Published in The Advertiser, January 7 2018

Over the next nine weeks leading into South Australia’s much-hyped state election much will be said and promised about the future priorities for our state.

There will rightly be commitments about economic development and job creation, about the cost and reliability of our power supply and on issues as far ranging as state debt and the future of our health and education systems. It will be a surprise if any of our political parties make any major statement — let alone an election commitment — in relation to furthering the interests and wellbeing of South Australian children and their families. Perhaps, in part, this is because it’s not seen as an issue of importance to South Australia’s voting public. Or maybe we have reached a state of “investigative fatigue” with the number of royal commissions and inquiries into the state of our child protection practices and institutions. Whatever the reason for our likely political apathy, the outcome is of great concern.

For all of the attention generated through state and national commissions we are struggling to make inroads into improving the lives and opportunities for vulnerable South Australian children and their families. Indeed, a quick review of some of the key statistics would suggest that we are heading backwards, not forwards, when it comes to protecting children and young people. In the past decade the number of children and young people removed from families and placed in care has almost doubled — we now have more children in care than at any point in recent history. Data clearly demonstrates the rise in South Australia is greater than the national increase. Sadly over the same period the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care has risen by a staggering 165 per cent. Aboriginal children now represent 34 per cent of all children in South Australia’s care system. Of course the removal of children from families and placement into care is but one side of the story. For some children such action is both necessary and desirable to ensure their safety and healthy development.

We are indeed fortunate that South Australia has so many dedicated and capable foster families willing to care for children removed from or unable to live with their families. However, it has been evident for some time that the current approach to supporting families and protecting children and young people is neither working nor sustainable. Despite the enormous commitment of our carers, finding and supporting sufficient placements for the increasing numbers of children entering and remaining in care is a major problem. The result is often inappropriate placements made under pressure resulting in placement breakdown and churn — a classic lose-lose for foster families and children. The long term impacts of such instability are catastrophic for children — both today and for their futures.

But there is an economic cost too for South Australia. Over the past 10 years the cost of providing out of home care in South Australia has risen from $93 million to over $290 million per annum. That’s a staggering 212 per cent. It is the sort of increase that puts pressure on governments to find sources of revenue through increased taxes. If that all sounds doom and gloom it is important to point out that there is an alternative. The solution lies not in growing our child protection and care systems but ultimately in reducing the pressure on them.

Much of the focus in past royal commissions and inquiries has been about improving the way in which child protection authorities operate — to enhance their practices and procedures. This is laudable but arguably ill-directed as it merely serves to repair what is ultimately an inadequate response to vulnerability for our children and our families. There is a mountain of evidence which shows that jurisdictions which have invested in comprehensive systems of family support slow the rate of children entering or remaining in care. It has required a different approach that gets help to vulnerable families quickly and continues that support so children can live safely at home or be reunited with parents. This clearly isn’t the solution for every family or child at risk but for many, with the right level of support and assistance that addresses not only parenting practices but entrenched problems of mental health, addiction and family conflict, it is a solution. Public funds directed at this point of the problem pay dividends in the long run — for children, their families and for our economy.

Sadly, despite some minor investments, South Australia’s efforts in delivering support to vulnerable families has been lamentable. While we have witnessed significant increases in our expenditure on child protection and the provision of care we have reduced our investment in family support and reunification services in South Australia in recent years. The cost of these policy decisions is telling as the number of children entering and remaining in care escalates. Last year, the State Government committed to the establishment of legislation that would enshrine the value of prevention and early intervention for vulnerable families. Alas, while the Bill was introduced in the dying days of the last Parliament it was never debated and its future remains at best uncertain.

South Australia can become a leader once again in the way it addresses the protection and healthy development of our children and young people. But it will need an emboldened and visionary future government prepared to address the problem at its roots.

Simon Schrapel is chief executive of Uniting Communities