evidence that requiring motorists to use ethanol blended fuels has any net greenhouse gas gain or much in the way of air quality improvement."

Service Station Association senior manager Colin Long said E10 needed to be cheaper if the government wanted more people to buy it.

But the NRMA's motoring and services director Kyle Loades said motorists were switching to premium unnecessarily.


Centrelink, Medicare, Child Support Agency employees given perks just for turning up to work

PUBLIC servants paid to hand out pension and welfare benefits have scooped tens of millions of dollars in perks as taxpayers brace for hip-pocket pain from the Abbott Government’s Budget razor gang.

Human Services department employees, who work for Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, have been given thousands of dollars in lump sum payments simply for turning up to work to help them cope with public service restructures.

The payments are part of a raft of perks that include extra cash to help with school holiday child care, double time for working Saturdays and an extra day off over Christmas.

Human Services, which includes Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, delivered almost $150 billion in payments in the past financial year. It is one of the busiest government departments, and in 2013 shed almost 2100 jobs but in the same period, it promoted 693 staff.

The bulk of the pay increases – 279 – promoted staff up to $67,000, however, four staff were promoted to SES Band 1, which pays up to $190,000, and five staff rose to the ranks of SES Band 2 on an annual salary up to $240,000.

Those not promoted were eligible to receive hundreds of dollars in special productivity and major reform payments negotiated for Human Services staff. The latest was paid seven months ago.


* Productivity payments of $650 in September 2012 and September 2013 for employees at or above their maximum salary level for their classification for achieving targets and showing leadership

* Major Reform Payments in 2011 and 2012 worth $500 each in recognition that staff experienced structural change

* School holiday care allowances of up to $16 a day for a child or $163 a week for all children for a maximum of eight weeks where both parents work. The perk requires approval from the Department Secretary

* An extra public holiday on the first business day after Boxing Day

* Up to $600 to an affected employee if a Human Service office relocates in the same city

* Up to $800 under the Household Establishment Allowance if an employee is promoted or reassigned to another locality

* Double time for working overtime for more than three hours on a Saturday

* Salary sacrificing for public transport to and from work


ALP schemes ‘beyond bureaucrats’

THE federal bureaucracy is ­incapable of managing complex programs such as the National Rental Affordability Scheme, ­according to Labor senator Mark Bishop, who has criticised the Rudd government’s implement­ation of the scheme.

Senator Bishop said the bungled introduction of the flagship Rudd-era social housing initiative and the home insulation scheme showed federal bureaucrats were incapable of designing and rolling out complex programs.

“I am now satisfied there is a serious deficiency in the design of programs,’’ he said.

“It (the public service) is comprised of intelligent men and women, but you are talking about billions of dollars and the design of the scheme is very complex and they don’t have the experience or the ability to do it.”

Responding to revelations in The Australian that the rental scheme rollout had been a fiasco in his home state of Western Australia, Senator Bishop said the necessary leg work had not been done when Kevin Rudd took the scheme to cabinet in 2008.

The Australian revealed last week that two firms in Western Australia that received more than half of that state’s subsidies — Questus and Yaran — had built a fraction of the 3000 homes promised.

The West Australian fiasco comes after revelations that the scheme had been exploited by developers and universities to build student accommodation.

Senator Bishop, the second ALP parliamentarian to criticise the $4.5 billion scheme, said he had to question the point of it when it was used to house “10,000 rich Chinese students”.

“It was my understanding that the scheme was designed to help low-income earners into afford­able housing,’’ he said.

“I was never aware that its purpose was to provide housing for foreign students at major-league universities.’’

Senator Bishop, who will leave parliament on June 30 when his Senate term expires, chairs the Senate’s economics references committee, which is inquiring into affordable housing in Australia.

He acknowledged ministers were responsible for the flaws in these programs too, but saved his harshest condemnation for the federal bureaucracy.

“It seems to me the ability to properly design programs that are so complex is something the public service doesn’t really have the capability or expertise to do,’’ he said.

“Their expertise is in policy development but not in terms of program design involving billions of dollars of commonwealth money.

“With the links to tax and superannuation, it is very complex.’’

The $4.5bn NRAS scheme was introduced in 2008, but its viability was damaged from the start because the Australian Taxation Office took more than two years to rule on the tax status of investments discouraging large-scale private-sector investment, Senator Bishop said.

“When Rudd took it to cabinet a lot of the work hadn’t been done,’’ he said.

“Commercial developers and investors had to wait two or three years for the tax ruling. I can remember being lobbied on that many times. That put the development of the scheme three years behind.”

The problems in Western Australia centre on Yaran Property Group, which secured more than 1100 incentives in the third round of the program but has built just 82 houses with them, according to the latest federal figures.

Senator Bishop said by this stage there was a “political imperative” from the government to speed up the progress under the scheme and, as a result, it appeared to have handed large blocks of incentives to firms unable to execute projects to the degree promised.

He said major audit firms had been engaged to check applications under the current fifth round of the scheme, but this needed to have been done a lot earlier.

He said the government needed to redesign the scheme, shutting out the federal public service and incorporating advice from developers and investors.

“The existing scheme needs to be re-engineered. It needs significant private-sector input into that review,’’ he said.

Earlier this month, fellow Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson backed calls for a revamp of the scheme after The Australian revealed the extent to which it had been “gamed” by universities using the $10,000-per-annum subsidies to build vast unit blocks to lure foreign students to their campuses.

Tanya Plibersek, the architect of the NRAS scheme and former housing minister, declined to comment on Senator Bishop’s views.


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