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Motion: Child Protection Review

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises that in its current form, the Children and Young People (Safety) Act remains primarily a framework for child removal, rather than a holistic document for promoting the best interests of children and young people in South Australia;

2. Expresses its concerns regarding the lack of adequate, appropriate, and consistent funding and resources received by South Australian foster and kinship carers, adversely impacting their ability to provide quality care;

3. Notes the Malinauskas government's election promise to prioritise child safety and welfare through legislative and policy changes; and

4. Calls on the Malinauskas government to introduce legislation to amend the Children and Young People (Safety) Act, prioritising the best interests of children and young people in South Australia.

I first gave notice of this motion at the end of the year last year. I did so to remind the Malinauskas government and the Malinauskas government minister, Minister Hildyard, of the commitments they made with respect to child protection before the 2022 election. I did so because a significant number of those who provide care for children in the child protection system had raised their concerns with myself and with other members of this parliament as to why the minister seemed to have gone MIA in regard to legislation to update the act.

When I say 'go MIA' that is because there was a legislative review of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act. That review took place in the year 2022. We are now in June 2024. Perhaps the review took a long time. Perhaps the minister has only just received the report. Oh no, while the review was actually quite thorough and, indeed, very well participated in, the minister has had the report of the review since February 2023—not February 2024, this year, February 2023, some 16 months now. It has been 16 months in her in-tray, 16 months for those people who participated in the review waiting for that promised legislative response from this minister.

I understand child protection is not an easy portfolio. Child protection is one of the most difficult portfolios. However, the Malinauskas government came to government promising legislative reform and have not yet delivered on that promise. So, some six months ago I gave notice of this motion because even in their term of government following the receipt of the review documents in February 2023, the government had updated their promise that they would legislate by the end of the year, 2023.

The date that I gave notice of this motion was the timeframe that the government themselves, once in government and having had the document for the better part of an entire year, had actually set themselves as a timeframe for introducing legislation to reform our broken child protection system. We debate this motion tonight to hold the government to account not just for their election promises but for their promises once in government, which have been broken.

You may not think that these are issues that are easy, issues that perhaps require more time to debate, but there are urgent issues that have been identified in the review that carers are desperately waiting for this government to act on. When Minister Hildyard was the shadow minister, she promised she would deliver on them.

I wish to focus in particular in regard to something that many carers have called for. Certainly, I thank the work of both The Carer Project and Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA. Commitment No. 5 prior to the state election that Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers requested of the Malinauskas government was to 'amend the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 SA to include procedural fairness and care concerns as a prescribed function'. Procedural fairness: that is what we are still without two years into the Malinauskas government, something that had already well established itself as a pressing concern.

I remind members of this council and the minister of the Stephanie Richards article of 1 December 2022, which is entitled '"Guilty until proven innocent": Calls to reform foster carer investigations'. Ms Richards then wrote:

South Australian foster and kinship carers have reported being stood down or forced to resign from their jobs while concerns about their parenting are investigated by child protection authorities, prompting calls for an independent review process.

The article goes on to read:

The state's peak foster carer advocacy group Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA claims one husband and wife carer couple who worked as a teacher and school principal were stood down for years

— for years—

while an investigation took place into a care concern notice, resulting in 'devastating personal and professional consequences'.

The organisation also stated that:

…another carer was stood aside from emergency services officer duties, while a different carer was forced to resign from a pre-school board while under investigation.

Care concerns, of course, are reports filed by anyone who might think that there could be something happening within the home of a child in state care that could be detrimental to their safety. They are assessed currently by the Department for Child Protection, and in some cases they refer that to a care concerns investigation unit for further scrutiny. 

Indeed, the care concerns against carers are investigated by the department themselves, and countless constituents, and also the organisations that represent these good people who put themselves up to care for those children in child protection, complain about the lack of procedural fairness and transparency around care concerns and the investigation of care concerns. What this means is we are actually setting these carers up to fail if we do not at least provide them with that procedural fairness and an independent investigation process.

It is something that was raised prior to the state election with the Malinauskas government, and it was something that seemingly the Malinauskas government was going to address. Indeed, it features quite highly in that review document that has been in the minister's in-tray since February 2023—16 months ago. In the past 16 months, there have been many care concerns lodged, and not a single one of those carers has been able to afford themselves a truly independent investigation process and procedural fairness.

This is how this state currently treats those carers, yet they have the audacity to go on recruitment drives when they cannot even give them the basics of respect. The Carer Project recently did a survey of their carers—and have written to not just the minister but the chief executive as well, as well as a committee of the other place—and of over 400 carers in the survey, when asked the question, 'Do you trust and have confidence in the DCP?' only 4.43 per cent answered yes and 95.5 per cent answered no. These are the people we require, we laud, we hope to recruit and retain, and less than 5 per cent of them have trust in the department.

Is it any wonder, with the inaction of this minister to address a basic—basic—demonstration of respect for their efforts and for their extraordinary commitment to making the world a better place for children, of course, who are often traumatised and situations that are very difficult and very arduous in many cases?

They take on these children and they provide loving homes, and they do something that the state simply could not do—and in many cases should not do, because we still have far too many kids in resi care, which we should not have. This minister, through her inaction, has simply shown them contempt.

That is why at the end of the year in 2023, I gave notice of this motion. I will say that in recent months and weeks I have had carers come to me with horror stories about the way the department treats them, about how they do not have procedural fairness and about how 'computer says no' can leave them with a completely unjustified blemish in their records, which hangs over their heads and which they have no way of addressing through any fair and transparent measure.

I note that in May this year, at the Budget and Finance Committee of this council, I asked the chief executive, Ms Bray, whether or not she was aware of these issues around concerns about a lack of an independent complaints process. To that, she was aware, and in particular was aware of the petition which had been started for the need for an independent complaints mechanism, that has been signed so far by over 400 carers.

To my knowledge, Minister Hildyard has not responded to that petition yet. Perhaps the government benches will update us on whether or not that correspondence has now been addressed. I look forward to perhaps that small increment of change, but I certainly will not be holding my breath. I would note that Ms Bray, the chief executive, in the absence of legislation to reform this important area, to give respect and procedural fairness to carers, was very well aware of the issues and stated:

I am aware of that, and the complaints process has been brought to my attention by a number of carers who I spoke to both individually and at forums. While those considerations have been met by government, what I have done to satisfy myself is I have moved the complaints process out of an area within the department which could be perceived as a conflict—it was within our service delivery and practice area—and it is sitting right outside my office now in the office of the chief executive, just to satisfy myself that the handling and inquiry into complaints is further removed from the service delivery aspect.

It was an extraordinary response. The chief executive has moved the office of where the investigations are undertaken to next door to her office within the department, without any procedural fairness, without any independence, and she thinks that that is her interim solution.

In some ways, I cannot blame her, because what legislative recourse does she have? She does not have an act that allows her to serve carers with an independent complaints process, because the minister has not yet acted to ensure an independent complaints process to give carers procedural fairness.

There were so many issues raised in the consultation, and indeed it was an incredibly thorough process, which is why so many people have been asking, for well over a year now: what is going on? Why do we not have a piece of legislation before the parliament? When is this minister actually going to reform the act, as they were led to believe when the Malinauskas government was in opposition that the Malinauskas government would do in government?

Nine hundred people engaged with that review. There were eight metro and eight regional forums. Over 300 people registered to attend, and there were 83 written responses and 102 survey responses. There is quite an extensive document and, again, it goes through a range of areas for reform. It definitely identifies and overwhelmingly supports having an independent grievance process. It also looks to timely decision-making, and in the review report it states:

Decision-making can be complex in a child protection context. A first principle of intervention in the CYPS Act is that decisions and actions be taken in a timely manner and, particularly in the case of young children, should be made as early as possible to promote permanence and stability.

Timely decision-making is generally considered to be in the interests of the child, though the review acknowledges that what this looks like might change depending on the individual needs and circumstances of the child and their family.

The review report states:

We asked if changes to the legislation could improve the timeliness of child protection decision-making in a way that would support better outcomes for children and young people.

• The importance of timely decision-making, including concerns about the impacts of delays in court processes, came up frequently in the public consultation.

• Some stakeholders suggested the Act needed to make clear the expected timeframes for court processes and orders. We heard specific advocacy for the reintroduction of assessment orders available under the previous Children’s Protection Act, as well as suggestions to limit the number of adjournments.

With a quote from a practitioner:

[There needs to be] some parameters to ensure that cases can’t be in court for prolonged periods of time, as this provides unacceptable delays for children in decision-making.

Again, a very simple amendment to the act that would have big repercussions in a positive way for better outcomes for these most vulnerable of children, and in supporting those we expect to care for them.

Again, in recent weeks, I have received correspondence from those who have been involved in care arrangements and contested care arrangements where a child has been removed, and they have been sent correspondence that is giving them dates to appeal the decision that are, in fact, prior to the date that they receive the correspondence. Again, where is the procedural fairness? When an administrative error such as that impacts the life of a young child, surely the minister needs to get that review report out of her inbox and get some legislation before this parliament.

The time is late. It is a very late evening of sitting tonight, and I understand that, so while I could actually go through a whole range of other concerns, they are the ones I wish to focus on because I think allowing carers procedural fairness, and addressing administrative issues of process, is surely the least that this minister could have done in the 16 months she has had to respond to those hundreds of people and organisations who made contributions to improve this act.

She has not brought a piece of legislation to this place, and I do note that the Greens will, and did give notice today, so it is not yet on the Notice Paper, so I am not beyond the rules of parliament to address it. We will move for an independent grievance process, and I have a private member's bill to effect just that.

It did not need an extraordinary level of parliamentary counsel drafting expertise. In fact, it did not have all of the machinery of government, and the public servants there to put it together, and so I point out that the minister has had 16 months to do her job, and if she does not do her job this motion is just the first of many where the parliament will do her job for her to protect children and to protect and support carers in this system, this system that is broken and does need to be fixed.

If the minister wants to talk about the threshold for mandatory reporting as an excuse in the future, I note and I draw her attention to the threshold issues that have been addressed in almost every other jurisdiction of this country, that are identified in the review report, that have had great debate publicly, that she could have also brought in legislation to fix by now, but she has not.

The opposition no doubt will say that we need a standalone child protection minister, and they probably will say that perhaps this minister spends more time at photo ops than follow-ups. I am old-fashioned; I would like a competent and efficient minister who can multitask. If it is not this minister, then I suspect the Malinauskas government needs to get another minister to take the reins of this portfolio if they do not wish to see this parliament show no confidence in the broader government as well as this minister. With that, I commend the motion.

The Hon. M. EL DANNAWI: I rise to speak on behalf of the government. The government appreciates the honourable member's ongoing advocacy for the safety for vulnerable children. Due to the notice period given for moving and bringing this motion to a vote, the Labor caucus has been unable to consider the motion, thus the government is not able to support it on that basis.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I would like to thank those members who made a contribution to this debate: the Hon. Laura Henderson, the Hon. Ben Hood, the Hon. Connie Bonaros and the Hon. Mira El Dannawi. I would echo some of the words of the Hon. Connie Bonaros in drawing members of this council and of the other place and generally the Labor Party MPs in general to the words of now Minister Katrine Hildyard on 16 March 2022. I seek leave to table this letter that was sent in response to the state election commitments requested by Connecting Foster and Kinship Care SA, dated 16 March 2022.

Leave granted.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I do so because I know it is not necessarily a document in the public domain. It is certainly one that has been held onto by carers and one that they put some, I believe, false hope in. I point out that on page 2 of that document, under 'Supporting Carers, Grandparents and Extended Families', now Minister Hildyard, then the shadow minister, promised to:

• Legislate faster response by the government to complaints by carers and to ensure complaints processes are effective.

On page 3, she goes on to say:

Labor will also review legislative and policy settings so that responsibility for children's safety and wellbeing is taken and so that policies and practices work effectively for children, their families, carers, workers and communities.

So for the Labor government to receive from their now minister some talking points that claim that she has not had enough time to respond to this motion, a motion that has been on the Notice Paper since the end of 2023, some six months, that asks her to keep the promises she made in March 2022 that do not require any expenditure of funding necessarily to enact the most pressing parts of the findings of the review of the current act of its failings to ensure that carers are actually given due process when it comes to care concerns or given procedural fairness and given the respect they deserve to retain their services and their absolute commitment, it does not actually require this government to expend a single cent of additional funds to enact all those things to keep those particular promises. They should have been kept in 2022.

But here we are. It took quite a while for the review to take place. It has been 16 months since that review report was in Minister Hildyard's inbox and received with all that work by the community, by the carers, by the sector—all those recommendations—and we should have had a piece of legislation before this parliament by the end of last year, as she promised.

It is extraordinary that a minister would give any member of her party some talking points that the Labor caucus did not have enough time to come up with a position on this motion we debate tonight. It is extraordinary as an argument. No amount of sophistry, no amount of pretty words and rhetoric can dress that rubbish up. I commend the motion.

Motion carried.

 

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