Sunday, November 11, 2007

NSW - Problems in Child Welfare

In a post Neil referred to the problems currently faced by the NSW child welfare system, problems highlighted by some dreadful recent cases. In doing so, he cited evidence suggesting that changes in public administration had contributed to the problem.

I will talk about this in a moment. I thought, first, that I should set the scene to help international readers make some sense of the post.


In Australia's Federal system, the welfare of children is first and foremost a responsibility of the states. Each state has a key agency - in NSW it is the Department of Community Services (DoCS)- with primary responsibility. That agency has to work in conjunction with other state agencies - Education, Justice, Housing etc - whose responsibilities also bear upon the welfare of children.

While child welfare is a state responsibility, the period since the Second World War has seen a dramatic expansion in Federal power because the Commonwealth controls the purse strings. Over time, this has brought the Commonwealth into every aspect of state administration.

Most state agencies now operate within a framework set by Commonwealth-state funding agreements. Increasingly, these dictate what a state can and cannot do with its money. These complicate matters, because they constrain state freedom to act while increasing administrative complexity.

Take a simple example. Assume that a welfare worker identifies a family in crisis with children at threat. That family needs housing. However, the ability to supply that housing comes under and is constrained by a different Commonwealth-state agreement, the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. This determines what the state can in fact do.

The child welfare agencies operate within a gold fish bowl, constantly exposed to media scrutiny. Their operations are also affected by changing community attitudes and concerns across a spectrum of areas. This further complicates life.

Statement of the Problem

I actually alluded to the problem we face in my post Murder, Mr Rudd and Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an over-regulated society. There I said in part:

In our desire to protect children, we have created a system that not only fails the kids themselves and parents, but also the dedicated professionals who do try to help. Is it any wonder DoCS struggles to get staff?

How did all this happen?

Changing Community Attitudes

Changing community attitudes lie at the heart of the current problems. In sketching this, I am not trying to be definitive. I simply want to indicate how attitudes and actions in one area affect another.

To start with a historical note because it sets a context.

1881 NSW State Children Relief Act

In 1881 Sir Henry Parkes introduced the State Children Relief Act. Prior to that date, neglected children, orphans and some juvenile offenders were confined in large institutions under what was known as the Barrack System.

The new Act introduced the concept of boarding-out, under which orphans or neglected children who were in potential danger but who were not considered to have criminal tendencies were placed with foster parents or (later) with their own mothers. Institutions were retained for the treatment of delinquents and juvenile offenders.

Boarding-out was of two types. Where the child was under twelve, the new parents became foster parents and were paid a subsidy for their new responsibilities. Over twelve, the child was apprenticed out.

This was not apprenticeship in the traditional industrial sense in which the apprentice spends a specified time with an employer in order to gain a trade qualification. Instead, it was a placement scheme in which the ward was placed in the home of an employer and worked for them in return for a specified but small wage, part of which was paid direct to the apprentice and part deposited with the authorities to be kept in trust until the ward came of age. The employer was expected to supervise the ward's education and moral training as well as provide employment.

The Parkes Act and Subsequent Social Change

The world has obviously changed since 1881.

One change lies in changing attitudes to schools and schooling. The school leaving age has been extended, while controls have been introduced as to what work young people can do and when.

No one would argue against this, although we might debate detail. However, one practical effect in conjunction with economic change has been to reduce the capacity of young people to get out of a difficult home or foster situation by moving out and taking a job.

A second change lies in the role of and attitudes to fostering itself. Fostering has been central to child welfare for much of the period since the Parkes Act. In recent decades that centrality has broken down. This has happened along two dimensions.

The first is the decline in the availability of foster care. Fostering is demanding. In a world in which the traditional nuclear family has been in decline and in which both sexes work, there are simply fewer families able and willing to take the role on.

The second dimension lies in changing attitudes towards foster care itself. Changing social attitudes placed much greater emphasis on keeping children with their families and especially their mothers.

Separation through fostering became an action of last resort, only to be done in dire circumstances. This change in community attitudes coincided with a period of great change in which family break-downs became more frequent. In combination, the practical effect was to increase both the absolute number of and (I think) the proportion of children in some way at risk.

More recently, there appears to have been something of a swing back to towards fostering as an option. However, this runs hard against the decline in the availability of foster carers.

Changing Attitudes to Responsibility, Crime and Paedophilia

One question that has come up in recent cases is why the community, especially neighbours, did not recognise and respond to what would appear to have been a visible problem.

A full analysis here is far outside the scope of this post.

Part of the answer appears to lie in a decline in community interaction - neighbours simply know each other less than they used to, making it harder to spot and respond to problems. Part of the answer may also lie in a rise in the number of disadvantaged communities, specific geographic pockets of disadvantage on a scale that Australia has not seen before. But I think that part also lies in changing community attitudes to the role of Government, to crime and to specific crimes in particular.

Quite simply, our expectations of Government have changed. Increasingly, we expect Governments to sort problems that were once seen as community problems or, even, as insoluble. In doing so, we also have had a tendency to focus on symptoms rather than causes. Both have complicated child welfare.

This has been the paedophilia decade. Our collective response to the problem of paedophilia has led to a rapid expansion in controls and reporting. In turn, this has led to an explosion in the number of complaints and reports that welfare agencies must deal with, creating huge problems of overload.

More subtly, it has to some degree discredited institutions that have been central to our child welfare system including foster care and church agencies, in so doing diminishing the systems' capacity to respond.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Which is better, to protect one child from paedophilia or put at risk ten children through diminished capacity to recognise and respond to their problems? I am not sure that we can have both.

Changes in Public Administration

The changes that I have been talking about have taken place at the same time as, and interacted with, broader changes in public administration. The material that Neil quoted referred to these changes.

I have written a fair bit on the changes and will give links at the end of the post. For the present, I will only note a few headline items.

The first is the adoption of corporatist models out of New Zealand, beginning in NSW with the Greiner Government.

In combination with other changes such as the quantification movement, this has given us the world of inputs, outputs and outcomes; of key performance indicators; of cascading performance agreements; of accords and protocols; of efficiency dividends; of projects and project management approaches; of executive committees; of centralised control.

The creation of this new world has been facilitated by the IT revolution. Without this, the centralised command and control approach that marks public administration today would not have been possible.

Whatever the advantages of the original New Zealand model, and I have argued strongly that it did have major potential advantages, its adoption and adaptation in NSW has created what is, to my mind, an increasingly rigid and sclerotic system, making it hard to respond quickly and in new ways.

The second is the reduction in real funding for many state activities including child welfare. This, in combination with the changes in Commonwealth-State financial arrangements that I referred to earlier, means that we have less money for particular activities along with less flexibility in spending the funds that are available.

Combine all this with the social and attitudinal changes I outlined, and we have a mess.


None of what I have written should be construed as a criticism of DoCS or its staff. Yes, there are specific DoCs weaknesses. Yes, mistakes happen. Yes, things can be improved.

But as we move into yet another inquiry into DoCs and its operations, I would make the simple point that the system itself is broken and that we, collectively, have broken it.

Can we fix things? Yes, within limits we can. Do I think that we will fix things?. At the moment, no. I see very little evidence that we are prepared to discuss the fundamental under-pinnings, including our own attitudes. So, for the present, things will continue as they are.


Historical material in this post is drawn from my PhD thesis, Decentralisation, Development and Decent Government: the Life and Times of David Henry Drummond 1890-1941.

In 1902, Drummond became a ward of the state under the Parkes' system. Later as NSW Minister for Public Instruction (Education) for much of the period from 1928 to 1941, he was Minister in charge of the child welfare system.

In David Henry Drummond and the Importance of Compassion I outlined the circumstances that led to Drummond becoming a ward of the state, as well as his experiences within the system. Later, those experiences were to condition his approach to child welfare.

As Minister, Drummond experienced child welfare problems in a different way when his beloved Yanco, a key personal initiative, became embroiled in scandal. The subsequent inquiry was scathing about Yanco management. I can only imagine Drummond's reaction as he found problems similar to those he had experienced directly at the Cessnock Farm Home.

Two posts are especially relevant to changes in public administration.

The first, Changes in Public Administration - Notes, provides an overview of some of the changes in this area since the Second World War. The second, Changes in Public Administration - the New Zealand Model, outlines the key features of the New Zealand Model and discusses in a preliminary way its spread to Australia.

In all this, my own personal biases and values will be clear. Hopefully, I have given you enough information to form your own views.


Daniel said...

As with Neil's response, Jim, we seem to live in a world where actually solving problems always seems to be pushed into the back seat. People find intricate reasons and lame excuses for everything and end up doing little or nothing. Shrugging shoulders is very popular!

Meanwhile, children are dying. Sad really. They should be protected!

Jim Belshaw said...

Sometimes, Daniel, I get very depressed at the nature of the human condition.

Any half way decent parent, I often talk about my two girls, cannot but be attracted by the innocence and vulnerability of childhood. There are a small number of kids who seem evil from birth. But for most, when I look at the adults that some kids become I wonder what went wrong.

I agree with you that the protection of kids is critical. I suppose the point is, how best to do it.

I do not think that the answer lies in ever more law and controls. I think that it lies in addressing the problem at source. Sometimes, also, we have to recognise that shit happens.

Humans are like a janus god, one face good, one bad. The core struggle of humanity is the struggle to build on the good, to control the bad.

Daniel said...

Your first and last paragraphs demonstrate that we have much in common, Jim.

The main problem is human nature. Dealing with that at source requires either stronger laws with ever more severe punishments or genetic engineering. I see no other solution!

Jim Belshaw said...

I don't know that I am quite as pessimistic as that Daniel. I suspect that you are not either!

As a general statement, I see the core of Western Civilisation as a search for ways to control the devil within. And I think that we have in fact made progress.

As a second general statement, I also see the way in which we do things, sometimes for the best raesons in the world, as sometimes contributing to a problem.

Take, as an example, the creation of public housing estates. Ths was not done for bad reasons, quite the contrary. But the effect was to create ghettos of deprivation. In turn, this fed into social problems. So now we are trying to unwind the policy.

Sometimes this has its own negative effects in turn.

Did you ever read Heinlein? I read a lot of science fiction and I really liked him. I did not always agree, but I found his experiments with different social structures fascinating.

Daniel said...

I haven't read Heinlein, Jim, though comparing social structures does interest me.

The bashing of the three-year old girl occasioning severe injuries last night has disturbed me greatly especially in light of the ever popular and widespread activity of 'shoulder-shrugging' and 'buck-passing'!

If the world is to be made a better place for everyone to live in some things are going to have to be changed by force if necessary.

If they don't, we humans will eventually destroy ourselves.