Who Cares for the Under 16s?

Laurie Matthews | Caretakers Cottage | March 2014

 Laurie Matthews, CEO Caretakers Cottage

Laurie Matthews, CEO Caretakers Cottage

CHILDREN AND YOUNG PERSONS (CARE AND PROTECTION) ACT 1998, SECTION 228: Neglect of children and young persons: A person, whether or not the parent of the child or young person, who, without reasonable excuse, neglects to provide adequate and proper food, nursing, clothing, medical aid or lodging for a child or young person in his or her care, is guilty of an offence.

The NSW Dept. Community Services have released a discussion paper regarding the care of under 16 year olds who seek accommodation support from Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) (youth refuges) to address ambiguities in law and practice around the care of these young people. First and foremost, parents are responsible to raise their children to a point of autonomy and anecdotally we know that many young people remain in the family home till their mid-20’s and beyond. These arrangements are sometimes derailed for a variety of reasons that range from abuse through to parents’ inability to adequately care, mental ill-health, substance abuse to economic capacity to provide for children.

Over the past 20 years there have been numerous attempts to draft an under 16’s policy between SHS and Family and Community Services that reach a point of common agreement that there is a problem and the process stalls so I am pleased to have another opportunity to progress this important policy issue. At the heart of this concern is who is responsible for the well-being of these young people and as the law states today it is firstly the parents’ responsibility to ensure a safe and nurturing environment is provided and if this is not the case a child protection regime is in place to assess the situation and determine a constructive way forward. Current policy is to do all in our power to supply the support and resources to assist parents to fulfill these responsibilities however there are situations where the child’s safety cannot be assured and that there has been a risk of significant harm (ROSH) that may lead FACS to initiate a Court process seeking the removal of the child from their family.

The Court route is a last resort and is rarely taken for a child over 14 years so in these cases where the parent is unable to discharge their role in providing for their child the child is often left with nobody assuming formal responsibility. This creates a myriad of problems from consent (medical, schooling, financial) whereas if a court had determined that it was unsafe or unreasonable for a young person to return home the child would then be subject to the provisions of Out of Home Care (OOHC) that enables access to foster care and residential care of a standard determined by the Children’s Guardian. This is a costly option with residential care costing between $74,000 and $288,000 per child per annum and represents failure to successfully support the family so is often viewed as a derisory outcome.

FACS have continued to use SHS services as respite or most likely the only placements that can be found for OOHC clients which is also cynical cost cutting and definitely not in the best interests of the child.

In lieu of an OOHC outcome young people who cannot return to their family are placed in SHS services where resourcing is minimal and the capacity to ensure a safe and nurturing long term environment is getting harder to guarantee. By way of example the current Going Home Staying Home reform of the SHS sector will see no medium term accommodation in the Eastern Suburb so the SHS response has to be to get the child home or establish a case for FACS to bring the child into OOHC however, the reality is more likely that the young person will couch surf till they run out of options or to put themselves into risky situations of exploitation. The Eastern Suburbs currently has 2 accommodation services to provide up to 3 years stable accommodation for 13 young people under 16 and these will disappear under the GHSH reforms so there will be no options other than returning to the family home past June 30 2014.

A painfully boring impact on homelessness has been a tussle, probably since Federation between the States and the Commonwealth as the Commonwealth is clear that it is the States who are responsible for children as defined in the Children and Young Persons (care and protection) ACT or under 16 years.  Further to this is that FACS does not assume any responsibility for a young person for whom they are not legally required to assist so this leaves many children and young people aged 14 to 18 with nobody taking responsibility for their well-being. This sound like neglect.

In the 1980’s and 90’s when many of the large traditional State run institutions were closed the SHS sector was inundated with State Wards (now young people in the care of the Minister) and as many services at the time refused to accommodate under 16’s unless they were adequately funded to meet their needs. Caretakers Cottage and a small number of other services continued to accommodate these young people as they were clearly in need and worked towards a comprehensive policy to ensure the well–being of these vulnerable young people and 20 years later we are no closer to a resolution.

The process of mandatory reporting of abuse has become a farce as the risk of significant harm (ROSH) test screens homeless young people out as homelessness is not recognised and a significant risk of harm however, I would contend that neglect and failure to provide the necessities of life would seem significant to me. To illustrate I recall accommodating a 17-year-old boy who presented with serious welts on his back that were obviously caused by an electrical cord, he was reluctant to involve FACS as when this was reported the FACS Helpline concluded that he was no longer at risk as he was now residing at the refuge, further he had concerns that his 12-year-old sister was subject to similar mistreatment. On the basis that his allegations were dismissed he was reluctant to pursue the matter with FACS as he could not provide date, time and a description of exact injuries so he did not see the point in going on with the complaint even though he was sure his sister was being abused.

The new reforms will see the Eastern Suburbs funding of $2.8m cut to $1.5m and the closure of at least 6 accommodation services and when the reformers are asked about resourcing high needs and young children’s requirements we are told to return the child to their families or to place them in transitional accommodation (A flat) and provide staff to support them, scarcely a reasonable solution for the needs of a 14 year old who has been traumatised by their family break up or abused to the point they cannot return home.

A positive aspect of the GHSH reform is to divert some accommodation funding to early intervention though if this is not accompanied by a major public awareness campaign that connects distressed families with support services who provide parenting education and appropriate mental health services not a lot will change. Families need to here and accept that parenting is there responsibility and that should you be struggling there are supports available. Expensive but so is the alternative. FACS and society generally has taken a pejorative view and focus on the impression of bad parenting with consequences and enforcement that tends to discourage parents from seeking help for fear their children will be removed.

© Caretakers Cottage 2014