Ombudsman Reveals Grim Realities of Foster Care in Victoria, Australia

The Australian state of Victoria is all in a lather about its Ombudsman’s report on the condition of its foster care system. In a word, it’s dismal. The Ombudsman, George Brouwer, investigated the foster care system and issued his report on May 25th. Since then the government has shifted into full damage-control mode.

Brouwer didn’t like what he found and neither do the news media, as this article shows (The Australian, 5/29/10). It’s not just that there are widespread reports in government files of sexual abuse by foster “carers,” children with fractured skulls and broken legs, drug trafficking by “carers” to children or children pimped out. Nor is it just that children are often removed from their parents only to find themselves living in seedy motel rooms or travel trailers. The actual facts of the cases of abuse which run to over 10% of the population of children in care are bad enough, but they’re not the worst of it.

The worst of it is that it’s all more or less inevitable given the fact that the state agency running the whole thing, the Community Services ministry headed by Lisa Neville, routinely fails to follow its own rules for deciding who should be allowed to be a “carer.” Because of that, known drug addicts and sex abusers made it onto the list of acceptable placements.

Perhaps worse than that is that the agency in fact has little-to-no idea of what’s going on in its foster homes. That’s because its records are spotty at best and often inaccessible anyway.

But perhaps most disturbing was Brouwer’s conclusion that there is a complete lack of transparency and independent oversight about the quality of state care being provided.

The department does not keep complete statistics on all allegations of abuse, does not contribute figures to the federal Productivity Commission for national comparison and does not reveal publicly the number of allegations investigated.

The only data the department itself collected relating to the allegations that the Ombudsman could find was dated from 2005-2006.

The Child Safety Commissioner collects data on allegations of abuse but that information goes to the department itself and is not made public.

How can the government begin to fix these problems if it does not know the extent of them or let the public know?

Frankly, when government agencies don’t let the public know what they’re doing, you can be sure that there’s trouble afoot, and so it is here.

For her part, Neville defends her agency saying that things used to be worse, and apparently that’s right. But it stems from the fact that until as late as the 1980s, Australia favored group homes for children in need of out-of-home care. Group homes there, as here in the U.S., are notorious for abusing the children placed in them. So Neville’s defense that it’s better than it was then sets the bar entirely too low.

If you want to read the 135-page report, here it is. But one thing you won’t find in it is any inquiry into how, why and with whom children are placed once the decision is made to remove them from their homes. So we don’t know if, as is true in the U.S., child welfare authorities are wont to avoid placing children with fathers when mothers prove abusive or neglectful. There’s not a word in the report about that.

And as a consequence, there’s not a word about fathers as a potential cure for the vastly overburdened Victoria system of foster care. Here in the U.S. it’s an obvious partial solution to a significant problem. I’d bet it would be in Victoria too. But as concerned as they are about their foster care problems – and appropriately so – neither the government, the ministry nor the Ombudsman shows any sign of looking at the obvious. Father? The word appears but once in the entire report.

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