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Neglect and sexual assault: Report highlights "intolerable" situation for children in alternative care arrangements in NSW

Dechlan Brennan -

A damning report has laid bare the personal cost to children in New South Wales being kept in alternative care arrangements, with AbSec calling for an immediate end to the practice which often leaves children in the care of profit-driven organisations and companies.

Authored by NSW Advocate for Children and Young People, Zoë Robinson, an interim report of the Special Inquiry into children and young people in alternative care arrangements (ACA) makes clear many at-risk children have been placed in profit-driven care arrangements for a significant period — some as long as 600 days. 

Children gave evidence of their experiences in hearings across the state, with the report highlighting shocking cases of neglect, sexual assault, and children being exposed to rampant drug use whilst being placed in ACAs. 

One child told the inquiry it felt like they were being moved from “cage to cage".

An Aboriginal child who assisted in the special inquiry said they had no assistance “finding my mob,” whilst in care.  

“[I] still don’t know it,” they said. “I would deeply like to [know more about my culture]... I don’t feel like I get to express it [culture or language] that much…I don’t know anything about it."

Also referred to as high-cost emergency arrangements (HCEAs), ACAs involve a child or young person being cared for in emergency accommodation, including hotels, apartments, caravan parks or short-term rentals. 

They are usually supervised by “sub-contracted workers from non-accredited agencies or labour hire companies".

The leading voice in Aboriginal child protection, AbSec, urged the government to immediately end the practice of ACAs, and called for “significant reform” with greater involvement from Aboriginal communities. 

Chief executive John Leha said he was outraged by the inquiry, but not surprised, arguing it only confirmed what AbSec had “long known - that ACAs are neither safe nor healthy for children".

“Over 60 per cent of children in these arrangements are Aboriginal, with some as young as four years old,” Mr Leha said. 

“This situation is intolerable and reminiscent of the darkest times of the Stolen Generations.”

As of June 30, 2023, approximately 500 children and young people were in HCEAs across NSW — 118 in ACAs. More than half are Indigenous and over 50 per cent of the children have disabilities. 

Overall, more than 14,000 children are in out-of-home care (OOHC) in NSW, with 46 per cent of them being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. 

In response to the inquiry, NSW Families and Communities Minister Kate Washington said: “This report is heartbreaking; these kids’ stories are harrowing.”

She mentioned the recently announced review in OOHC, arguing it would “uncover ways we can give vulnerable kids the future they deserve, starting with a stable, loving home instead of hotels and motels with rotating shift workers.” 

However, Mr Leha was critical of the decision to review the OOHC system, arguing it was inadequate, not what was needed, and instead called for “action.” 

“We need immediate steps to protect our children and to implement the Advocate’s recommendation to end ACAs,” he said.

In March, the NSW government admitted in budget estimates that OOHC providers are not providing the government all the information asked of them, potentially putting children at risk.

At the time, Ms Washington said: “It's about 100 per cent [where] almost all of the information that we were getting wasn't either accurate, and about close to 90 per cent was significantly lacking in information."

The report also noted the use of ACAs cost the taxpayer $965,000 per child per year. 

“It’s outrageous that such vast sums are wasted on enriching private firms, rather than nurturing our children,” Mr Leha said.

“If these resources were directed towards community-based solutions, we could make significant, positive impacts on the lives of our children.”

NSW Greens spokesperson for Youth Justice, Sue Higginson, said the evidence was clear —ACAs have a “detrimental impact on children and young people".

“Yet the State allows children and young people to endure these arrangements in an overwhelming amount of cases and it’s sickening that private providers generate a profit. It’s perverse and it’s harming the most vulnerable children and young people in our state,” she said. 

Mr Leha said AbSec had a solution to the Inquiry, arguing “the time for ACAs has passed".

“We must turn to solutions designed, led and managed by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations,” he said.

“Our communities know best how to care for our children, with respect for our culture and their wellbeing at the heart of every decision.”

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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