We need to put our money and our smarts where our mouths are

Last month, the Guardian for Children and Young People, Shona Reid, published a new report about child protection expenditure in South Australia. The report takes an in-depth look at not only where money is being spent, but what this means for the lives and wellbeing of children and young people.

“Expenditure and how we spend money plays a major role in how we look after our children well. This is something we all can relate too whether it’s our own household and family or whether it’s for children in state care. We must make decisions about where and how we invest our funds in order to look after our children in the right and most appropriate ways. That is why it’s important I am able to keep a line of sight on the way money is spent by the South Australian government and understand if it really is in the best interests of children and young people in state care,” Shona said.

“Often financial figures married with practice knowledge give very good insights into the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of legislation, policy and practice decisions over time”

Some key takeaways from this report show that South Australia spent $704.5 million on child protection services in 2021-22, with 80% going to care services for children and young people who have been removed from their families. When we compare this to similar national data, this was the highest in the nation – with the national average being 62%.

The remaining 20% of expenditure in South Australia was directed towards services to respond to reports about child protection concerns (‘protective intervention services’), and to provide support services to help keep families together or reunify them when children have been removed (‘family support services’ and ‘intensive family support services’).

“What this means is that the South Australian government continues to spend most of its child protection services money after children have been removed from their families. Mostly on things like maintaining a workforce, paying carers, residential care housing and the day to day living expense for children.” Shona said. “Whilst this is absolutely needed, we aren’t spending enough on getting in early and stopping children having to be removed in the first place. It might sound like a broken record, but if we don’t invest early, it will cost economically and socially in the long run”.

What adds to this, is that South Australia has the lowest ‘exit-from-care’ rate, as comparable to other jurisdictions across Australia.

“Essentially, we are taking children into care and keeping them there. Once children are in the system, most often they stay in the system. Knowing this helps us understand and forecast economic pressures into the future and also stimulates the need to have system change conversations about why our exit rates are so low and do they need to be?” Shona said

The report also shows that South Australia does have a reliance on residential care facilities and this is rising at eight times the rate of growth in the overall care population. The report found that the annual cost of a residential care placement is nearly $500,000 per year, more than eight times the cost of placements in a family environment. In fact, in 2021-22, nearly half of South Australia’s entire child protection services expenditure was spent on residential care services ($345.9 million) – with latest figures showing 710 children and young people in this care arrangement at the end of 2021-22. This was more than double the combined expenditure for protective intervention, family support and intensive family support services, to respond to more than 80,000 child protection reports.   

“It is important to recognise that properly resourced and targeted residential care can be a good therapeutic option for individual children and young people, and we need to make sure that these placements are available for those who need them,” Shona said. “But it can also be a really tough place to grow up, especially for young children, and I have serious concerns about the safety and suitability of many residential care houses. Growing up in a family environment is something we know works best for most children and young people.”

The Guardian was concerned to find that, with more children and young people being moved into residential care placements, growth in the child protection budget over past years has not been enough to keep up with this demand. In fact, despite such a high proportion of the child protection budget spent on care services, the South Australian government is spending less on an individual child in care than it did three years ago.

“It is both foreseeable and likely that rising numbers of children in residential care will continue to drive and worsen the imbalance in child protection expenditure over time – and this isn’t just a budget issue, this has a real impact for the children living in these placements. My staff are out regularly visiting residential care houses and talking to children and young people, and we’re seeing the impacts of budget pressures play out in their day-to-day lives,” Shona said.

This report shows that government needs to commit to a major intervention to divert the current trajectory. That’s not just about putting more money into child protection to keep up with demand, it’s about looking at how our funding model is driving rising numbers of children growing up in care and growing up without a family environment in residential care.

If we are to be true to our long-held values around ‘investing in our future’ and ‘looking after the generation to come’ and ‘supporting our most vulnerable’, then we need to put our money and our smarts into these words and quickly. Because that’s what’s needed to have children live safer in our community, that’s what’s needed to heal those that have already been hurt.”

You can read the report here

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