Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DOCS Reform Must Include Adequate Resources

The much anticipated Wood report into child protection services in New South Wales has been delivered to the government, outlining a program of reform to relieve the overwhelming pressure on the Department of Community Services. This pressure is manifested by the sheer number of cases which are referred to DOCS each year, with last year’s total reaching more than 300 000. This has been, in part, the result of a mandatory reporting regime which has a very low threshold, resulting in a “better safe than sorry” approach which has resulted in even very minor cases being referred to DOCS. The trouble is that the avalanche of reports simply can’t be effectively addressed.

The report recommends that a new set of agencies and services should be set up to divert minor and non urgent cases, allowing DOCS to focus on the more serious cases more effectively. Instead of Police, for example, reporting every child they encounter, the Police Force would have its own dedicated child protection unit which would be the first port of call. This unit would then make the initial assessment, and subsequently refer the case on to DOCS if appropriate, but otherwise on to another service, most likely in the non-government sector. In the same way, other government bodies such as the Department of Education, and the Area Health Services would all have such internal agencies, acting as filters determining whether or not a case should be referred to DOCS. This process has been described as a form of triage for child protection, and effectively reassigns early intervention from DOCS to other agencies.

The report has also recommended that the management of foster care should be reassigned to the community sector. Together, these two structural changes should leave DOCS better able to concentrate on dealing with the more serious cases. However, there are some concerns. Firstly, while such a restructure would certainly relieve the pressure on DOCS, its success will depend on adequately resourcing the new agencies which would assume the triage and support roles. At the same time there is the risk that an enthusiastic bean counter might also cut the DOCS budget in the belief that they now have less to do.

Further, there is the question of communication. If responsibilities for child protection services are divided up among a number of agencies, there is the risk that the chains of communication could become stretched. In fact, there is already evidence that interdepartmental communication failures have contributed to child protection failures in the past. If there are more agencies involved, then that risk increases. Everything depends on the detail of how the reforms are implemented, and whether they are adequately resourced, and any such process must be done with a view to actually improving the lines of communication.

One thing is certain. Reform is needed, because the present arrangements are not functioning as well as they should. A great deal of effort has been put into producing the Wood report, and many hopes have been placed upon it. The question now is whether or not the New South Wales government is capable of delivering on its promises to fix the system, and that means ensuring that all agencies involved are given the resources they need.

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