The Numbers Are Not The Whole Story

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There are a number of points in Alex Mitchell’s article The Numbers Speak For Themselves to which I would like to respond, but first, an inaccuracy: Mitchell claims that the Department of Community Service’s Brighter Futures program is the Families First program in a different guise. This is not true. In fact, Families First was renamed Families NSW and has been running for 10 years.

Families NSW provides support to all families, at the beginning of their parenting journey, before problems arise and children are at risk. This program is important because Community Services takes action to support the safety and wellbeing of all children and young people, not only those in vulnerable families or children in out-of-home care. For the vast majority of families, a friendly visit from a nurse after the birth of their baby will be their only experience with Community Services.

Brighter Futures, on the other hand, is the NSW Government’s early intervention program for families whose children have been identified as being at risk. Instead of waiting for parents to reach crisis point we’re intervening early to link them to services such as parenting programs and sustained home visiting.

The value of early intervention has been endorsed by social researchers. American economics professor James Heckman found that early intervention targeting disadvantaged children has much higher returns than later interventions.

That is why the NSW Government has invested $260 million in Brighter Futures. We should ultimately be able to reduce the number of children who have to be removed from their families and, hopefully, reduce the number of children whose deaths are reviewable because they were known to Community Services.

Mitchell implies in his article that the NSW Government was hiding the Ombudsman’s Annual Report findings relating to an increase in the number of child deaths in 2007. This could not be further from the truth.

The Government acknowledges that the increase in the number of child deaths is unacceptable. However, the article fails to place these deaths in context. While the report identifies children who died who were "known to DoCS" it also states the causes of death, many of which were not related to child protection concerns.

Of the 156 deaths reviewed by the Ombudsman, 72 were from illness and natural causes, 18 were SIDS related and eight were the result of motor vehicle accidents. These are all occurrences that any Department could not have reasonably been expected to prevent.

The question is, what does it mean to be "officially on DOCS’s radar"?

Every child reported to the Community Services Helpline — even if no action needs to be taken — is, and will always be, "known to DoCS". The Helpline receives on average 5500 reports each week that a child may be at risk of harm. This means there are currently more than 340,000 children in NSW who have been reported to DOCS — more than one in five children. If any of these children should die within three years of a report being made, their death is reviewable by the Ombudsman. The death of one of their siblings is also reviewable.

The NSW Government has gone to considerable effort to place the important issue of the increase in child deaths is in the public domain. I raised the matter in a Budgets Estimates hearing on 15 October, the week before the Ombudsman tabled his Annual Report.

My office followed this up on the same day with a media release.

Contrary to Mitchell’s assertions that the findings were "barely reported", my comments after Estimates received coverage on most Sydney metropolitan television news bulletins, radio stations 2GB, 2UE, ABC 702, newspapers including the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian plus considerable rural and regional radio and newspaper coverage.

Last week, the findings of the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW were handed down by Justice Wood. The report recommends a review of the mandatory reporting requirements to enable Community Services to concentrate resources on the cases most in need. Another recommendation that will be seriously considered is increasing the role of the non-government organisations (NGOs) in early intervention and foster care.

Justice Wood’s 111 recommendations provide the catalyst for change within Community Services and an action plan will be developed by March 2009. Recognising the implications across Government, the Premier has instructed the Department of Premier and Cabinet to drive and coordinate our response. I held a meeting the day following the release of the report with the peak bodies and major NGOs. Any legislative changes will be brought to Parliament in the first session of next year.

Changes will be made to build a better system to protect the children of NSW and I can assure Alex Mitchell, and newmatilda.com readers, that my response will be "swift and positive".

New Matilda

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