‘Guilty until proven innocent’: Call to reform foster carer investigations

South Australian foster and kinship carers have reported being stood down or forced to resign from their jobs while concerns about their parenting are investigated by child protection authorities, prompting calls for an independent review process.

Dec 01, 2022, updated Dec 01, 2022
Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

The state’s peak foster carer advocacy group Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA claims one husband and wife carer couple who worked as a teacher and school principal were stood down for years while an investigation took place into a care concern notice, resulting in “devastating personal and professional consequences”.

It claims another carer was stood aside from emergency services officer duties, while a different carer was forced to resign from a pre-school board while under investigation.

Care concerns are reports filed by anyone who might think that there could be something happening within the home of a child in state care that could be detrimental to their safety.

Once they are lodged, they are assessed by the Department for Child Protection and in some cases referred to its “Care Concerns Investigation Unit” for further scrutiny.

According to the latest Report on Government Services data, in 2020-21, 30 South Australian children in care were the subject of a child protection substantiation and the person responsible was living in the household providing care.

That was up from 20 the year prior.

In a submission to a scheduled government review of child protection legislation, announced in September, Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA claimed that the care concern process is, at times, used to raise “petty issues”, with notifications “often raised well after the event”.

It claimed the process does not provide carers with natural justice, with carers feeling like they are “left in the dark” while investigations take place – often for months – and are treated “guilty until proven innocent” even when they have given years of “exemplary service” as carers.

The group, which is funded by the state government to independently advocate on behalf of foster and kinship carers, also claimed that investigations sometimes involve children – including carers’ biological children – being interviewed without an adult present and without parental consent.

“A care concern investigation can have disastrous and life-changing consequences,” the group stated.

“It can result in a carer being stood down from, or losing, his or her paid or voluntary employment (in particular where the carer’s employment role involves working with children).

“Many carers will openly state that if they knew about the risks associated with care concerns investigations before becoming a carer they would ‘never have taken it on’.

“They counsel other potential carers not to do it because of these risks.”

Other “consequences” of care concerns listed by Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA include a child being removed, a carer’s registration being revoked, and a ruined reputation.

“(Foster and kinship carers) are, to some extent, under constant supervision from the [Department for Child Protection] who (rightly) will need to report if care is dangerous or concerning,” the group wrote.

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“This fishbowl environment, however, only adds to the challenges faced by carers and their families.”

On its website, the Department for Child Protection notes that it can be “unsettling and stressful” for carers when a care concern is received.

“It is important that the department ensures the safety of the child, that carers and children are treated in a fair and just manner, and are informed and supported throughout the care concern process,” its website states.

But Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA is calling on parliament to change legislation to allow carers to seek an independent review of care concern decisions.

It is also calling on the department to remove unsubstantiated care concerns from carer files, so that they don’t remain a “permanent stain” on their record.

“These changes will not only make the process fairer for carers, they will also provide certainty and clarity for [Department for Child Protection] staff and those employed in the care concerns investigation unit,” it wrote.

The department’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward said reform of the care concern process was required and planning for that was underway.

She said opportunities for legislative change would be considered by the review, as would recommendations arising from a report on Dr Fiona Arney’s inquiry into foster and kinship care, which was handed to Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard yesterday and is expected to be released publicly before the end of this year.

“Safety for all children is a priority for the Department for Child Protection and this is especially so for children and young people in care,” she said.

“The department takes care concerns reported to the Child Abuse Report Line very seriously.”

In a letter to Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers earlier this month, Hildyard said that approximately 350 people had provided feedback to the government on its review of child protection legislation.

The Minister previously described the review as a “significant undertaking” that would aim to engage the public on the “intense challenges” faced in child protection.

“This review represents a crucial and potentially transformative moment to better respond to the complex and deeply interconnected issues facing families and the child protection system and in doing so, improve children’s lives,” she said in September.

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