Relative neglect

Letter from New South Wales.

In New South Wales more than half of
looked-after children are cared for by relatives. Yet, writes Nigel
Spence, they do not get state help despite them having been
subjects of state intervention.

As a federation, Australia has different child
protection and out-of-home care legislation in each state and
territory. Currently, the status of children cared for out of home
is the focus of debate in various states and territories.

Between 1996 and 2000 the numbers of children
and young people in out-of-home care in Australia rose from 13,979
to 16,923 – a 21 per cent increase. This followed a substantial
process of de-institutionalisation during the 1980s and 1990s that
saw the closure of many residential care facilities. The result has
been more reliance on foster care and kinship care.

In New South Wales kinship care now accounts
for more than half of the 7,000 children who are in out-of-home
care. However, the state legislation – the Children and Young
Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 – had until recently
excluded children in the care of relatives from the definition of
out-of-home care. Consequently, those placed with relatives were
not eligible to receive services or monitoring – unlike children
placed with foster carers.

This arrangement has been widely questioned
and debated in NSW. The main argument for including these children
within the formal out-of-home care system is that the state has
intervened and thus state guardianship has been taken on.

If children in kinship care are excluded from
out-of-home care, then they lose out on agency supervision and
support, after-care services, and in NSW, case planning and review
processes monitored by the new Office of the Children’s

However, it has also been argued that
compulsory monitoring of children living within their family
networks can be damaging, disempowering for the families and will
place unnecessary strain on limited resources. A crucial aspect of
the debate has been the implications for Aboriginal children who
are over-represented in out-of-home care and who are most often in
kinship care placements. All have been anxious to avoid any
negative impact on a community that already has a deep suspicion of
child welfare professionals.

Amid the kinship care debate a Permanency
Planning Amendment Bill was introduced by the NSW Labour government
to strengthen permanency planning policy and practice, including
more frequent use of adoption. While the objectives of this bill
were widely welcomed, many details of the bill were challenged and
ultimately changed.

These debates came together when the NSW
conservative opposition, in a surprise development, successfully
moved to include an amendment in the bill to change the definition
of out-of-home care to include certain groups of children in
kinship care. The permanency planning legislation with the kinship
care amendment was passed by parliament but has yet to be enacted.
The minister for community services has stated that the sections on
kinship care will not be implemented until the numbers and the cost
implications are fully understood.

Nigel Spence is chief executive
officer of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies,


– Australia covers 7.7m sq km (over 31 times
the size of the UK) and has a population of 19.4 million (about
one-third of the UK).

– Ethnic groups: Caucasian 92 per cent, Asian
7 per cent, Aboriginal and other 1 per cent.

– New South Wales has a population of about
6.2 million of whom more than 4 million live in the greater Sydney
metropolitan area. There are 1.7 million children (28 per cent of
the population) aged between 0 and 19 years.

– There were 73,000 notifications of child
abuse and neglect received in NSW in 2000 of which about 13.5 per
cent were substantiated.

– Aboriginal children and young people are
over-represented in out-of-home care. More than a quarter of all
children in out-of-home care are indigenous. Aboriginal children
and young people are nine times more likely than other children to
be in out-of-home care.

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