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Exclusive: Forfeited to state care

Oct 15, 2019 • 14m32s

A dispute over funding and the NDIS has forced 500 families to forfeit their children into state care.

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Exclusive: Forfeited to state care

100 • Oct 15, 2019

Exclusive: Forfeited to state care

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

The NDIS was meant to provide better care to people living with disabilities. But a stalemate over funding responsibilities has forced 500 families to forfeit their children into state care. Rick Morton on the unintended consequences of a flawed system.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Rick, since the NDIS was rolled out, hundreds of parents have had to forfeit their children into state care. How is that possible?

RICK:

Well, it's kind of the perfect synthesis of everything that's going wrong with the NDIS. It's like, buck passing. It's lack of responsibility. It's cutting off funding, people not getting what they were promised, and kind of disappointment because of all of that - except here we've gotten probably some of the most complex cases you'll come across in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And it matters because in the end, what we've got is some families who have had to relinquish, to forfeit their own children to state run child protection services because the National Disability Insurance Scheme did not come to the table with funding. You know, it's probably the worst outcome among many bad outcomes for the NDIS, letting people down.

According to the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, there are about 500 children, which is a national scandal when we've known about this problem since the beginning and nobody has stepped into that gap.

ELIZABETH:

So how did this happen?

The NDIS was designed to interact with state systems. So, state governments fund things like schools, hospitals, prisons, community mental health services and the child protection system.

And before the NDIS started, there were trials due to begin in July 2013. Just two and a half months before they started. All of the government sat down together and they decided on a set of things called the applied principles. What they were trying to do was to delineate responsibility for who pays for what. So, the NDIS said we will pay for disability supports when it's not related to another mainstream system. And pretty much from the moment the NDIS began, we began fighting over who should pay for what.

[Music starts]

And one element of the failure of the NDIS in the implementation is the way it has treated children. You know, children who are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable.

When families have a young child with a disability, typically they find themselves able to cope because the child is young and they can, you know, traditionally we do everything for the child anyway. It's when a kid turns, you know, into their teenage years particularly, and especially for boys, that they become more difficult to manage. And we're not talking about any old kid with autism, we're not talking about any disability. We're talking about, you know, children with some of the most profound multiple interacting disabilities. So we're talking autism, intellectual disability, psychosocial conditions, all interacting together to make them some of the most complex cases and, you know, complex cases require all of the support you can throw at them. Many families who reached breaking point, who just could not cope with the 24/7 constant demands, relinquish their children to state care and the kids were put into residential accommodation facilities run by state governments in this incredibly dark old ages, essentially, of how we cared for kids. The NDIS was meant to fix that. And it was meant to fix that because it was meant to fund whatever support you needed. And so families who were told and were expecting that they could get 24/7 funded caring support, the NDIS just decided no. So the NDIS does fund housing to 700 million dollars a year, but not for anyone under 18. So those two things intersected to create this perfect storm where families just could not cope.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So if we wind right back, when did this all start?

RICK:

Julia Gillard, this was her legacy, right? And it's a good legacy to have. But she was in a rush, partly for political reasons, she was in a rush. So, she had to sign all of these, what they called, bilateral agreements with each state, each one of separate agreement. States saw this as their ticket to get out of disability service provision entirely. So it was beginning and saying, we will fund the gap. But where you already provide this service like schools or hospitals, we are not going to step into that gap because, you know what, we've got a 22 billion dollar a year budget. Sounds like a lot of money, it is, but they've got to do a lot with that money. And so the issue for the NDIS has always been, if they take on all of these extra responsibilities, their budget gets blown.

ELIZABETH:

And when those skirmishes are being fought over who pays, the reality is that some of the most vulnerable and in need people are being affected.

[Music starts]

RICK:

Well that's, yeah, and that's always been the problem here, right? Because we've got this thing that's never been attempted anywhere in the world. Nothing like the NDIS exists anywhere else in the world. But it's become a kind of a bureaucratic mess. And all the while that happens, people are suffering, you know, people who are meant to be helped by the NDIS. And nobody is fixing this thing. I mean, the problem that we've got that has led to about 500 children being relinquished into state care. That problem has been around for more than five years. Five years of this kind of funding brinkmanship between the NDIS who refused to step into the gap and the state governments who refused to reach out over the gap to the NDIS, and what has happened is people have suffered. And now, there's kind of some hint of resolution. And people may want applause for that, and I think it's a good thing that we are coming to progress. But after five years, it's too late.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Rick, your reporting shows that hundreds of children have been forfeited into state care since the NDIS was rolled out. What does that mean in practice for families that have to go through that?

RICK:

I think, you know, I think it helps to talk about real people in this scenario, and I think one of the most frightening examples is a family in Tasmania who didn't even get to the stage of relinquishing their child. But the trauma they went through before that was resolved was off the charts.

March 2017. A young mum with a teenager, you know, a 15 year old boy who's got incredibly complex disabilities, said she just cannot do it anymore. She is at breaking point. She doesn't have, you know, the laws of physics to not allow her to spend the time earning money and caring for her son. The problem is, there is this massive standoff over who funds the care for this child. So what happens, they put the 15 year old boy in an adult-only psychological ward at Launceston General Hospital. And because he is a child, they have to take all the adult mental health patients to Hobart from Launceston. So Hobart then, because they've transferred these patients from Launceston, Hobart's full, and so people who get admitted to Hobart who weren't there when the transfer happened are told there's no room. And so we've got this flow on effect of one family's crisis, that has almost crippled the mental health network in Tasmania. You know, it's kind of like that butterfly effect, right? There is a cascading series of errors that came from this funding standoff. And it's a bad look, right? You don't put a child in a hospital because there is not one single other place for them to live in your state. So eventually, this one ended up getting a lot of attention, so they fixed it. They built a house. And it was 80 kilometres away from this poor kids family, which wasn’t ideal, but at least as his advocate Dominic Vittorio told me, at least it wasn’t a psych ward. And so after three months, this standoff ended. And she didn't even relinquish her child, but she was close to doing it, and that's still what they went through.

ELIZABETH:

And that’s obviously traumatic for the whole family.

RICK:

Yeah, the kind of stress that gets meted out during these things, it's not something that you can take back. You know, it is not something that can be rewound with the correct policy change. It's there forever. And, you know, it's there in the guilt that families face when they think that they've failed their own children because they've come to that point, which is, I can't imagine what that feeling is like. And if they're in the child, you know, that stuff will never be counted in the statistics, and that's why changes or funding standoffs like this one cannot just be decided on the practical policy. You have to think about people. Like, who is this going to affect, for how long and can the damage be undone?

ELIZABETH:

And if this family hadn’t found a solution, and their child had to be relinquished, what would have happened?

RICK:

It's a good question, and it's different for everyone. In Tasmania, it meant that the State Department of Communities would have taken over the board and accommodation responsibilities for that child. They would have had to put them in a residential facility for children. They would have had full responsibility for housing him and keeping him fed, and they would have had to have put up some disability supports. He would have still had an NDIS plan, but it wouldn't have been the level that was required if they hadn't come to an agreement. And so the State Government would have put in some funding, but not nearly enough for this kid to live as normal a life as he possibly could. And in Tasmania, because of the way the system set up, the mum would have, she would still be able to have a say over her child's life. They call it a decision making capacity. But in practice, what does that mean? Because, the state government holds all the cards. She can't say, move him out of this facility because it's not good enough, because they'll say, well, that's as good as it gets. And that's the reality they were facing.

ELIZABETH:

What happens now, Rick, what's going to happen next?

RICK:

So, in the June Disability Reform Council, that's the name they give to the disability ministers who meet under Council of Australian Governments, they decided that they had to do something about this, finally. And so every state had to negotiate to agree to certain benchmarks to finally deliver the full NDIS. So, the NDIS now has agreed to fund 24/7 round the clock disability support for children who would be subject to being relinquished into out-of-home care were it not for that support. The state governments have agreed to fund board and lodging and accommodation costs, and also to essentially fund the administrative costs of making sure those kids have access to other mainstream systems like schools, the hospital system. Put it this way, the breakdown now that we've got five years after the NDIS began is not much more fully formed than the agreements of the applied principles that were agreed 10 weeks before the scheme began trials in 2013. We haven't gone much further.

You know, the NDIS is kind of like the platonic form, the platonic ideal. You know, Plato talked about the perfect circle that existed in the ether. But as soon as you drag those things from your mind and into reality, they do not bear any resemblance to the perfect form that you developed in your head. And it's the same with the NDIS; Beautiful on paper, absolute mess in real life. And I just, I don't have faith that that is going to change any time soon.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thank you so much.

RICK:

Thank you, Elizabeth.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

US President Donald Trump is preparing to impose economic sanctions on Turkey as early as this week after its assault on Northern Syria. France and Germany have already announced they will curtail arms exports to the country. At the same time, the Kurdish-led administration has brokered an agreement with the Syrian government to combat Turkish forces. The fighting in the region has raised fears that some of the thousands of suspected Daesh fighters held in prisons in Syria will be released amidst the chaos.

And the Bureau of Meteorology has announced a severe weather outlook for the period October to April, predicting a summer with an increased risk of heatwaves, bushfires and worsening drought conditions in the eastern region of Australia.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

The NDIS was meant to provide better care to people living with disabilities. But a stalemate over funding responsibilities has forced 500 families to forfeit their children into state care. Rick Morton on the unintended consequences of a flawed system.

Guest: Senior Reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Exclusive: 500 children forfeited to state in NDIS standoff in The Saturday Paper
The Monthly
The Saturday Paper

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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100: Exclusive: Forfeited to state care