I rise to make a statement on the Auditor-General’s report Early Intervention Services for Vulnerable Children and Families. At the outset I will say that this is an alarming report. It looks at whether vulnerable families can access early intervention services through the child and family information, referral and support teams, commonly known as Child FIRSTs, and integrated family services.
This report deals with services for the most vulnerable people in our society: children who have no say in their circumstances. Children and families are affected by a whole range of issues, from mental health and homelessness to financial stress and family violence. These are the people who governments in a civilised society have an obligation to protect and help. It is basic humanity. It also benefits the state, as the costs of later intervention are always greater both in human and in financial terms.
Figure 1A on page 1 of the report outlines that reports to child protection have doubled in less than a decade, from a little under 40 000 to over 80 000 a year. This has put early intervention services under pressure, and they are facing more cases of greater complexity. This means that lower risk families are missing the early intervention that could be most beneficial to them.
Quite disturbingly, on top of this huge workload there are no assurances on the effectiveness of services provided. These problems are compounded by inadequate demand planning. The department is slow to respond to emerging issues, and the effectiveness of local demand strategies is not evaluated. The information gap is so large that providers delivered $5.3 million of services above funding, but it is not known if these resulted from goodwill, inefficiencies or cross-subsidies.
The Auditor-General has said that the department needs to undertake a comprehensive and urgent review of its funding model to answer these questions. It was also found that there were weak partnerships and governance issues throughout the sector. The department needs to better communicate operational and strategic issues to the sector.
Probably the most shocking finding was that the department does not monitor outcomes. There is monitoring of contractual outputs but not of critical aspects such as timeliness or engagement. The limited and unreliable service data means that there is little analysis of systems performance. The old truism, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ applies here. The systemic failure is profound.
We cannot just stand by and abandon those most in need. It is not right that families with low to moderate needs are missing out on early intervention from which they could benefit because the system is swamped or because there is a lack of planning and data. The Auditor-General has made 10 recommendations. I note that he has welcomed the department’s detailed actions in response to his recommendations and its willingness to openly and constructively engage with the audit team throughout the audit process. I am pleased that unlike the Liberal-Nationals coalition government, which failed to increase funding for our most vulnerable families and children, the Andrews Labor government is meeting the challenge head on.
The state budget put $48.1 million into early intervention services. Labor has funded 110 new child protection workers to help those already in the system and has provided $93.3 million to improve out-of-home care for those who cannot live safely with their immediate families. This is all part of a $283 million package focusing on vulnerable families and their children. The government has accepted the Auditor-General’s recommendations and recognises that our most vulnerable families and their children need a helping hand.
With 1 in 37 Australian children in child protection services, good intentions are not good enough. The Andrews government has backed the sector with the resources to improve services to vulnerable families and children, and that needs to be acknowledged. It is the least we can do for our most vulnerable citizens. They deserve that. I commend this report to the house.