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Motion - Auditor General's report into the Strong Families, Safe Kids Advice & Referral line

Tuesday 23 August 2022, Motion

[12.09 p.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE - (Launceston) - Mr President, I move -

That the report of the Auditor-General No. 6 of 2021-22, Accessing services for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people - the Strong Families, Safe Kids Advice and Referral Line, be considered and noted.

Mr President, there is nothing more tragic than the wellbeing and safety of the life of a child being put in jeopardy. In a developed country such as ours, we rightly have the expectation that we have the means, resources, motivation and ability to put a system in place that intervenes early in situations where the safety or wellbeing of a child is put at risk.

To this end, the Tasmanian Government's Strong Families, Safe Kids Implementation Plan 2016‑20 and the Next Steps Plan 2021‑23 have rolled out advice and referral services which are integral to protecting our children and families.

The report of the Auditor‑General released in June this year entitled Accessing Services for the Safety and Wellbeing of Children and Young People, the Strong Families, Safe Kids Advice and Referral Line is an important step in ensuring the policies we put in place to protect our families are having their intended effect.

Early intervention, strong networks of support throughout our communities and the public sector and a multidisciplinary approach to looking after our families such as health, tackling crime, alcohol and drug dependency, education and social connection is the best way to keep our children safe. This is where the Strong Families, Safe Kids Advice and Referral Line helps to bring all of these services together.

The line is for anyone concerned about child safety and protection or mandatory reporting of abuse. It is for anyone who holds a concern about the safety and wellbeing of a child and parents and children can also call to ask for help themselves.

This child‑centred intervention support, advice and referral line, in other words, provides an extremely important service for our community. The safety and wellbeing of our children and young people, after all, is everyone's business. The Strong Families, Safe Kids reforms sought to provide a single front door for initial contact for child safety and welfare concerns and to provide a single source of advice and referral services. More specifically, this service is designed to enable anyone who is seeking advice about anything to do with safety or the wellbeing of children, needing assistance to navigate the challenges of parenthood, concerned about the safety or wellbeing of a child or young person, prescribed to notify that a child or young person is at risk of harm or neglect, to contact one central area to receive the information they need or be referred to the most appropriate service for that family's circumstance.

It is not necessarily designed to be a tip‑off line or for welfare services to automatically jump in and get involved. At its heart is the philosophy that support, intervention and access to health and education services can set families on a better path that will have better outcomes for them and their kids.

In May 2016, $20 million was allocated by the Tasmanian Government to implement the advice and referral line. Prior to this, there were essentially eight different entry points for people to raise concerns about the safety or wellbeing of a child, far too many; far too confusing and far too easy for someone to be intimidated and fall through the gaps.

The advice and referral line, or ARL, went live on 3 December 2018 and brought together workers from the intake function within the Department of Communities Tasmania and gateway workers from two non-government organisations, Baptcare and Mission Australia.

The Tasmanian Audit Office sought to examine whether there was an effective planned approach to the design and rollout of the ARL and to this end, looked at the objectives, strategies and plans of the policy, the resources which were allocated and how well these plans were communicated, understood and supported. In short, the Tasmanian Audit Office found that due to a lack of focused resourcing, the push for detailed change management rollout of the ARL did not occur until two years into the reforms being introduced, resulting in truncated time frames for delivery. They also found that overall implementation of the ARL was broadly successful, although due to the speed of operationalisation, some staffing systems and communication issues remained unresolved at the time it went live.

The ARL was based on a universally agreed need for more streamlined access to advice and referral services and was modelled on evidence‑based and successful services which have been delivered in other jurisdictions. This meant from the start there was a reasonably solid blueprint which could be worked from. The single front door was initially scheduled for planning and implementation by the first quarter of the 2017‑18 year, with ongoing refinement from that time. However, the Tasmanian Audit Office found there was no dedicated ARL project plan developed. On page 22 of the report, it states the ARL was never seen by DHHS as a separate project but rather one of several key deliverables of the Strong Family, Safe Kids policy. There were disconnects between some of the teams and working groups charged with implementation and project management, which made delivering the ARL for the expected standard more difficult.

A further complicating factor was what the Tasmanian Audit Office referred to as an unrealistically difficult time frame for delivery. The resources allocated to the ARL was a four‑year budget allocation of $420.6 million, $4.3 million of which was allocated in the 2018‑19 state budget. Due to not treating the ARL as a separate project - as I mentioned before ‑ the Department of Communities Tasmania did not set a specific budget for delivering the ARL. Consequently, the Tasmanian Audit Office was unable to find evidence of any reports showing the overall implementation costs for the ARL. Critically, a shortened time frame for delivery meant that most, but not all, workers required to run the ARL were in place for the service to go live. The Tasmanian Audit Office did find that the Department of Communities Tasmania did achieve its goal of training all ARL workers prior to going live, which is a reasonable expectation but good to see nonetheless.

There were staffing issues picked up by the media when the report was released. In an article from The Examiner on 22 June 2022, it was reported the number of ARL workers within the Department of Communities Tasmania dropped from 45 at the start of 2021 to 35 in 2022, while the call volume continued to increase. The Tasmanian Audit Office found four factors putting additional strain on ARL workers once the service went live. These included duplication of effort during transition; staffing vacancies; separation of duties between government and NGO workforces; and higher than anticipated call numbers.

Moreover, the Tasmanian Audit Office found the Child Safety Service had limited input into the model that the ARL was based upon. To my mind, this limits staff buy-in and enthusiasm and makes establishing change, including the reasons for it, more difficult to imbed in the program and its workforce.

The Tasmanian Audit Office further found that Communities Tasmania did not provide clarity regarding the status of gateway NGO workers until late in the process, resulting in heightened anxiety and uncertainty for these workers. Finally, it was found that while early communication around the ARL model did occur, more work needs to be done to promote and educate other stakeholders about the ARL's role.

Based on the content of the Audit Office's report, these seem to be reasonable findings. I state my utmost support for the team working in this service. It is vital and it makes a difference to many families, children and young people in Tasmania. I essentially believe a project can only be as good as its planning; that if you do not have the right tools and plans in place to implement a project of this scale, getting it right the first time will be virtually impossible.

This is not to say that those who were in charge of implementing this project did not do a good job. They did. However, there are always lessons that can be learned when audits like these take place. Importantly, the Tasmanian Audit Office looked at whether or not the ARL is operating effectively to achieve better access to services for the safety and wellbeing of children.

As stated before, it was found that the ARL is broadly effective and has delivered improvements in connecting families to appropriate interventions. This has been subject to limitations, however. One of these is ARL liaison officers have wide coverage, geographical and otherwise, limited capacity and are not fully resourced to fully deliver all aspects of their role. This is significant because it directly affects the ability of sound and effective support and intervention to take place. Amongst many other duties, community-based liaison officers' duties include: direct contact through family visits; weekly allocation meetings or referrals to integrated family support services; engagement with stakeholders; and broader education and communication.

As of 21 August 2021, 18 liaison officers were deployed across the state. Given the high volume of inquiries made to the ARL, it is unsurprising their capacities are being tested. Given the many hats that liaison officers wear, it is also unsurprising that the Tasmanian Audit Office suggested a review of the impact of increasing the number of liaison officers in the ARL would increase its effectiveness. The report notes the ARL has some concerning human resources indicators that require further exploration by the Department of Communities Tasmania and because the volume of work is expanding, keeping up the expected level of service to its users is more important than ever. Combined with the finding of a relatively high turnover of people at the ARL, this creates quite a problem. To this end, the report notes that the annual turnover rate of 27 per cent in 2019 has increased to 47 per cent in 2021.

I also note the finding of the level of sick leave is, in the words of the report 'of some concern', and warrants some further exploration by ARL management to determine its root causes and implementation strategies to ameliorate frequent, unplanned absences that are disruptive to the ARL's operations.

Ensuring staff who are in very stressful work every day are well supported and feel good about going to work is important in any industry, trade or profession and for our ARL staff who do such important and valuable work, the need for such support is magnified.

I hope to see in the near future what is being done to keep ARL staff happy, well and supported in going to work and contributing so vitally to the wellbeing of our communities. Offsetting these findings, I should note the ARL's rostering practices are effective and there is a consistent core of staff that provides stability to the service. Clearly, the ARL is getting a lot right, and this report does a good job of highlighting areas of improvement, as well as areas of satisfaction.

Finally, I turn to the recommendations of the report. I will not regurgitate them here, but encourage all members, if they have not already, to look at the report and its finding and recommendations. Identified in the Tasmanian Audit Office's recommendations are the allocation of sufficient and appropriate project resources and deployment of more effective management methodology for future significant sub-projects or major reforms. There are always lessons to be learnt in implementing major policy projects like these and as we are all aware, public policy is an art more than it is a science.

Nonetheless, I concur with the report that the implementation of the ARL was overall effectively implemented, thanks in large part to the strength and flexibility of its workforce. Data sharing between the ARL IT system and other child safety services and agencies was also flagged as an issue, which the Tasmanian Audit Office recommends as an issue to resolve. IT systems tend to perpetually have issues and interfacing between programs rarely seems to go smoothly.

We rely on our systems to safely store information we can get when needed. Mostly we need our IT systems to ensure to avoid double handling and deliver more efficient and cost-effective services, so it is disappointing when these things become difficult to obtain. Better quantitative data collection processes were also recommended by the Tasmanian Audit Office as a way to benchmark how effective ARL service delivery has been.

If you do not understand how people are connecting with services, it is almost impossible to make meaningful or effective improvements to them over time. Given the plethora of styles on ways to collect and contextualise quantitative data, I have every confidence this is an issue which can be quickly and effectively resolved.

Awareness raising of the ARL and its role amongst stakeholder agencies was also a recommendation made in the report. A concept as good as the single front door idea that the ARL is based on cannot be as effective as it can be if stakeholders are unaware of it. This perhaps dovetails with recommendation one, as part of a wider project management and adequate resourcing, and the best policies and projects in the world are for nothing if people are not aware of them or if they do not understand how they work. So, I hope that intelligent and meaningful communications programs can be developed to promote this service soon.

Enabling better access to non-government ARL workers to access information systems that are owned by the Department of Police, Fire and Emergency Management, and the Department of Justice is another recommendation in the report. At first glance, that seems like a no-brainer, but I understand sometimes a seemingly simple concept like this can be notoriously difficult to execute in practice. Whatever needs to be done, I hope these barriers to access can be lowered for these workers so that ultimately, the core work of the ARL can be done in the most effective way possible.

Perhaps, the most important recommendation is recommendation 6:

Prioritise the resourcing of liaison officers within the ARL to increase both their capacity to work within communities and with service providers, as well as provide ongoing training and education required to support a more proactive and preventative approach to child safety and wellbeing.

Nothing is more important than keeping our children and young people safe. Right now, the commission of inquiry continues and we are continuing to hear harrowing and distressing details of how some of our most important institutions have failed some of our most vulnerable, young people in ways that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Some of these people have even lost their lives. Our institutions are only as good as the people who make them work and if we invest properly in them and their training and support then it follows they are able to provide better services for families and young people to thus provide better outcomes. We cannot allow failings in our education, health or justice systems to harm young, vulnerable people, children or their families. I have no doubt there will be many lessons to be learned and amends to make following the findings and recommendations of the commission of inquiry. However, the pressing point here is that for services like the Strong Families, Safe Kids Advice and Referral Line, investing in staff means we will have better outcomes for children and young people at risk.

For ARL liaison officers, they need to be the best at what they do and the most effective way to ameliorate harm done to our children is to prevent it from happening in the first place. No doubt this will be a challenging recommendation to implement but with the right resourcing and support the organisation is up to the task.

For any members who have not yet had a look at this report, as mentioned, I urge you to take a moment to look through it as it is very enlightening. Getting community safety and wellbeing right, especially for children, young people and their families, is imperative. This report, by the Tasmania Audit Office, helps to understand how effectively the Strong Families, Safe Kids policy is being implemented and will be central to the development of ongoing safety and wellbeing policies in the years to come.

I note the report.


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