Community Affairs References Committee Report into Out of Homecare – 19 August 2015


Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (16:24): I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I think it is an issue of absolute critical importance. No-one can look at this area and not be frustrated and moved by the complexity and the size of this problem. There are no easy answers in this report. It does not pretend that there are any easy answers. It was a unanimous report, even if there were bits and pieces that we differed over. The broad thrust of the report, I think, is very good and lays out a whole range of really important recommendations. I commend the report to the Senate.



I want to come to an area of difference, where coalition senators drew some different conclusions from the evidence that we had. Before I do that, I would reinforce that some great work went into it. I thank very much all of the witnesses, all those who made themselves available, the experts, the young people we heard from, people caring for people. There was some outstanding evidence so I thank you for that.


I also wanted to make a brief note of some of the evidence of Greg Nicolau, from the Australian Childhood Trauma Group. Residential care is often where some of the kids who have done it toughest end up. It is often the kids who have been through many sets of foster carers who end up in these residential care group homes, which are managed by non-government organisations in most cases. Mr Nicolau raised some issues about some of these residences. We had pictures of residences presented to the committee, the standards which I thought were concerning. I hope that they do not represent the broader picture here. It is difficult for us to know. But certainly what was presented was concerning.


I note Mr Nicolau's suggestion of the best model as he sees it is the Jasper Mountain Centre in the United States. He said it provided the best example of therapeutic residential care in the world. He explained that under this model, children are sent away from the home in which they have been abused and live in a large residence on the top of a mountain. It provides an intensive residential treatment program with a therapeutic school, a short-term residential centre, a treatment foster care program, a community based wraparound program and a crisis response services. This facility offers a combination of traditional psychological and psychiatric interventions with innovations in treating abused and emotionally disturbed children. I think it is worth getting that on the record. I think that is something that governments need to look at.


But where coalition senators and I took a slightly different view, having looked at the evidence, was on the issue of adoption and the place of adoption in the whole space. I think that the rates of adoption in this country are simply unacceptable when we look at the issues that we are dealing with and when we look at the numbers of children who are being taken from their parents, who are in many cases having long-term orders and who in many cases find themselves going from foster carer to foster carer. We heard evidence about that. This is something that I believe needs to change.


Senator Lindgren and I have made some additional comments in addition to the report. We believe that this is something we have to take another look at as a nation. This is something that we believe we have to do better on as a nation. It is worth going through some of the stats in relation to this. We looked at the 2012-13 figures, which were the most comprehensive and up-to-date. In the year 2012-13, 27,924 children had been in care home out-of-home care for two years or more. Most of those are on long-term orders until they are 18, sometimes from six months, from one year, from 18 months, from two years to 18. We have this situation where tens of thousands kids have been in out-of-home care for more than two years yet, in that same year, there were 210 local adoptions. That is less than one per cent. I do not see how you can say that that is a reasonable number. I know the complexities. One of the reasons I think there is this bias against adoption is that it is a reaction to failings in the past. We should be clear about that. It is in part a reaction to some of the serious failures in the past. We would never want to go back—and we never will—to the kind of forced adoptions that before my time this committee looked at. That is not a reason to not have adoption as a serious option in this nation. That is what it has become, unfortunately. It has become not a serious and genuine option.


We heard evidence to this effect. We heard from Barnardos:


The growing number of children in care is primarily driven by the fact that children are staying in care too long and entering care earlier. There is a failure to consider ensuring 'exit' from long-term care which leaves too many young people in unstable and damaging foster care. A proven way of doing so is through open adoption...Open adoption is valued highly by many children and Barnardos Australia has published extensively on our experience and can provide evidence from young people speaking themselves on the importance of this option. Both the USA and UK have a high number of children adopted from care.


To make that comparison that I have talked about: less than one per cent of kids who have been in out-of-home care for more than two years in Australia are adopted, and it is around six per cent in the UK. It is higher again in the United States. There does not seem to me to be any reasonable reason why, once these decisions have been made—and court orders have been made in many cases—that kids cannot return, we should not be looking at the option for adoption.


There is a short time left, and I wanted to touch on a couple of other things. I touch on the fact that the South Australian coroner has talked about this. We see the tragic cases, but the tragic cases are a different question. They are a question about whether or not we put kids at the centre, and there is a range of things about that, about where the kids were removed from harm—like Chloe Valentine, who was not and tragically died. There is a different issue here, but again it is about whether we want to be child centred or not. Do we want to be child centred? I say we have to be and I think everyone agrees, but what does that look like? As I say, adoption is not going to be the only answer. It is not going to be the answer for all kids, but it should be the answer for more kids.


We have locally here the Barnardos Mother of the Year. Chauntell McNamara talks about her experience with caring for foster kids. It has taken her six years to adopt her son, and she has now adopted a daughter. It was when her son said to her: 'I want that identity. I want to have the same name as you. I don't want to have two names. I want to have this identity.' And partly this is about giving kids that identity.


We heard from the New South Wales government, and I would like to commend the New South Wales government. We recommend that the New South Wales model be looked at nationally because it is a balanced and good model. It has a different hierarchy from what we have seen. As I say, there has been a bias against adoption in this country which I think is unreasonable and has gone too far—though I acknowledge some of the reasons why people have gone down that path.


This is the order of precedence in the New South Wales model. Family preservation and restoration, of course, is number one. If that can be done, that is the idea, but in many cases we know that it cannot. Where it cannot, we need to look at other options. The second option is long-term guardianship to relative or kin. If they can be found, that is ideal, but in many cases they cannot. The third option is adoption. Then the fourth option is parental responsibility to the minister. I would say that that is a model that should be looked at right around the county. I would say that the Australian government should be taking that to COAG and taking leadership on this. I know that the Prime Minister and the government are taking a lead on international adoptions, but what we are talking about is adoptions here in Australia.


Try and imagine the trauma for a young child of not just being removed once from a traumatic situation but then perhaps being removed a second time, a third time or a fourth time. Imagine if that is your child. I have got five children; my youngest is two. I cannot imagine her being taken away, but if in tragic circumstances she ever had to be taken away, I would not want her to be taken from safety again and again. That is potentially what some children face. We know it is not simple. This report does not pretend it is—I commend it—but we say we have to take another look. We cannot pretend that there are no answers. The New South Wales model presents some answers. I commend that model to other state governments, I commend it to COAG and I commend it to the Senate. (Time expired).