Spending our way into the black while protecting the kids

Investing in keeping children living safely with their families is not only better for child protection but also the bottom line, argues Simon Schrapel.

In the face of record future debt, it may seem churlish to criticise a state government for not spending enough.

It is probably even more curious to suggest that the state government missed a big opportunity to increase its short-term debt while, conversely, ultimately improving its future long-term budget bottom line.

But that is exactly what our recently released state budget has done.

Between record spending on our health services, cost of living relief and major infrastructure commitments to roads, housing and a new children’s hospital, you might be forgiven for missing developments in our child protection budget.

For more than a decade, successive state treasurers have been warned about the unsustainable growth of our child protection expenditure – largely fuelled by the rising numbers of children and young people in our care system.

Instead, many, including myself, have consistently advocated for a shift in our policies and practice, one that prioritised supporting families to keep children safe, cared for and connected with their family, community and culture.

These calls have gone largely unheeded.

As a result, the number of children and young people in our care system has risen by almost 1900 over the past 10 years.

This 71 per cent growth in children in care was surpassed by an even more staggering increase in our expenditure on out-of-home care services – up by over $448 million per annum.

Or, to put it another way, an increase of more than 210 per cent.

No matter how you cut it, on both counts, it has been arguably South Australia’s worst decade for child protection performance in history.

While the state government allocated no new additional expenditure into its child protection or family support services in the budget, it did highlight a $70 million blow-out over the past 12 months.

So that’s the grim news.

However, while child protection might seem one of public policy’s most wicked problems, to which there is no real solution, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Or, at least, there could be – if we have a bit of courage.

South Australia’s rate of children in care is currently over 50 per cent higher than the Australian average.

If our performance were at least as good as the rest of the nation, we would have over 1560 less children in our care system today – and an annual saving of over $214 million.

It can happen with some bold action.

Last year, the Treasurer put his toe in the water in an effort to address the over-representation of children in care in South Australia.

He probably didn’t get the credit for having a dip.

Two important prevention programs aimed squarely at keeping children living safely with their families were introduced.

An additional $7.7 million was committed to Intensive Family Support Services delivered by the Department of Human Services and there was a further $1.6 million for family group conferencing services in the past 12 months.

While neither were especially large investments in the scheme of child protection expenditure, they were an important start.

South Australia’s proportionate expenditure on early intervention services – those services aimed at keeping children out of care at the outset – remains under 10 per cent of all child protection and care funding.

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This is where it has stagnated for over a decade.

Across the border in Victoria, expenditure on early intervention sits at 27 per cent, helping to secure an out of care child population that is proportionately half that of South Australia.

It’s pretty strong evidence that smart and targeted family support investment delivers for children, families and healthy budgets.

So, what have last year’s modest investments shown for South Australia?

It may be too early to be definitive about the results but, at the end of April 2024, there were 10 less children in our care system than at 30 June 2023.

And, yes, ten may not seem a big deal when the target is to reduce our care population by over 1560.

However, with an annual increase of over 7 per cent for the last decade any reduction is no small achievement.

In fact, if we had maintained our standard growth rate we would have expected up to a further 317 children in care by the end of June this year.

And with an average annual cost of $137,000 just to deliver out-of-home care for each child and young person, should our current figure hold firm we will be on target to have saved taxpayers almost $45 million.

Not bad for a modest $9.3 million investment. Not too many investments deliver that kind of return.

Just imagine what could be delivered if we lifted these early intervention investments to where they should be.

What would it take to achieve a target of 1560 less children and young people in care – at an annual saving of over $214 million?

Having made such a positive start in last year’s budget, and beginning to see the dividends, it was surprising to see these reforms come to a stand-still in the recent budget.

It’s not as if we have money to burn.

Everyone appreciates that we can’t undo a decade of poor decision making in our child protection space. But we’ve shown, in small steps, that this issue is not a wicked, unsolvable problem.

We can learn from what we have achieved in just one year – and what other jurisdictions have benefited from for many years.

Our Intensive Family Support Services, which have a track record of keeping children safe and out of our care system, currently only get to support a little more than a third of South Australian families who need help.

Armed with a strong prevention and early intervention lens, imagine if we could provide each family with the support they need to keep their children safe and connected to their homes and community.

Much has been said that the brunt of this budget will borne by generations to come. Well, if we’re going to take a hit, let’s ensure it’s to better the lives of South Australia’s children and young people… and know that it will also reduce our long-term debt.

Surely that’s worth the investment.

Simon Schrapel AM is the Chief Executive of Uniting Communities.

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