In Part Two of Words of Wisdom and Hope from PeakCare’s AGM, Lorraine Dupree reports on highlights from a panel-led discussion that was featured in the evening’s program. The panel members included Michael Hogan, Director General, Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services; Cheryl Vardon, Principal Commissioner, Queensland Family and Child Commission; Natalie Siegel-Brown, Public Guardian; Natalie Lewis, CEO, Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak (QATSICPP); Lucas Moore, State Coordinator, CREATE Foundation; and Susie Edwards, Coordinator, Family Inclusion Network, Southeast Queensland. The discussion facilitator was PeakCare’s Lindsay Wegener.

Q After acknowledging Mr Michael Hogan as having exercised a critical stewardship role in guiding and implementing reforms sparked by the Carmody Inquiry, Mr Hogan was invited to comment on one or two of the major achievements in recent years.

In his response, Mr Hogan commented on the extraordinary progress that has been achieved and spoke positively about not being put off course by the challenges experienced along the way.  He thanked everyone in their audience for their contributions to the reform journey and described the collective leadership and ownership exercised by the non-government sector, government and department as a key success factor. The leadership and reforms being embraced across the state has been a critical aspect of the agreement we embarked on three years ago.

Q Ms Natalie Lewis and QATSICPP were acknowledged for the influential role they have played during and since the Carmody Inquiry. Ms Lewis was asked to reflect on the major achievements since the day she ‘took the stand’ and appeared as an expert witness during one of the Inquiry’s public hearings.

Mostly what I’ve taken away from this experience is that we’ve stayed true to our positions.  We’ve done what we committed to do at the time of the Inquiry, stated Ms Lewis.   We didn’t fall for believing that all that needed to be done was written in the pages of the Inquiry report and in our own visioning, we’ve at times been much bolder and more courageous than what was outlined by the Inquiry. Ms Lewis commented that this has enabled far-reaching and transformative reforms to occur such as the enshrining of self-determination in legislation and capacity for the transfer of delegations and other authorities. Ms Lewis urged all members of the audience to stay committed to making sure this isn’t simply rhetoric and these reforms will translate to real changes in practice.

Q Mr Lucas Moore was asked to reflect back on discussions that took place during focus groups with young people during the course of the Carmody Inquiry. He was asked to imagine what those young people would say today about whether or not the program of reforms are heading in the right direction.

It’s an interesting question, Mr Moore responded.  It took me back to four years ago.  Mr Moore noted that many of the young people involved in the Carmody Inquiry are now out of the system.  In terms of heading in the right direction, he stated that some would say yes and others no.  He noted that some young people have spent time living on the streets and dealing with homelessness and mental health concerns, while others are now attending universities and some now have children of their own. It is far more complex than good or bad outcomes, Mr Moore said.  He particularly noted that of the young people who are still involved with the child protection system, most are proud and happy about the aftercare assistance that is now offered, but would like to see even more supports offered and provided for a longer period.  He acknowledged recent legislative changes and the commitment to do just that, and said that the next step is to continue conversations about how this commitment is honoured.  The improvements to after care supports have seen powerful and heartening outcomes for young people. 

Mr Moore further noted that some young people are excited about reforms to residential care that are taking place while others have not yet experienced the changes they would like to see.  In particular, he noted, there are young people who are still not seeing and having regular contact with their siblings and other family members and there are many who have little awareness of their rights within the system.  Mr Moore drew the audience’s attention to the My Journey in Care resource, the importance of sharing this resource and CREATE’s commitment to the on-going process of making sure that the information young people need is accessible and shared far and wide.

Q Ms Susie Edwards was invited to comment on whether parents were receiving the information they need and if their voices were now being heard in the planning and implementation of reforms.

This is not a simple question. Agencies are working hard to improve the systems. Ms Edwards noted that the Parent Leadership Training Institute participation has shown that when parents are equipped with the right knowledge and skills, they are keen to participate.    Ms Edwards noted that the selection of language and the underpinning perspectives attached to the language that is used continues to pose challenges:  What do we call parents within the system?  Are they consumers or clients?  Are they acknowledged?  Most don’t have personal agency, some do, but many don’t.  Issues of language, perception, bias, assumptions and judgement were flagged as ones that we need to be serious about addressing in order to genuinely advocate for children, young people and families and find the platform on which to honestly engage those we most need to work alongside.

She said that parents are also going through trauma and difficulties:  Parents feel invisible, judged and like they don’t exist.  She described a tension that exists between the exercise of power, access to resources and parents’ experiences of trauma, displacement and a lack of status and respect for what they’re going through.

Q Ms Cheryl Vardon was asked to think back to recommendations made by the Carmody Inquiry in relation to the Council (now termed the Family and Child Commission) and comment on closely the Queensland Family and Child Commission today reflects what Carmody had in mind

In some ways we’ve moved on from the individual notes but are operating with the ‘music’, said Ms Vardon.  My job was to build a contemporary child protection commission for Queensland that puts the views of young people up front. She said that, in doing so, importance was attached to developing a robust and coherent oversight and evaluation program.  She acknowledged the help of Queensland Family and Child Commission staff in now reaching a spot that is a sweet spot.  She noted that there is still so much to do, but recognised that the transfer of some functions to other agencies that arose out of the Carmody Inquiry has enabled the Family and Child Commission to focus on the real work of a children’s commission.  A key to achieving this was the ability to build robust, secure and open, trusting relationships with other agencies.  I would like to recognise the relationship we have with the Department that has been established without compromising what either party has to doI also want to recognise the relationships we have with Police, Health and all the other government agencies.

Ms Vardon discussed the propensity for child safety regimes to continue to be often and regularly reviewed, discussed and reported on – that is the nature of the business.  She concluded however that now was a good time within this predictable cycle of reviews that provided excellent opportunities to kick some goals.

Ms Vardon also made use of the discussion to pay her respects to Tialeigh Palmer – her tragedy directed our work and from that came a number of reviews.  Ms Vardon stated that she and the Commission are now looking forward to spending more time with children and young people and hearing their voices in a range of ways in order to better understand what living in Queensland is like for them.

Q Ms Natalie Siegal-Brown was asked to think back to recommendations made by the Carmody Inquiry in relation to the role and functions to be taken on by the Office of the Public Guardian and comment on how closely the Office today reflects what Carmody had in mind

Ms Siegal-Brown acknowledged that, taking into account the substantial change that was required, it was initially a challenging exercise that takes time to fully implement. She said that during 2016 and 2017, the forming happened, then the storming and now we are starting to go through the norming.  She asserted that, throughout this process, the child’s voice had to be the point of truth and the basis for our advocacy and it was important that we took time to get our heads around how we undertook that advocacy.

She commented that the embedding of processes that are meaningful and transparent takes time, but her Office is now seeing significant changes in behaviour where colleagues in Child Safety and the sector more broadly are asking for advice about what they can do and how they can better hear children and young people. She noted that 19,000 issues have been raised with her Office with 97% resolved at the local level.  She was also pleased to note that some other States are examining Queensland’s system with a view to emulating certain aspects within their own jurisdictions.

Ms Siegel-Brown said that the child’s voice is paramount and the real litmus test is if children and young people feel they are being heard. She noted that her Office now actively seeks employees with a care experience which is helping to change the way they do business – it’s having an awesome impact on how all, including senior management, think.

Ms Siegel-Brown acknowledged the significant contributions of senior officers of the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services and QATSICPP – This hasn’t been an easy job for the department and others and the improvements we’re seeing speak volumes.

Q All panel members were asked about where to from here in continuing the process of reform.

Mr Hogan commented that we all hold very high aspirations for families and children, which means we have much more to do, but we are on our way.  He stated that one of our shared responsibilities is to hold on to a relentless desire for better life opportunities and outcomes for children and families – We need to bring that home.

He noted that ongoing re-shaping of the government’s investment strategy is a major part of the next steps forward and this will involve securing resources and balancing investment across the three tiers of early intervention, secondary and tertiary systems.

Mr Hogan highlighted that a fundamental challenge continues to be that of addressing the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in the child protection system.  We can be pleased we’ve challenged ourselves but the status quo is not going to shift the trajectory in life chances and over representation.  All these pieces of work are game changers but we have so much more to do in eliminating over representation and improving life outcomes.  He noted achievement of this goal sets up challenges that are structural, organisational and cultural.  I challenge the whole sector to sign up and get on board collectively.

Q All panel members were asked about the impediments to change – what might stop the achievement of the reforms we are seeking

Ms Lewis highlighted the need to fully commit to the Our Way strategy. She noted that we’ve had a crack at this before and failed, but the difference this time is we are letting go of the myth that fixing the tertiary system holds the solution to child protection and family support.  Proportional disadvantage is the focus here.  Now all areas such as housing, education and health are obliged to be parts of the solution.  We have a bigger band of brothers in trying to achieve change.

Ms Lewis also challenged all members of the audience to give themselves permission to advocate.  Don’t wait for permission via your position description or a report.  The mandate to advocate should come from our humanity and our compassion.  We need to be thinking across systems and we need to understand our own sphere of influence and the power we all hold to create change.

Ms Edwards agreed and reminded the audience to be mindful about the language we use, which if used poorly can exclude those we’re trying to assist.  I’d like to see everyone asking parents how they got to this point and by listening to them, achieve a better understanding about poverty, trauma and all the associated issues.  She noted that we need to be clearer that early intervention is about access to universal services such as health and housing – it isn’t about support that’s provided early in the process of child removal.  She advocated for increased emphasis on family preservation and families receiving the assistance they need when they reach out and ask for it and for this to happen without judgement or be restricted by overly stringent eligibility criteria that can lead to an inability to access much needed services. Parents need to be seen, listened to and heard.  We need trauma informed and culturally sensitive practices.

Q Panel members were asked for their advice about how PeakCare and PeakCare’s Members can best contribute to the reform process

Ms Lewis spoke about the importance of creating space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership – space for community-controlled organisations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people themselves to step forward and lead the change.  She said: This crisis got us here.  We need to shift and change the dialogue and start talking about our families and communities as being capable instead of focussing only on how many children are removed. We need to recognise how many children and young people are safe at home and not coming into the system.

It is heartbreaking to have constant discussion about ‘fixing’ Aboriginal families and organisations that assumes that something is always lackingWe need to shape a different narrative about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, communities and organisations.

Mr Hogan concurred and stated that we all have a responsibility to show case the achievements and capacities of those with whom we work – through our professional and personal networks, social media, families, barbeques – whatever means we can musterWe need to promote stories of resilience, survival and achievement to shift the narrative.  This, he stated, is the antidote to doom and crisis.

He commented on messages he is currently conveying to all members of his department that they should all perceive themselves as ‘advocates’ for the children, young people and families with whom they are working and extended this message to all members of the audience.

Mr Moore added that there is a need to look at how systems can place barriers in the way of advocates and advocacy. He suggested that there appear to be processes in place that often make advocates more accountable to organisations than to their clients and the conflicting agendas sometimes means that advocates are silenced.

Q Both the panel members and members of the audience were invited to comment on the struggles that may be experienced by both organisations and individuals in ‘advocating’

A member of the audience asked:  How do we not repeat the sins of the past that have been highlighted by the Royal Commission?  This is especially pertinent with the final report being handed down before Christmas.

Mr Hogan stated that he was expecting to recommendations about systemic and organisational reforms at state and national levels to create child safe organisations and communities.  He then stated that there is a need to look further into the questions posed by Mr Moore about how we advocate and be robust in our advocacy to ensure we hear the voices of children, young people and all who have dealings with the child protection system.

From the floor, Ms Janet White, Youth Advocacy Centre’s Director and  a newly elected member of PeakCare’s Board commented that, over time, there have been numerous examples where advocating for client groups has either impacted or threatened the continuation of an organisation’s funding. She argued that strong advocacy needs to be seen as an accepted and tangible part of the process in challenging the system at both an individual and collective level – this needs to be recognised as a legitimate space for us to be.

Panel members discussed some differences in the views and approaches being adopted by State and Federal Governments in respect of advocacy.  In particular, Mr Hogan on responding to the concerns raised by Ms White noted that it would be valuable to engage in a much deeper and focussed discussion about advocacy and the challenges it poses to the exercise of roles, responsibilities and relationships within and across sectors.

Such was the interest in further discussing and unpacking the notion of advocacy and all that this entails that PeakCare’s Lindsay Wegener concluded the panel discussion by declaring it would become the subject of a forum to be hosted by PeakCare in 2018!  Watch this space….