Report finds Shoalhaven children more likely of be at risk of harm

REPORT: Despite Fams' latest report, Kiama MP Gareth Ward said the outlook for children at risk of harm had significantly improved over recent Photo: Alamy
REPORT: Despite Fams' latest report, Kiama MP Gareth Ward said the outlook for children at risk of harm had significantly improved over recent Photo: Alamy

Illawarra and Shoalhaven children are nearly 25 per cent more likely to be considered at risk of harm than the NSW average, according to a new report. 

Peak body Fams, has released a new report titled Investing in Children and Their Families, which details what it’s identified as “shortfalls” in the NSW Government’s protection system. 

According to the report, every year in NSW, 30,000 children and their families who are assessed by Family and Community Services (FaCS) as being at risk of significant harm, have their cases closed before anyone has contacted the child or family.

Fams said this problem was becoming worse in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven. 

FaCS figures show an 11 per cent shortfall in child protection case workers in the Illawarra Shoalhaven areas, which is four times the average of 3 per cent across the state.

Illawarra Shoalhaven children are also 37 per cent more likely to be living in out-of-home care than the state average, according to the report. 

However, Kiama MP Gareth Ward, said despite these figures, the outlook for children at risk of harm had significantly improved over recent years and entries into out-of-home care were at the lowest level in a decade.

“Under this government, frontline caseworkers are now seeing almost one in three children at risk of significant harm as a statewide average, compared to one in five in 2010 under the former Labor government,” he said. 

“Under this Government frontline caseworkers have seen a record number of children reported at risk of significant harm – more than double the number seen under Labor, with 15,000 additional children seen in 2016-17 compared to 2010-11.”

Fams CEO, Julie Hourigan Ruse said the report must be the “final wake-up call” for a system that needs “urgent” reform. 

“Vulnerable children are kept safe by quality services, delivered by a sector that is supported by sound policy-making, which helps kids when and where they need it,” Ms Hourigan Ruse said.

“But for 30,000 children each year in NSW, they are not receiving that quality service. A phone call is made, an assessment of Risk Of Significant Harm (ROSH) is substantiated, but no one responds or offers the kids or families help.” 

The report stated a 2017 Parliamentary inquiry into child protection found around 40 per cent of children deemed to be “at risk of serious harm” received no support and the cases were “closed due to competing priorities”.

Ms Hourigan Rouse said part of this problem was due to lack of funding for early prevention. 

While the Government has committed $370 million in cross-agency funding to Their Futures Matters, Ms Hourigan Rouse said it was too heavily focused on catching children who fall through the cracks, not catching them in an early intervention safety net.

She said funding needed to be allocated in the short-term to ensure targeted prevention in the early stages of a case. 

“Fams acknowledges the reform activity currently underway but remains concerned that the system will still not respond to vulnerable children early enough to help change their trajectory,” she said. 

But Mr Ward said under the new reforms, at risk children would receive a targeted response at the right time. 

“The NSW Government is redesigning the child protection service system to ensure vulnerable children and families receive the right response at the right time,” he said. 

“That redesign will focus on better responding to children reported at risk of significant harm, with a goal to increase the number of children receiving face to face assessments by FACS caseworkers.

“[This] government is transforming the child protection system to keep families together safely. Where that is not possible we will continue to support children find permanency through guardianship and open adoption.”

Fams’ report includes a number of recommendations for the NSW Government, aimed at improving child protection, including funding service providers to work with families for as long as it takes to address a situation, promoting access to help services and creating greater focus on targeted early intervention to address what they have described as an out-of-home-care crisis.

The report also recommends data about the state’s child protection outcomes be released more frequently and freely to the sector, so issues, problems and solutions can be identified. 

Mr Ward said as part of the 2018/19 Budget, $59 million would be invested over four years to add 100 more child protection staff, while $63 million was allocated for Brighter Futures and Safe Care to deliver services to families for children who are at high risk of entering or escalating within the statutory child protection system.

The Safe Care and Brighter Futures models will be expanded to the Shoalhaven in the near future, to assist at risk children in the region, according to Mr Ward.