‘Open for scrutiny’: Govt reinstates child protection watchdog

South Australia’s new child protection minister has vowed to increase scrutiny by pledging $1.8 million to reinstate a key watchdog role, in a move welcomed by the Guardian for Children despite concerns about the level of funding.

Apr 13, 2022, updated Apr 13, 2022
Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard confirmed to InDaily that the Malinauskas Government would spend $1.8 million over four years to reinstate the Community Visitor role for children living in residential care.

The position was created in 2017 in response to a recommendation by Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland, who after a two-year child protection inquiry found there needed to be a dedicated visitor and advocate for children living in group homes run by rostered carers.

The Marshall Government in 2018 funded Guardian for Children Penny Wright and her staff to conduct a two-year trial, during which they visited 100 children who were living in residential care.

However, funding dried up at the end of 2019, prompting Wright to resign as the visitor due to concerns she was “just not able to meet the obligations of the role”.

Hildyard told InDaily that the Community Visitor played an important role in advocating for vulnerable children living in residential care and Wright should be funded to resume the scheme.

“We do think there should be a level of funding provided for that particular support because it is so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s the mechanism that we want to utilise,” she said.

“We think that if the child protection system is going to do the job that our community expects of it then it’s got to be open for scrutiny.

“The people most involved – children and carers – have to have an ability to speak up and be involved in the conversations that will make sure things are working as well as possible.”

But Wright told InDaily that while she welcomed the $1.8 million committed by the government over four years, it represented just over a quarter of the funding she requested to carry out the role.

There’s always a risk that if you’re not able to visit every facility then you will miss important things

She said a business case commissioned by her office in 2020 found the government needed to provide her with a “minimum” of $1.637 million each year to ensure her staff could visit the approximate 400 children who were living in residential care at the time.

That funding, she said, would allow her office to employ one manager and 12 advocates to visit every residential care home in the state four times each year.

“I certainly welcome this initial investment in the visitor role and a visiting scheme and it’s certainly better than nothing,” Wright said.

“That was the problem previously, that there was a visitor role and a scheme but absolutely no extra funding to assist any additional work.

“With the funding that’s now being made available, we’re now looking at having four additional advocates.

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“We probably won’t be able to visit every facility in a year, (but) we will need to visit those where we know that there may be concerns due to intelligence that we may have received or enquiries that children and young people have brought to us.

“We will have less capacity to do detailed records review and incident reviews and we won’t be able to do the in-depth reporting that we’ve previously done.”

Wright said despite the compromises, the funding would allow her office to “extend the reach and shine a light in facilities where there hasn’t been a light shone for some time”.

“There’s always a risk that if you’re not able to visit every facility then you will miss important things,” she said.

“It takes sometimes persistent, regular visiting over a period of time to develop the relationships with children and young people so that they will actually trust us to make disclosures that they might need to make.

“But, this will enable us to have a much bigger understanding of the landscape, to look into intelligence that we receive in the office and to make enquiries where that’s needed.”

Hildyard said the government landed on the $1.8 million sum after considering “all sorts of deep processes in terms of costing out our policies”.

She said she would meet with Wright this week to discuss “how we best make that particular pool of funding work”.

“I’m sure that she would have ideas for improvement, or things that can be done better,” she said.

“We’d want to hear from her about that particular funding – that $1.8 million over the four years in total – and what she thinks can work best.”

Hildyard said she would also talk to Wright about creating a forum whereby she could hear directly from children in care “on at least a quarterly basis”.

“We want to actually sit down and work out what’s the best way for them to be heard and to have that say and to speak to me directly,” she said.

“It’s something I feel very strongly about.”

Latest data from the Child Protection Department shows on January 31, 619 children were living in residential care, which represented 13 per cent of the total number of children in care that day.

The number of children in residential care has steadily increased in line with a rise in the total number of children entering care.

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