A REVIEW of the so-called "care" provided to two young boys removed from their mother only to experience abuse, neglect and serious psychological harm at the hands of strangers has made 24 recommendations.
The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) commissioned the review after Children's Court magistrate Tracy Sheedy put on the public record the children's "unconscionable" treatment and "appalling neglect" in a judgement in October last year.
In her review, Megan Mitchell, former National Children's Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, cites systemic failures involving every one of the service providers paid to care for the children.
They include Lifestyle Solutions and Life Without Barriers which both started out as small, family-led organisations in Newcastle, as well as the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ).
Ms Mitchell found that the children spent prolonged periods of time in "less than ideal" living arrangements, and that contributed to a decline in their wellbeing. This was not due to failures of practice or process as such, she said, but wider systemic issues associated with the out-of-home care system itself.
They included workforce skills shortages, translating into a high number of rostered and changeable workers, often agency staff with basic qualifications; a dearth of available foster carers, particularly with the capacity to manage complex needs and sibling groups; and a lack of housing suitable to meet children's needs in communities they were familiar with.
Importantly, Ms Mitchell also pointed to missed opportunities to work towards restoration of the children with their mother, and/or kinship carers.
"The lack of continued constructive engagement with the children's mother to help her address her issues, and the failure to adequately support the foster care placement, presented missed opportunities," she said.
She conservatively pointed out that earlier intervention by DCJ "may have been warranted" and highlighted the department's limited line of sight to subcontracting arrangements between non-government service providers and labour hire companies.
"Better mechanisms to assure the quality of these arrangements should be explored," the report said.
"The DCJ decision to resume case management was taken only after a number of attempts to resolve concerns ...
"Regular placement panel meetings were held between DCJ and the service providers to review and assess the children's progress and options for exiting the ACA ('alternate care arrangement' run by Lifestyle Solutions with labour hire agency Connecting Families).
"While this is broadly in line with policies ... it could be argued that the deterioration in the children's wellbeing, the nature and level of concerns raised, and the lack of timely efforts to address these warranted earlier intervention."
Emergency care should be underpinned by strong quality assurance measures and be closely monitored, and should require high-level sign off beyond 12 weeks, the report said..
The children at the centre of the review, given the pseudonyms 'Finn' and 'Lincoln' Hughes, were in Years 6 and 7 when they were first removed from their mother, just months after their father's death in February, 2019.
They had two younger siblings, twins 'Blake' and 'Marina', housed separately for most of their time in care leading up to DCJ resuming their case management in August, 2022.
The boys were shuffled between their mother Lisa Hughes' (not her real name) ex-husband, foster carers, and emergency care placements which blew out to well beyond the recommended time frame of just weeks, to 14 months.
Since being removed from their mother's care they were the subject of eight Risk of Serious Harm (RoSH) reports and eight other reports to the department concerning serious self-harm, educational neglect, physical abuse, and risk of significant physical harm.
Lincoln said he was physically abused by one worker who struck him in what he described as "like a full on punch". Other complaints involved workers screaming and swearing at the boys, smoking in the house, and putting no boundaries in place allowing them to play Xbox up to 12 hours per day without eating or using the bathroom.
The school principal reported never knowing where the children were or who was supposed to be picking them up, and that one of the boys complained of stomach pains because he didn't get enough to eat. He sometimes did not come to school because he was too cold and didn't have a winter uniform.
Finn was described as exhibiting "pain-based behaviours" such as property damage and/or yelling and swearing at staff, and was diagnosed with encopresis (fecal incontinence), "believed to be due to the stress and anxiety around his placement, where he will be living and going to school and court proceedings".
Key recommendations include that commissioning and planning teams should hold regular sessions with DCJ staff about contracting and commissioning arrangements with local providers of emergency care, mandatory group supervision or reviews at implementation of emergency care and when it exceeds 12 weeks, and any extensions after that.
The department should regularly receive evidence of the implementation of behaviour support plans, therapeutic support and contact visits, and fortnightly casework team meetings.
Caseworker training in family engagement to support restoration, and the development of a mechanism to "quality assure subcontracting arrangements" between providers and labour hire firms delivering day-to-day care in emergency placements were also recommended.
There was an opportunity for greater involvement of the Office of the Children's Guardian, the report said, to review individual placements, as well as to explore with the non-government sector the potential for establishing an accredited emergency carer, and/ or carer provider pool.
How it played out:
- Boys' mother Lisa Hughes (mot her real name) known to DCJ since 1999
- April 2011 to May 2020 - DCJ receives 25 Risk of Serious Harm (ROSH) reports relating to risk of psychological harm, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and physical harm and neglect of the four Hughes children
- 2018 to February, 2019 - Wesley Mission attempts to engage with family
- February, 2019 - Children's father dies
- May 28, 2020 - Children removed from Ms Hughes who concedes she was drinking in excess due to grief and depression
- June 22 to October 22, 2020 - 'Finn' and 'Lincoln' placed in kinship care with Ms Hughes' ex-husband and his wife; younger twins 'Blake' and 'Marina' placed with their adult sister
- October 22, 2020 - All four children housed by Life Without Barriers
- February 18 to June 21, 2021 - DCJ receives five ROSH reports about Finn and Lincoln
- June 7, 2021 - Twins moved into short-term foster care with Lifestyle Solutions
- June 21, 2021 - During an assessment Finn says a pocketknife found in his bedroom was to protect himself as he did not feel safe; Lincoln taken to hospital via ambulance due to suicidal ideation
- September to November, 2021 - DCJ receives three ROSH reports and eight other reports about the two boys, citing serious self-harm, educational neglect, physical abuse, and risk of significant physical harm
- November 16, 2021 - Lincoln discloses physical abuse from a worker "like a full on punch"; Finn exhibiting "pain-based behaviours" such as property damage, yelling and swearing; Finn is diagnosed with encopresis which is increasing, "believed to be due to the stress and anxiety around his placement, where he will be living and going to school and the current court proceedings"
- March, 2022 - At a hearing DCJ petitions for children to remain in the parental responsibility of the Minister until they turn 18. Ms Hughes opposes, seeks for the children to be restored to her care.
- April 19, 2022 - Boys' foster care placement breaks down, placed in 'Alternate Care Arrangement' (hotel, motel, serviced apartment or house with 24/7 care) with Lifestyle Solutions
- April 29, 2022 - DCJ raises concern that Lifestyle Solutions has not provided any supports to Lincoln and Finn's carers
- May 24 to August 22, 2022 - Lifestyle Solutions quoted $2,585 per day to care for boys; Labour hire agency Connecting Families say they were allocated $11.34 daily for each child's food and activities - no funds sought by Lifestyle Solutions for therapy for either Finn or Lincoln and "it appears that no funds were spent on therapy"
- June 1, 2022- Lincoln skipping school because of the distance to travel and he felt too cold as he did not own a winter uniform
- June 25, 2022 - Lincoln tells school he often has stomach pains and "is hungry a lot of the time"
- July 4, 2022 - DCJ concerned Lincoln is using Xbox more than 12 hours per day, is not eating or using the bathroom
- August 1, 2022 - DCJ resumes case management of the two boys; begins to reconsider Ms Hughes for restoration
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