Why do policies and programs for children need co-ordination?


5.3 Government responsibility for children is split between Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, among different departments according to ‘portfolios’ and among a myriad of government agencies at different levels of government.[2] There are over 230 pieces of federal, State and Territory legislation which deal with issues relevant to children.[3]

5.4 This division may enable laws and policies to be developed to meet regional needs. However, it also means that policy development and service delivery to children are fragmented and often ad hoc. This complexity has produced inconsistent standards with the result that the treatment of children in many important areas, such as care and protection and juvenile justice, varies widely, and at times inequitably, according to their place of residence. Co-ordination between agencies is limited and, in consequence, duplications, omissions and shifting responsibilities between government agencies are common. In consultations during the Inquiry, this lack of co-ordination was highlighted by a large number of both governmental and non-governmental bodies.[4]

5.5 The system as currently organised fails to address these overlapping effects of policy and service delivery on children’s lives and the consequent need for co-ordination and integration across the whole of government.

Lack of co-ordination between agencies

5.6 The lack of co-ordination between agencies relating to children was noted by the ALRC as long ago as 1981 in a report on child welfare. In that report the ALRC noted that children in many serious situations could languish because no-one had clear responsibility to take decisive action. The ALRC recognised a need for an independent official to ensure

…that a case did not remain poised uncertainly between a number of agencies, the concern of all but the responsibility of none.[5]

In the sixteen years since the release of that report, this situation has not been improved, despite various attempts by agencies to establish clear divisions of responsibility, protocols and co-ordination.

5.7 The cost to children of the lack of co-ordination between government agencies has been discussed in a number of other reports, such as the 1989 Report of the National Inquiry into Homeless Children,[6] the AIFS report The Common-wealth’s Role in Preventing Child Abuse,[7] the 1994 report of the NSW Child Protection Council,[8] and the 1995 Report on Aspects of Youth Homelessness by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs.[9] The last mentioned report noted that the situation for homeless children had not improved since Our Homeless Children in 1989 and, in some respects, had actually deteriorated.[10]

5.8 The Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service (the Wood Royal Commission) found

[a]lthough the various government agencies involved in the care and protection of children have promoted the concept of interagency co-operation in dealing with child sexual assault matters, the past track record has been poor.[11]

The report found pockets of co-operation but no consistent and professional interagency co-operation in this area. As the report stated, this has adversely affected the delivery of service and, more significantly, has ‘…undoubtedly permitted paedophiles to continue their activities unchecked’.[12]

5.9 This lack of co-ordination between agencies causes difficulties in program and service delivery in a variety of areas affecting children’s lives. This has been a problem consistently in the care and protection system. Professionals working within the care and protection system raised with the Inquiry a number of concerns about the lack of co-ordination. In particular they noted limited co-ordination between care and protection agencies, the Children’s Court and the Family Court.[13] Lack of co-ordination in the care and protection system was highlighted in a report by the NSW Child Protection Council.[14] Chief Justice Alistair Nicholson of the Family Court has also raised concerns.

Of all the areas where children’s rights are unnecessarily compromised, one of the most disturbing issues is the variance of legal frameworks and service standards in the protection of children and adolescents from abuse.[15]

5.10 Lack of co-ordination also causes problems for children leaving care. The Brotherhood of St Laurence has noted

[w]hile there are a small number of non-government agencies across Australia providing some services for a very few of the children leaving guardianship, these services are scattered and unco-ordinated and can neither deal with the numbers of children leaving guardianship nor the full range of their needs.[16]

5.11 The Inquiry was also told of the lack of co-ordination between government departments dealing with care and protection and those in juvenile justice.[17]

Social and financial costs of lack of co-ordination

5.12 When policy and practice is unco-ordinated, children are not protected and supported but failed by legal processes. The consequences for children were referred to earlier in the Report.[18] On the one hand the lack of co-ordination means that some children ‘fall through the cracks’ in the system and do not received any assistance.

Too many young people are in no man’s land.[19]

Nobody accepts responsibility for young people with mental illness. They are constantly falling between the cracks in the welfare, care and protection and juvenile justice systems because they don’t fall within the specific criteria of many services.[20]

These problems affect most severely those children who have dealings with numerous legal processes, such as those in both the care and protection and juvenile justice systems and those dependent upon several government departments for provision of support. The Inquiry was often told of these problems by both professionals working with children and children themselves.

Where a young person has committed an offence, the welfare agency will sometimes say it is a criminal matter and pass all responsibility for the child to the juvenile justice system, even though the child is in need of care.[21]

Once someone has turned 15, the child welfare departments don’t want to know about them, even though they’re supposed to look after kids in their care until they’re adults…the department doesn’t even know where some of their clients are![22]

In other cases, children must navigate numerous agencies and processes.

The bureaucracy is very fragmented. There is no holistic or developmental view of the young person…Dealing with government agencies can be very confusing for young people.[23]

5.13 These deficiencies within the system harm children, despite the best efforts by welfare workers and professionals. For example, the Inquiry was told

[w]hen young people are referred to multiple places, they feel as if they’re being given the run-around. The child often becomes despondent and resistant to referral.[24]

The system produces ‘knee-jerk’ responses to particular problems rather than considered comprehensive measures which reflect a systemic approach across the whole of government. The Inquiry was told that

[g]overnment departments are not very helpful. They are not responsive to kids needs or flexible in their approach to those needs…[25]

Elsewhere it has been noted that

[m]ost activity has been reactive and intermittent rather than proactive and co-ordinated.[26]

5.14 For children, decisions made in one area of their lives may have flow-on effects in other parts of their lives. For instance, a decision to take a child into care may be influenced by the lack of support and preventive services available to the child and family in the community. Children in care are less likely than other children to complete their high school education. Children who fail to complete school, in turn, are at risk of coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. Indeed, those in juvenile justice detention centres have high rates of exclusion from school.[27] For many children the consequence of contact with government services or authorities is involvement in the juvenile justice system.[28]

5.15 Professionals in direct contact with children repeatedly told the Inquiry of their frustrations at being unable to direct the system and services to assist children because of the shifting of responsibility and lack of co-ordination between different government departments and agencies.[29] Young people in focus groups stated that this created serious difficulties in accessing government services.[30] A submission from the Youth Advocacy Centre illustrates this.

Two departments now have responsibility for homeless young people. As a consequence, young people who are applying for income assistance are caught between two Government departments. It is our experience that this has had enormous implications for young people trying to access income support. For young people who have experienced negative contact with a state welfare department in the past, or for those young people who live in remote areas, the “safety net” is diluted even further.[31]

5.16 As well as harming children, this lack of co-ordination leads to inefficiencies in the allocation of government resources. Areas such as care and protection and juvenile justice receive substantial funding but spending is often ill-targeted, leading to significant inefficiencies and waste.

Social and financial efficiencies brought about by co-ordination

5.17 Proper co-ordination between agencies dealing with children should clarify the responsibilities of agencies, reduce gaps in the system and assist agencies to respond effectively to young people’s difficulties at an early stage. An emphasis on preventive, early intervention and on planning and communication between agencies should bring long term savings to the system, both financial and social. As Mr Greg Levine, former Senior Magistrate of the Victorian Children’s Court, has noted

[t]he link between inadequate education and offending and homelessness is obvious to those who work in the Children’s Court. The cost of appropriate programmes is minimal in relation to the cost to the community of dealing with the impact of homelessness. The benefit to the community in having those otherwise lost children achieving their potential is clear.[32]

5.18 Young people similarly emphasised a preventive approach.

They should help young people not to do crime. Instead of just punishing the[m] all the time they should think of ways to help them not to fall into the hands of crime.[33]

5.19 The High/Scope Perry Pre-school study from the US documented the results of an early intervention program designed to assist disadvantaged children’s school performance. The program had positive effects not only on the children’s school performance but also on the children’s social adjustment during adolescence and early adulthood and in particular on their propensity for criminal behaviour. In financial terms, the study found that for every $1 spent on the program the public saved approximately $7 that would otherwise have been spent on criminal compensation, insurance costs, prisons and welfare.[34] As a commentator noted at a recent conference on juvenile justice

[w]e will no longer be able to come across new ideas in juvenile justice provision and throw dollars at them to see if they work. Greater planning and greater integration will be required.[35]

Problems with current co-ordination initiatives

5.20 Numerous Commonwealth initiatives aim to develop coherent and consistent policies on children’s issues.[36] These initiatives include cross-jurisdictional research, inter-governmental organisations, national plans of action in areas of concern to children and directed policy co-ordination by bodies such as SCAG, the Standing Committee of Community Services and Income Security Administrators and the Working Group for the National Health Policy for Children and Young People.[37] The Youth Bureau in DEETYA provides some co-ordination across federal portfolios for young people aged between 12 and 25. Across levels of government, there are also a number of portfolio-based Ministerial Councils, such as MCEETYA and Administrators’ Conferences. Recent initiatives in policy co-ordination take an issues-based approach and include the Youth Homelessness Taskforce and the Youth Suicide Working Group. These initiatives have yet to achieve their stated aims. Reform in a federal system can be slow.

5.21 Protocols are often used to promote agency co-ordination in children’s services. The Inquiry heard considerable criticisms of protocols. One example concerns the protocols between the Family Court, State and Territory welfare agencies and children’s courts in relation to child abuse allegations. The terms of the protocols vary between different States and Territories. They also tend to be self-limiting, thereby preventing proper communication. A Family Court study concerning child abuse noted that the protocols are such that the outcome of the investigations are presented only within the protocol format, which sets out a series of pre-determined responses to be made to the Court.[38] Evidence to the Inquiry recited many instances of lack of co-operation notwithstanding the protocols — of failures to investigate or limited investigation of Family Court referrals.[39]

5.22 The Commonwealth/State Youth Protocol for the case management of homeless children, in operation in all States and Territories since January 1995, has failed to provide the necessary co-ordination between DSS, DEETYA and State and Territory care and protection systems.[40]

5.23 Existing mechanisms fail to provide proper co-ordination, adequate service delivery or real priority for children. More is needed for this.

[2] At the federal level alone those depts that deal with issues relating to children include the Dept of Health and Family Services, DEETYA, DSS, the Attorney-General’s Dept, the Dept of Prime Minister and Cabinet and ATSIC. At the State and Territory level they include agencies with responsibility for juvenile justice, health, education and community services. See also para 3.31.

[3] Australia’s Report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child Attorney-General’s Dept Canberra 1995 annexure 2, xxiv-xxviii. See also para 3.34.

[4] eg Newcastle Practitioners’ Forum 13 May 1996; Office of Juvenile Justice Minutes of Meeting Newcastle 14 May 1996; Youth Justice Coalition (WA) Minutes of Meeting Perth 1 July 1996; Perth Practitioners’ Forum 3 July 1996; R Oakley Public Hearing Submission Kalgoorlie 4 July 1996; Aboriginal Justice Council (WA) Minutes of Meeting Perth 5 July 1996; Darwin Practitioners Forum 16 July 1996; H Burgess NT University Public Hearing Submission Darwin 17 July 1996; K Wright, Youth Accommodation and Support Service Public Hearing Submission Alice Springs 18 July 1996.

[5] ALRC Report 10 Child Welfare ALRC 1981, 242.

[6] HREOC Our Homeless Children: National Inquiry into Homeless Children AGPS Canberra 1989.

[7] M Rayner The Commonwealth’s Role in Preventing Child Abuse AIFS Melbourne 1994, 56, 61. This report has been released but not yet published.

[8] J Cashmore, R Dolby & R Brennan Systems Abuse: Problems and Solutions NSW Child Protection Council Sydney 1994. The report highlighted, in particular, the problem of systems abuse in insensitive or neglectful practices by government agencies set up to assist children. The systems abuse documented included stresses due to delays in investigating or deciding placements for children, lack of information or services, inadequate or inaccessible services and lack of consistency or co-ordination of services. The report indicated that the care and protection system in NSW exhibited all of these features to some degree. See also paras 17.6-14.

[9] AGPS Canberra 1995.

[10] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs Report on Aspects of Youth Homelessness AGPS Canberra 1995, 6. The report commented that ‘…policy development and administration of youth related services is ad hoc, fragmented and unco-ordinated…’ and recommended a unified national approach to youth policy, including a national system for data and statistics collection and assessment and improved co-ordination between federal and State agencies in the area of education and youth affairs.

[11] Wood Royal Commission Final Report Volume IV: The Paedophile Inquiry NSW Government Sydney 1997, 899.

[12] ibid.

[13] Newcastle Practitioners’ Forum 13 May 1996.

[14] J Cashmore, R Dolby & D Brennan Systems Abuse: Problems and Solutions NSW Child Protection Council Sydney 1994, 28–9.

[15] A Nicholson ‘Advancing children’s rights and interests: The need for better inter-governmental collaboration’ (1996) 26 University of WA Law Review 257: Nicholson CJ stated that what he found ‘…most remarkable is that fundamental differences exist across the States and Territories in such critical matters as how abuse or maltreatment is defined, the systems through which abuse notifications are investigated, the level and availability of primary, secondary and tertiary services and the relative emphasis on forensic investigation as contrasted with measures of service’: 257.

[16] J Taylor Leaving Care and Homelessness Brotherhood of St Laurence Melbourne 1990. This point was also emphasised in the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families which noted that the services and procedures for accessing personal and family records necessary to allow Indigenous people to reunite with their families differ markedly across States and Territories and are complex and confusing: Bringing Them Home HREOC Sydney 1997, 324–25.

[17] S Crofton & K Kitchener Public Hearing Submission Kalgoorlie 4 July 1996; NSW Ombudsman DRP Submission 80.

[18] See paras 4.32-50.

[19] Perth Practitioners’ Forum 3 July 1996. See also K Wright, Youth Accommodation and Support Service Public Hearing Submission Alice Springs 18 June 1996; Alice Springs Focus Group 19 July 1996.

[20] Office of Juvenile Justice Minutes of Meeting Newcastle 14 May 1996.

[21] K Wright, Youth Accommodation and Support Service Public Hearing Submission Alice Springs 18 July 1996.

[22] Brisbane Focus Group 29 July 1996.

[23] Youth Justice Coalition (WA) Minutes of Meeting Perth 1 July 1996.

[24] ibid.

[25] Adelaide Focus Group 29 April 1996.

[26] Australian Association of Paediatric Teaching Centres Policies 1997: Office for Children Canberra 1997, 2.

[27] See para 4.37.

[28] See paras 4.32-50.

[29] J Cashmore Public Hearing Submission Sydney 26 April 1996; S Turner Public Hearing Submission Sydney 26 April 1996; Office of Juvenile Justice Minutes of Meeting Newcastle 14 May 1996; Community Legal Centres Minutes of Meeting Melbourne 28 May 1996; Perth Practitioners’ Forum 3 July 1996; J Owen & G Crowter, AAYPIC Public Hearing Submission Brisbane 31 July 1996; Confidential IP Submission 93.

[30] Canberra Focus Group 6 May 1996; Wagga Wagga Focus Group 9 May 1996.

[31] Youth Advocacy Centre IP Submission 120 .

[32] G Levine ‘At the Children’s Court’ (1995) 8(9) Parity 9. Levine SM states that early intervention programs would greatly assist in reducing the number of cases in the children’s court both in relation to offending and care and protection. The importance of addressing the underlying causes of criminal offending through preventive measures is being addressed by the recently formed NCAVAC: see paras 6.9-11. It is also discussed in overseas literature: see eg J Bright Crime Prevention in America: A British Perspective Office of International Criminal Justice University of Illinois Chicago 1992, 25 which points out that, as poverty is associated with a number of risk factors which, in turn, are linked to delinquency and adult offending, a crime prevention policy must have an anti-poverty component.

[33] Survey Response 238.

[34] LL Schweinhart, HV Barnes & DP Weikart Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27 High/Scope Press Ypsilanti, Michigan 1993, referred to in Audit Commission Misspent Youth…Young People and Crime Audit Commission Publications Abingdon UK 1996.

[35] M Hedges ‘Policy issues in responding to young offenders’ Paper Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice: Towards 2000 and Beyond Conference AIC Adelaide 26-27 June 1997, 6.

[36] See paras 4.53-57.

[37] The functions undertaken by these bodies are discussed in paras 3.54-55.

[38] T Brown et al ‘Mandated co-ordination: Aspects of the interface between the Family Court of Australia and the Victorian State Child Protection Service’ Paper Children at Risk: Now and In the Future Australian Association of Family Lawyers and Conciliators Seminar Melbourne April 1997, 12–14. The pre-determined responses centre around the action that Human Services intend to take as a result of the investigation.

[39] See paras 15.14-17.

[40] S Willey Public Hearing Submission Hobart 30 May 1996; Community Legal Centres Minutes of Meeting Melbourne 28 May 1996; Youth Network of Tas IP Submission 134. See also paras 9.54-60.