The Department of Community Services can’t stay out of the headlines for more than a few days. The latest tragedy to hit the front pages involves the death of a newborn baby in a family already known to DOCS. “Known to DOCS” is a phrase that we have heard repeatedly in recent times, and usually in the most tragic of circumstances. Increasingly attention has been focused on the performance of DOCS as we all wonder what more could have been done to prevent these unthinkable events. But is it possible we are asking the wrong questions?
The Department certainly has shortcomings, and has a history of failure. Efforts have been made to improve training and procedures, and more and more money is spent. But the results have not been good enough. And despite an increased budget, the recent Auditor General’s report revealed that the actual per case funding has halved over five years. It is clear that more needs to be done.
The opposition has been critical of the government for holding inquiry after inquiry and achieving very little. Then, in the same breath, the opposition calls for a Royal Commission, which is really yet another inquiry. The current inquiry is headed by Justice James Wood, famous for his previous Royal Commission work, and it should be reasonable to expect him to identify clear recommendations to improve the Department’s effectiveness.
In all of this however, the headlines have begun to verge on hysteria. Surely it is a mistake, and an easy shot, to simply blame DOCS and expect the government to fix it with more money and another inquiry. Let’s not forget that DOCS did not kill these children. Severely dysfunctional individuals and families did. The real question here is where does this dysfunction come from in the first place? These tragedies are not just a sign that the Department is failing… they are a sign that society is failing to address the underlying issues that cause this extreme level of dysfunction.