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Weatherill's Fresh Start could lead to child protection system's "collapse"

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Welfare insiders have sounded an ominous warning about the cost of implementing the Weatherill Government’s child protection reforms, amid fears the “system will collapse” under the strain of ever-increasing numbers of children in care, at double the cost per child.

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The Government yesterday outlined its response to Margaret Nyland’s Royal Commission into the state’s child protection systems, a response Premier Jay Weatherill emphasised was predicated on “prevention and early intervention”.

But the vast bulk of the money committed is not to prevention, but rather increased staff in reformed residential care.

Uniting Communities CEO Simon Schrapel, who this week warned genuine reform would only be “half-hearted” without further consideration of scrapping the state’s mandatory reporting regime, told InDaily today he was “hugely disappointed” with the Government’s attempted “fresh start”.

“It’s hardly the big, bold reform that the Government’s touted it to be,” he said.

Schrapel said he understands that the bulk of the $432 million committed over four years would be spent on implementing only one out of Nyland’s 260 recommendations – abolishing single-handed carer shifts for children in out of home care.

This recommendation was a direct response to the situation whereby predator Shannon McCoole was able to prey on vulnerable children in his care.

Schrapel said he believed the initial $200 million commitment over four years would have been completely eaten up with fulfilling the recommendation to provide two carers per child at all times.

In a statement today, the office of Child Protection Minister Susan Close said: “We’re not in a position to provide detailed costings at this time, as there are a number of variables around the number of staff needed with fluctuating numbers of children in care at any point in time.”

“Our key aim is to increase placement options in foster and kinship care, as well as residential care when necessary,” the minister’s office said.

Asked if it could confirm or deny that the cost of implementing the reform would take up the entire $200 million, the minister’s office said: “There’s a number of variables but it’s not envisaged the cost would be of that amount.”

A spokesman subsequently told InDaily the measure was expected to be budgeted at around $37 million over the forward estimates, however it’s unclear if that will involve full implementation of the Nyland recommendation or part of a gradual phase-out.

A 2015 Productivity Commission report put the cost of SA residential care at $275,903 per child per year. InDaily has been told the vast bulk of this amount goes toward staff wages; thus doubling shifts, which InDaily understands would effectively mean doubling the staff costs, would mean more than $200,000 extra per child per year. In 2015 there were 404 children in residential care, but this has since risen sharply.

Thus, if properly implemented, the recommendation would cost more like $80 million per year – around three-quarters of the amount committed yesterday.

By contrast, the amount committed yesterday for early intervention services was $45 million over four years – only around 10 per cent of the overall new money.

“It’s an overly cautious approach they’ve taken, and it’s a clear opportunity missed,” said Schrapel, who also lamented that they “haven’t got a better buy-in from everyone, particularly NGOs”.

“If you want to know where the priorities are, follow the dollars,” he said.

“Really less than 10 per cent of the money goes into early intervention.”

That’s compared to a vaguely-stated allocation of “$299 million for additional staff, resources and new initiatives in out of home care” – costs that are likely to be recurrent beyond the forward estimates.

Schrapel said he was “a bit despondent because I want to be able to give some credit to what they’re trying to put in place” but pondered: “If we want to be serious about reducing the numbers of kids coming into care, how do you actually help more kids grow up safely in their own families?”

“There’s always a finite amount of money to spend on reform, and if you don’t do anything to turn off the tap, you’re going to have more and more kids in care.

“The gap between [spending on early intervention] and out of home care is getting wider, and this expenditure is only going to exacerbate that.”

He said “ironically this will shift more money into commercial care arrangements”, and warned: “If you have another 20 per cent of kids coming into care, the system will collapse.”

“We really need some genuine political leadership,” he said, also pouring scorn on the Liberal Opposition’s assertion that child protection could only be fixed by changing the Government.

“That’s bunkum, to be quite frank,” he said.

“I expect more of our political parties… we need a compact within all political parties to make this work.”

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