Foster carers have historically been able to apply for house upgrades to care for children. (Unsplash: Annie Spratt)
The South Australian Government has been accused by Labor of deliberately misleading foster carers after suspending funding for home upgrades.
- Documents obtained by the ABC reveal the DCP’s policy was changed last year
- Opposition spokesperson Jayne Stinson says the Government was “deceptive”
- The Government says the DCP plans to release an updated policy shortly
Foster carers have historically been able to apply for house and car upgrades to enable them to care for extra children, but the ABC can reveal the category of support was suspended in September 2018.
Earlier this year, after the ABC reported on a carer whose application for an upgrade had been knocked back, the Department for Child Protection (DCP) said applications were still being considered “on a case-by-case basis”.
But documents obtained through freedom of information revealed that DCP’s Exceptional Resource Funding policy was changed last year, ending contributions toward the purchase of motor vehicles, home modifications, extensions and renovations “pending the outcome of a review”.
The document also described the new policy as “mandatory and staff are required to adhere”.
Labor’s Child Protection spokeswoman Jayne Stinson said carers had been raising their suspicions with her since September.
“To now see through the revelation of these FOI documents that they were being fibbed to, that’s really disappointing,” she said.
“It’s also deceptive, foster and kinship carers have been asking what the policy is, whether it’s still being enforced.
“It really damages the faith that foster and kinship carers can have in the system.”
Ms Stinson said Minister Rachel Sanderson now needed to explain why the directive was made to suspend the support.
‘We don’t need to answer each question literally’
The documents also included internal correspondence in which media advisors discussed how they would respond to questions from the ABC.
In an email, a departmental media advisor told their chief executive Cathy Taylor that they would not feel comfortable putting in writing that no “formal directive” had been made to suspend support for home modifications.
“It looks like there was some directive about not approving home extensions, renovations and alternations and purchase of cars, which is what the staff must be communicating on the ground,” the advisor wrote.
“However, it does say further down that we will still consider qualifying applications.
“As per [the] request for us to put in writing that there has been no formal directive for funding to be cut in this area, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that as the attached communique could be considered a directive of sorts.”
The FOI also showed that a media advisor for Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson told DCP’s media manager that “we don’t need to answer each question literally”.
“There’s a huge level of spin revealed in the text messages and emails … I think the Minister needs to explain why so much effort was going into spin but so little effort was going into assisting these families who have been crying out for assistance so they can look after vulnerable kids,” Ms Stinson said.
Text messages sent between departmental media advisors. (Supplied: Department for Child Protection)
Updated policy to be released shortly
In a statement, DCP chief executive Cathy Taylor said “a temporary hold” was placed on some types of funding, but requests for exceptional resources funding continues to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
“DCP is now in the final stages of its review and plans to release an updated policy shortly,” Ms Taylor said.
Ms Sanderson said she was committed to improving the Government’s relationship with foster carers.
“The proposed new policy sets a funding limit of $20,000.”
She said car upgrades would remain eligible where they are essential, as would home modifications and rental expenses “where there is a long-term benefit to the child”.
Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson said that she was “committed to nurturing and improving” the Government’s relationship with foster and kinship carers.
“I support the Department for Child Protection’s current practice of providing additional support to children, families and carers on a case-by-case basis through its exceptional needs funding policy,” Ms Sanderson said.
Policy change revealed after carer raised issue publicly
The ABC’s FOI request was prompted by a January story of a foster carer whose application for a $25,000 transportable building in her backyard had been knocked back.
The extra room was to provide enough space for her to accommodate a new child, who was the sibling of a child who was already in her care.
The application was rejected despite the department obtaining quotes for the work — and after the child had already moved in.
But within weeks of the story, the carer said DCP changed its decision and arranged for a caravan to be rented for a year and placed in her backyard.
“It was all approved within about two weeks … it has resolved all of our issues,” she said.
But the woman was still annoyed the wider policy was changed without foster carers being told.
“Everything should be transparent, but to hide it behind the scenes and deny it in the way that they did is really underhanded,” she said.
“I think a lot of foster carers would opt to help more children if we knew there was some help with adding on another room, or are able to buy a bigger car with a little help.
“We’re helping the Government and saving them a lot of money.”
According to the Productivity Commission, a child in residential care costs state taxpayers an average of $540,639 a year — more than 10 times that of a child in foster care.
Foster carers are not paid a salary, but get a fortnightly support payment of between $341 and $739, depending on the age of the child.
DCP took around 100 days to respond to the ABC’s application — more than triple the 30-day deadline specified in the Freedom of Information Act — and eventually disclosed the documents last Friday afternoon, hours before the beginning of a long weekend.