ACWA in the News: Hunter Kids at Risk: Kinmond Calls for Better Approach

Newcastle Herald
Friday April 23, 2021


MORE than 50 "at risk" kids are being reported every day across the Hunter New England region, an increase of more than 42 per cent since 2014.

Less than one third of those children are being seen by caseworkers who are grappling with the sheer volume of cases - 55 at-risk kids per full-time funded position.

That leaves more 13,000 children identified as being at risk of serious harm to fend for themselves.

The statistics, produced by the Department of Communities and Justice, show the number of children at risk but not assessed by a caseworker has risen by 44 per cent in the six years to 2020.

Children are reported at risk of serious harm across a number of categories including domestic violence, neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Steve Kinmond, CEO of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies and former Community and Disability Services Commissioner, said there has also been a massive rise in the total number of reports of concern, and a more targeted, collaborative approach was needed.

"If you think about that massive rise in reports ... the risk there is that we spend a lot of time on reporting and responding to the process rather than responding to the children, the subject of those reports, and it's a fundamental issue we've got to tackle," Mr Kinmond said.

There needed to be a fundamental shift towards intelligence-driven targeting of children in need, he said, similar to the change in police practise introduced in the 1990s to identify and target repeat offenders.

"It was an extremely successful strategy," he said. "If we are prepared to do that for the purposes of dealing with crime, why aren't we similarly committed to an intelligence-driven approach to identify those children and their families who need support? I see this as a fundamental human rights issue."

Opposition spokeswoman for Family and Community Services, Penny Sharpe, said the number of children not being seen is hovering at an unacceptable 30 per cent.

"That means kids are in very bad situations," she said.

"They have come through the kids help line, there's been an assessment done at some point ... a decision about what should be done with them, and 70 per cent of them are not seeing anyone," Ms Sharpe said.

"I don't like to use the word crisis but the government just seems to accept this."

The State Government was also failing to meet its target of 32 per cent for the number of children re-reported within 12 months, Ms Sharpe said, with that number up to 40 per cent.

"That's on top of the fact that many cases are simply closed due to competing priorities," she said.

"There is a huge number of kids being reported five, six, seven, and up to 25 times."

This issue has come to a head in the worst possible way where children have died who are known to the department, she said.

The number of children being reported is continuing to rise despite an increase in the number of caseworkers attempting to deal with them, an extra 160 workers since 2014, with a statewide vacancy rate of zero.

A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Justice said the December 2020 quarter caseworker dashboard shows that caseworkers are seeing more children reported at risk of significant harm more than ever before.

The department has also highlighted the increase in the number of mandatory reporters driving reporting rates up.

"Targeted early intervention in children's lives is more effective than a crisis response, and more than 16,000 children received early intervention and preservation services in 2019-20," the spokesman said.

There has been a record level of investment to reform the system and support the state's most vulnerable children and families, with more than 4,500 funded places for families in early intervention and preservation programs in 2020-21, he said.

Those programs offering early intervention and support for children to stay at home have contributed to a 27 per cent drop in the number of children entering out of home care, the statistics show.

Mr Kinmond said there was a whole range of very important initiatives and solid evidence of outcomes for families, but that did not speak to efficiency.

"Of course we can talk about the number of families being reached but that doesn't tell us if the system is working the way that it should," he said.

"But how rigorous are we in identifying the right families? If we use a more intelligence-driven approach to more effectively apply our resources then over time, this treadmill of reporting, which goes faster and faster, will hopefully slow down.

"The non-government sector is up for this, it is calling out for greater efficiency and collaboration in the sector, and there is a strong appetite from those in the commercial area to contribute."