Australian Senate Out-of-Home Care Report in Perspective

Australia’s Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has released a comprehensive report on child welfare and foster care. The 10-chapter report, Out of home care, was officially ordered to be printed on August 19 of this year.

As the Committee explains it: “In this report, the committee examines why so many children and young people, particularly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, are entering and remaining in out-of-home care. The committee examines how children and young people can be better supported to remain with their families, where possible.”

The Senate Committee’s report begins with some troubling figures. The Committee notes that as of June 30, 2014, there were 43,009 Australian children in out-of-home care, equating to a rate of 8.1 per 1000 children aged 0–17 years.

The Committee also noted that over the past fifteen years, the number of children in out-of-home care has more than doubled. According to statistics from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, from 1999–2000 to 2013–14, the total number of children in out-of-home care had increased from 16,923 to 43,009. Figure 1.1 of the Committee’s report displays what it described as “the sharp increase in the number of children in out-of-home care over the past decade.”



Minority overrepresentation

Early on in its report, the Committee describes the current state of affairs with respect to the overreprentation of minority children in the out-of-home care system:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are significantly overrepresented in the out-of-home care system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people account for less than five per cent of all Australian children and young people, but account for almost 35 per cent of the out-of-home care population. According to the latest figures from the Productivity Commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over nine times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.

To put this into its historical perspective, in 1997, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission issued a report revealing that thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families had been impacted by the forcible removal of children from their homes. Bringing them Home: The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families recounted the history of forced assimilation into boarding schools, followed by misguided child protection polices which accounted for the continued separation of aboriginal children from their families and cultures. The forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents was “an act of genocide” for which the victims should be paid reparations, according to the report into what had thereafter come to be popularly known as the “Stolen Generations” of aboriginal children.

On November 7, 1997, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Australian Council of Social Service, together with 53 national community organisations, “formally apologised to the ‘stolen generation’ of Aboriginal people,” saying that the community sector felt “a particular sense of responsibility.” As Herald writer Adele Horin explained it:

In a Statement of Apology and Commitment presented at its annual congress in Melbourne, ACOSS said the Government’s “genocidal” policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families “required the active involvement of community welfare organisations.”

In his last appearance as president of ACOSS, Mr Robert Fitzgerald said: “We feel a particular sense of responsibility for the consequences of those racist policies.

“We unreservedly and wholeheartedly apologise to the individuals, families and communities who have suffered such pain and grief from these terrible acts of injustice.”

It seemed at the time that Australia had at long last come to terms with the policies of its past, and the role of its child welfare officials in the promulgation of its misguided child welfare policies. Public interest in the subject was high. Not only did the Bringing the Home report itself go on to become a national bestseller, but a subsequent book authored by Robert Manne in 2001, In Denial: the Stolen Generations and the Right, followed suit by attaining bestseller status as well.

An official apology from the Australian government was, however, rather slow to arrive. It wasn’t until February of 2008 that prime minister Kevin Rudd offered an apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations.

An intellectual trap

One may well imagine that a particular government report rising to the level of a bestseller, an apology by multiple child welfare agencies for their role in what they themselves described as “genocide,” a series of national events aimed at “reconciliation,” and a highly publicized apology from the prime minister of Australia would serve to stem the tide of aboriginal child removals. Yet precisely the opposite has occurred, as the Senate Committee’s current report explains:

Between 2004–05 and 2013–14, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care per 1 000 children in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 0–17 years has more than doubled from 21.5 to 51.4 compared to 4.9 to 8.1 for non-Indigenous children.

How can this be? The intellectual trap to which we tend to fall prey is that of looking at all of these events as if they have taken place in the past, and that by virtue of having been publicly exposed and apologized for, that they have been discontinued. What must be understood is that in the field known as “child welfare” little has changed for the better, while much has changed for the worse. The reason that this is so is because the events in question – all of which concern the removal of children from their homes by one means or another, and for one given reason or another – are all a part of a continuum.

While it is convenient for historical purposes to divide clusters of events into eras, such as the so-called “assimilation era,” which refers generally to the historically parallel removals of native or aboriginal children from their homes for placement into boarding schools in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, or the so-called “baby scoop era” of the 1960s and 1970s, during which child welfare agencies came under fire for removing so many children from their homes; most of them apparently for little or no legitimate reason at all, these divisions are artificial, and fail to convey the continuing nature of certain events.1

This point was unambiguously delivered to the Committee by Mr Paddy Gibson from the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, who explained that discrimination is closely linked to past practices of child removal:

When you look inside the departments and how they operate, I would argue that there is a discrimination that is actually built into the child protection system and the way that it operates. It is something that has developed historically. These whole apparatuses have developed through the Aboriginal child welfare board and those sorts of things. They have never been systematically reformed. They are discriminatory. The attitudes that are held by a lot of the caseworkers that are going out there are discriminatory attitudes.

The Committee noted that many witnesses said that today’s child welfare policies and practices are putting minority populations “at risk” of having another “Stolen Generation” of children forcibly removed from their homes and their native communities. The committee explains, however, that Mr Paddy Gibson “suggested another Stolen Generation was not just a risk, but a reality.” As Mr Gibson explained it:

We are not at risk of a new stolen generation. I have heard this is what has been said. We are at risk. If the numbers keep going up, we are at risk. We have one, mate. There are thousands of Aboriginal kids out there who have been taken from their families—forcibly—when there was absolutely no need for them to have been taken from their families. They have been forcibly separated from their Aboriginal culture. They are losing their language, and it is because of the punitive and discriminatory attitude taken by these departments

Mr Gibson’s views are right on point, inasmuch as there has been an escalation in the numbers of aboriginal children removed from their homes since the issue rose to gain public prominence in 1997. To restate my primary thesis, the subsequent apologies notwithstanding, the events in question – all of which concern the removal of children from their homes by one means or another, and for one given reason or another – are all a part of a continuum.


The prime minister’s apology to the Stolen Generations was followed by a second apology, delivered by the prime minister in November of 2009. His second public apology was addressed to forced child migrants, institutionalized children, and wards of the state, the so-called Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians. These apologies came as the culmination of well over a decade of formal inquiries and several national- or state-level investigations into the past treatment of children in out-of-home care.2

There was yet another apology preceding the current report by the Senate Committee. On March 21, 2013, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered the National Apology for Forced Adoptions. In her most eloquent and heart-rending speech, prime minister Gillard said:

To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise.

We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal.

We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.

To each of you who were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry.

We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved.

The current report

Early on in its report, the Committee expressed great concern over the rising number of children entering the out-of-home care system, explaining, “The continued increase in the number of children and young people entering out-of-home care and associated costs to government indicates significant systemic failings at Commonwealth, state and territory levels to support at-risk families and prevent children entering the child protection system.” This concern was addressed in greater detail later (2.112) in the report:

The committee is strongly concerned by evidence that suggests child protection systems continue to be crisis driven. While acknowledging the initiatives undertaken by state and territory governments in response to a range of child protection inquiries, the committee is concerned that the number of children in out-of home care continues to increase and the significant issues raised by these inquiries remain unresolved.

The report says that the Committee was “deeply concerned” by evidence suggesting that out-of-home care was neither safe nor stable, and that children in care are experiencing significantly poorer outcomes than those children among the general population. “Evidence collected during this inquiry indicates young people are more likely to experience homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, and physical and sexual abuse,” the report explains.

The “zero tolerance” approach

The Committee cited research (3.62) suggesting that Australia’s current child protection framework is characterized by a narrow focus on stopping child abuse, including: “an over-reliance on mandatory reporting legislation, a forensic investigative prosecutorial model of practice, a risk-averse organisational culture and zero-tolerance of any imperfections in parenting practices which are defined as child abuse and neglect regardless of their severity.”

These factors are compounded by political imperatives to respond to high-profile cases of abuse, where “the imperative becomes stopping child abuse and neglect and a zero tolerance approach prevails.”

The Committee continued on to explain that:

Evidence suggests the impact of this ‘zero tolerance’ approach is an increasingly risk averse approach to child protection decisions that favour removal from potentially unsafe situations. The committee notes similar conclusions have been drawn by recent state based inquiries into child protection.

This risk averse approach is not unique to Australia.3 The Committee cites a 2008 study that indicated the prevalence of “risk management” in child protection systems across Australia and internationally:

[A]s a consequence of intense scrutiny and the fear of the public fall-out if a ‘wrong’ decision is made, risk management has become a core component of child protection practice in nations that possess a child protection orientation.

The committee cites a Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry, that concluded the risk averse “better safe than sorry” culture was the “root cause” of “an overcrowded out-of-home care system struggling to provide safe and stable placements for children with multiple and complex needs who could, with proper support, be cared for safely at home by a still-loved parent.”

Lack of family supports

Many submissions noted that the increase in children in out-of-home care was due to a lack of support services for vulnerable families. Ms Glenys Wilkinson, CEO of the Australian Association of Social Workers told the committee:

we need to be able to prevent children from coming into care, we need to maintain children within their families and we need to have family support type arrangements to allow the family to do their work, which is to care for children. We need to get family support services and then some more targeted services such as drug and alcohol or family violence services to intervene and prevent. That way, if we are keeping the child safe within their family then it is an economic factor as well. The family can do what they are there to do, which is raise their children, but we can also try and break that generational cycle of children and families struggling.

Disabilities raise risk of removal

“Witnesses and submitters noted that families and children with disability enter the out-of-home care system either through relinquishment or removal by child protection authorities due to the incidence or risk of neglect or abuse. Families with intellectual disability are particularly susceptible to having their children removed and placed into out-of-home care,” the report explains.

The Committee cites Ms Marissa Sandler from the Intellectual Disability Rights Service, who told the committee during a hearing held in New south Wales that families with an intellectual disability make up just one to two per cent of all families with children aged 0–17, but account for around nine per cent of child protection cases before the NSW Family Court.

The Committee “heard existing child protection systems do not provide adequate support for families with disability or families of children with disability to keep their children.”

Voices of the children

The Committee heard evidence of children being placed on a bed-available basis, of siblings being separated, and in one case a young woman being “placed” in a hospital for one night because there was no other placement available for her. One former foster care ward, Brooke, explained in detail to the Committee what life in out-of-home care was like from her standpoint:

I was placed in placements where there was a 6 pm curfew and no-one was allowed in or out. However, the youth workers would not finish their shift until 10 pm. There were placements where they would not drive the young people anywhere at all after school or to do any activities on the weekends. They would not even pick the young people up. There are also placements out there that have very limited food. One situation was so bad that my dad had to go and buy groceries for the placement that I was in at the time. One placement I was in made me feel like I was institutionalised due to the physical appearance of the property. The bedroom doors were metal. All the doors had locks on them and even the beds were bolted to the floor.

Poverty as neglect

“Without legal assistance or other financial supports, children may be removed and placed in care more often than may be necessary,” the Committee explains. One submission alleged that the financial status of a person may affect the outcome of a placement decision:

I’ve had workers tell me that if I had the money that my son would be home. It’s so very sad to all involved that my son, myself, his brothers and all family members are suffering due to a lack of finance. A child is not a piece of property to own and control. I would like my son home.

The report notes that “most families who come into contact with the child protection system do not have the resources to fund expensive legal challenges in court. For these families, there is limited financial support available.”

The report further explains that, “In addition, families experiencing the trauma of child removal are often not equipped, either financially or practically, to find adequate legal representation.” As one witness explained to the Committee: “The moment we have our kids taken away, we lose all of our parenting allowances from Centrelink, we are in a state of shock, despair and grief, we cannot function properly at work and our income goes down to very minimal. And you expect us to find representation at a court hearing in a process that we are not familiar with? And you expect equitable outcomes when we are not resourced to get legal representation at such hearings?”

The power imbalance

Evidence of the extreme power imbalance between parents who have had their children removed and the agencies who had removed them was unequivocal, as the report explains:

The committee acknowledges that parents with children in out-of-home care often feel overlooked and ignored by child protection authorities. The committee acknowledges there is a power imbalance between families and child protection authorities and that families feel powerless in dealing with these authorities. The committee supports the introduction of services and advocacy groups that aim to build relationships between parents and child protection authorities to improve outcomes for children and young people. The committee also supports greater integration of families into the decision making processes about their children, and greater independent oversight of decisions affecting children and young people.

In particular, the committee recognises the lack of practical support and legal assistance available to families seeking to maintain parental responsibility for their children. The committee is concerned that families are unable to access legal assistance when challenging decisions by child protection authorities.

Adoption as permanency

“A number of witnesses raised concerns about adoption being considered as an alternative to other forms of existing care,” the report explains. The Committee illustrated this point by citing the testimony of Ms Judith Wilkinson, Chair of the Children’s Youth and Families Agency Association and State Manager for the organization Key Assets, who told the committee:

we agree that there has to be permanency planning and that we have to do it a lot better in this state. There has to be certainty for children. There has to be the stopping of drifting in care. The solution to that is not to jump straight into adoption. The solution starts way back with preventing children coming into care in the first place and then properly assessing their needs when they do come in and putting them in the right place.

Another organization, Life Without Barriers, advised the Committee that there is little evidence to suggest that the legal permanence created by adoption was a significant factor in achieving actual permanence and stability for the vast majority of children in out-of-home care.

“We consider that adoption is only likely to be suitable for a small number of children relative to the overall numbers of children in out of home care in Australia,” the organization explained in its submission.

In closing, the Committee expressed the view that, “Governments of all levels have a responsibility to ensure that all children and young people removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care are provided with safe and nurturing living arrangements. The committee is deeply concerned by evidence that suggests out-of-home care placements are not safe or stable and that children and young people experience significantly poorer outcomes than their peers.” The Committee cited with approval the view of Associate Professor Philip Mendes from the Department of Social Work at Monash University, who had expressed the view that governments of all levels have a moral and legal obligation to children placed in their care:

If we as a community are going to give our government the power to coercively intervene in families where alleged significant abuse or neglect has occurred, then our government has both the moral and legal obligation to devote sufficient resources to ensure that the outcomes for those children are far better than if they had remained with their family of origin.4

1. Andrew Armitage explains in “Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada and New Zealand” UBC Press, (British Columbia, 1995, p. 120) that by the 1970s “child welfare agencies had succeeded residential schools as the preferred care system for First Nations children.” He notes also (p. 121) that, “The change from the residential school period to the child welfare period in Canada corresponded to the change from Aboriginal welfare boards to state child welfare agencies in Australia. In both countries, the high proportions of aboriginal children in care were not anticipated, and it was twenty years before either government recognized the seriousness of the problems which had been created by their respective social welfare policies.” For information regarding this transitional period often referred to as the “baby scoop era,” see Karen Wilson Buterbaugh’s web site, “The Baby Scoop Era: Research, Education and Inquiry.” Buterbaugh is often credited with having coined the term “baby scoop era,” and she has placed a trademark notice on the term on her web site.

2. For a noteworthy summary of the inquiries and investigations conducted over the years, as well as concise summary of the events leading up to the apologies to the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians, see Dr Coral Dow and Janet Phillips, ‘Forgotten Australians’ and ‘Lost Innocents’: child migrants and children in institutional care in Australia, background note, Parliament of Australia, Dept. Parliamentary Services, November 11, 2009. for an examination of the various inquiries held in Australia over the course of some decades, as well as a discussion concerning the national apologies, see the article “Australian Inquiries Continue Review Of Long-Term Abuses In Institutional Foster Care,” Lifting the Veil, January 2, 2014.

3. For an examination of the “better safe than sorry” aspect of child protection see the article “Defensive Social Work,” Lifting the Veil, last updated August 14, 2013.

4. For dramatic accounts detailing how aboriginal children are removed from their homes in the current era, as well as a detailed analysis of the Stolen Generations report and its meaning in contemporary times, see Paddy Gibson, “Stolen Futures,” Overland, 212 (Spring 2013); Paddy Gibson, “Aboriginal ‘recognition’—a cover for assimilation,” The Stringer (March 15, 2015).