The Numbers Speak for Themselves

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This year’s annual report from NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour contains the horrific statistic that the number of children who died while known to the Department of Community Services (DOCS) has risen to a sickening 156.

In other words, every week in 2007-08 three children who were officially on DOCS’s radar died.

The information was barely reported by the mainstream media. In today’s news selection, the antics of TV celebrities, corporate high-flyers and sports yobs rates higher than kids dying in impoverished homes within dysfunctional, violent and abusive families.

In his annual report to parliament, the Ombudsman repeated an earlier criticism that he had "significant concerns about the number of reports that do not receive the recommended level of assessment and are closed by local DOCS offices because of competing priorities."

That’s a polite and bureaucratic way of saying that the department isn’t doing its job properly or it is incapable of doing it properly. Either way, it’s an indictment of the department and the careless loss of 156 short lives in one of the richest nations on earth.

The new Minister for Community Services is Linda Burney. She was the Minister for Fair Trading, a lightweight portfolio, during Iemma’s administration but was promoted to DOCS by Premier Nathan Rees eight weeks ago.

In March 2003 Burney made history when she became the first Aboriginal person elected to the NSW Parliament, and only the fourth Aboriginal woman elected anywhere in Australia.

She had been director general of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs from 2000 and stepped down to win the Labor heartland seat of Canterbury, home of the Bulldogs.
In her inaugural speech to the Legislative Assembly she told her fellow MPs:

"I am a member of the mighty Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation. Wiradjuri country embraces the Lachlan, Macquarie and Murrumbidgee rivers. The Wiradjuri, like the Eora, were the first of the inland nations to experience the brutality of British occupation.

"The mighty Wiradjuri leader, Windradyne, and his warriors’ resistance were so fierce that martial law was declared in Bathurst in 1823. It is estimated that two-thirds of the Wiradjuri were dead after that four months of martial law. Many of the most brutal recorded massacres in the colony’s history happened to my ancestors.

"I was born in 1957. For the first 10 years of my life, like all indigenous people at that time, I was not a citizen of this country. We existed under the Flora and Fauna Act of NSW."

The speech made a significant impact on those MPs who bothered to stay in the chamber to listen. They were chiefly members of her own left-wing faction and included the then Deputy Premier, Dr Andrew Refshauge, and the current Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt, who had played a critical role in recruiting her to parliament.

On the day the Ombudsman’s chilling report was published, Burney was asked a "Dorothy Dixer" — a soft, pre-arranged question — by one of her Labor colleagues, Diane Beamer:

"I address my question to the Minister for Community Services. What does the annual statistical report show about the reporting of children under the age of one to the Community Services Helpline?"

It was a gift which gave Burney the opportunity to read onto the record a long, tedious and self-serving answer which applauded the work of her department:

"I thank the member for the question, and I appreciate this opportunity to inform the House about protecting children — in this case, very young children. The Department of Community Services 2006-07 report reveals some significant and worrying trends. The report shows a 41.2 per cent increase in the number of children under one who were reported to the Community Services Helpline between 2004-05 and 2006-07. While this is a concern, the increase in reports shows that we are now finding out about more problems. This enables us to help more children."

It wasn’t until she was well into her windy reply that she arrived at the Ombudsman’s Report:

"As members will be aware, the Ombudsman released his annual report today. The Ombudsman has highlighted many issues that the Department of Community Services agrees must be addressed if we are to strengthen protection of children. I welcome the scrutiny of the Ombudsman and I respect the role his agency plays in revealing systemic problems. It is only through careful review and analysis of these cases that the necessary changes can be made."

And she added: "We recognise, as the Ombudsman has pointed out today, there is still room for improvement."

It was classic language of a bureaucrat/politician. Read carefully, it means almost nothing. It is the kind of empty spin crafted by cynical government minders to get the minister off the hook.

She finished with a flourish: "We are strengthening families through the Brighter Futures early intervention program, providing much needed services and, most importantly, preventing the escalation of problems, avoiding the acute situation of children needing to be taken into care."

When she refers to "avoiding the acute situation of children needing to be taken into care", she means the increasingly prevalent DOCS practice of taking children from mothers, black and white, and putting them into the hands of carers.

In the whole of her reply, Burney did not make reference to the 156 children who had died in the previous financial year while on DOCS alert files. Extraordinarily, she was not pursued by the Opposition either.

Just imagine if this statistic had been produced under a Coalition Government — what would Labor have done? The ALP’s spinmeisters would have generated front-page headlines, talkback shock-horror, screaming editorials in the metro media, calls for the Minister to be sacked and demands for a royal commission.

But the Coalition has decided to play by old-fashioned rules of etiquette and decency. It does not want to be seen beating up on Burney when she is only a few weeks into a new job.

The Coalition’s shadow minister Katrina Hodgkinson, National MP for Burrinjuck, is also a mild-mannered and good-natured politician who doesn’t have the malevolence of her colleagues. It means that she is more inclined to sympathise with the problems at DOCS rather than use them as political attack points.

Burney’s ministerial appointment places her in harness with an old colleague from the NSW left, Jennifer Mason, the department’s director-general.

Nine years ago, DOCS minister Faye Lo Po’ and DOCS director-general Carmel Niland, shared responsibility for the department and it all ended in tears. The two women fell out in spectacular fashion and Lo Po’ was removed from the portfolio in 2002 before quitting parliament at the next election. But Niland didn’t survive either: former premier Bob Carr took her out of DOCS after bizarre reports that she had conducted staff meetings with senior officers sitting around on the floor with fairy dust being sprinkled. She was eventually transferred to the unattached list at the Premier’s Department before quietly retiring.

Dr Neil Shepherd, deputy director-general of the Cabinet Office and former head of the Environment Protection Authority, volunteered for the DOCS position in May 2002. Shepherd, a highly regarded public administrator, was teamed with Carmel Tebbutt as the new DOCS minister to bring the department up to standard and, on the eve of the March 2003 election, Premier Carr announced a five-year, $1.2 billion reform package.

Is DOCS any better off because of the additional funding and new direction set by Shepherd (who left the job in March to be replaced by Mason)? Much has been made of his Families First Program, which focused on early intervention and prevention.

But when Burney answered a question from Labor colleague Grant McBride in parliament on 28 October, she didn’t mention Families First at all. Instead, she referred to the Brighter Futures Program which, she said, "identified families who need early support and gives them sustained services to prevent problems escalating and placing children at risk".

It sounds horribly like the Hollowmen have got hold of Families First and reinvented it as Brighter Futures.

The hasty refurbishment of DOCS is driven by the imminent completion of former Justice James Wood’s 12-month-long inquiry into the dysfunctional and under-resourced department.

Wood, who conducted the NSW police royal commission in the 1990s, will deliver his report by the end of the year and it is expected to call for sweeping reform in the way it is managed.

The mighty Wiradjuri — and a lot of white fellas — will be watching to see whether Burney’s response is swift and positive.

New Matilda

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