Margie's story

Margie came to the Royal Commission with concerns about the foster care system within New South Wales. As a volunteer, paid worker and advocate working for over two decades within the sector, Margie had seen numerous occasions where poor screening of foster carers had resulted in bad outcomes for children.

‘I guess what brought me here originally was watching inappropriate carers in the field’, she said. ‘Because of both [my] volunteer and work capacity I see most carers out in the field … my concern continually has been inappropriate carers in the field, resulting in abuse of children and other abuse that was coming to my attention.’

Poor screening practices on the part of a number of non-government organisations (NGOs) had resulted in the high rate of inappropriate carers being employed, Margie said. Some agencies were using one person instead of two to assess foster carer suitability and this had resulted in poor recruitment decisions.

From 2012, responsibility for foster care had been devolved from New South Wales Family and Community Services (FACS) to NGOs, and Margie thought that many of the organisations that took up contracts weren’t equipped to manage the complex needs of children. She felt that some only signed up for the money.

‘The contract was to recruit, train, assess and then provide ongoing support for carers’, she said. ‘However, these people had no knowledge whatsoever of the welfare system, of out-of-home-care. It was primarily the dollars; it was a business model and they were not paid any part of their contract until a child was in a bed. What that resulted in was a passing and assessing of anybody who came in because that meant we could put a child there, tick it off and we get paid. That’s what that resulted in.’

Once employed, carers were often given inadequate training, support and supervision. In some organisations a two-day training program for carers had been ‘short circuited’ to two hours. As an outcome, carers who were good at the work felt poorly supported and carers who weren’t competent or safe continued to work unchecked in the system.

Some carers were intimidated by their managers and felt unable to speak up about gaps or what they saw as flaws in the system. ‘Carers have been threatened with children being removed from their care if they contact anyone or speak up’, Margie said.

Working in her various roles, Margie had seen reports of abuse handled differently depending on who the allegation was against. She felt there was a presumption of innocence for caseworkers with a resultant slow response time, but carers were ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

‘You actually can’t prove yourself innocent anyway because they’ll come up with, “We just didn’t find enough evidence”. That’s a really negative-based perspective. We need to look at something better than that, but part of it has to go again back to the assessment. If we’re assessing properly and getting the right people through to become carers, we should have enough faith that we can go out from a strength-based perspective.’

Internal investigations by organisations were often flawed, Margie said. She had hoped that in the transition of services from FACS to the NGO sector, all allegations of child abuse would be dealt with by an independent body that employed people with expertise in the area. ‘There needs to be, I believe, an organisation that their role is to investigate allegations wherever they may come from.’

Margie told the Commissioner that another weakness she perceived in the child protection system was the issuing of court orders that insisted a child maintain contact with their family of origin, even if they were the original abusers.

‘The children are traumatised and terrified every time they go and I think that is a huge problem within the system – that people just will not listen … It’s another example of listening to the children when it suits. The children are saying verbally, “I do not want to go, I am scared, I am frightened” and they’re still forced to go.’

Margie said she’d continually raised issues with a number of organisations. ‘I have raised issues with the department in the past with various people. I have raised issues with the Ombudsman. So far nothing has been done. I guess I’m coming here hoping that this can be a voice and really have something happen for children.’

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