Protecting, controlling kids in trouble: Robyn Lambley's long and lonely road


A youth curfew during periods of period of “high social unrest,” grappling with how to make parents pay for the damage done by their kids, an institution for young people out of control or with special needs, the government paying up to half a million dollars a year for some children in residential care services, massive cuts in Federal funding for child welfare and protection – these are some of the waypoints on the long and lonely road of the Minister for Children and Families, Robyn Lambley (pictured with constituents, photo supplied by her office). She spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: There is a lot of concern about staffing of the Office of Children and Families (OCF). What percentage of top staff have left in about the last six months?
LAMBLEY: When we came into government we made no secret that any public employee earning more than $110,000 would have their position scrutinised. We had a top heavy public service, a bloated public service, 20,000 public servants, a 25% increase in the last four or five years, with a 50% increase in those upper echelons. My understanding is that approximately 47 temporary contract positions are expected to cease within the 2012/13 financial year. These positions are all central office positions.
NEWS: What about front line staff?
LAMBLEY: No front line staff. If there is a perception that front line staff have been removed then that’s not correct from the NT Government perspective. We receive a huge amount of funding within OCF from the Commonwealth and this is where there has been a lot of confusion, within health, education and child protection. A lot of Commonwealth funded positions have ceased and we have not continued to fund them. We have not taken away any front line services.
NEWS: From within your own budget?
LAMBLEY: That’s right.
NEWS: So if front line people have left, they had been Federally funded?
LAMBLEY: That’s right.
NEWS: And that’s an ongoing policy?
LAMBLEY: We have increased the funding for OCF by $10m in the mini budget but we’re still struggling to stay within that. This is the most that’s ever been spent on child protection in the history of the NT. In terms of the non-government sector, we have made no apologies in that we are targeting out of home care services and child protection. We’re not going to be putting money into things outside of that.
There is an escalating demand for child protection services but the financial parameters we’re working in are so tight, and we have to make the tough decisions.
NEWS: What are the consequences, for the children, of the withdrawal of Federally funded positions?
LAMBLEY: When you take any position away, the person in that position will have relationships, they would have built up rapport and important networks. But having said that, there were 90 unfunded positions within OCF we inherited from the Labor government. We had to find a huge amount of money for positions that Kon Vatskalis told Clare Gardiner-Barnes to recruit to, with the full knowledge that there were no dollars.
We had to find the money. Given these 90 positions, I don’t know whether the front line has suffered despite the withdrawal of the Federally funded positions. I really would question that.
NEWS: There is a lot of debate about kinship placement, sending kids back to their families, land and culture.
LAMBLEY: This is an area we’re focussing on at the moment. We don’t believe the whole kinship care system has been rolled out to realise its full potential. We’re doing a review into out of home care at the moment. A big part of that is not removing kids from their communities, whether they be remote or within urban centres, but trying to strengthen the whole kinship care model. We don’t know how well it can work because it hasn’t really worked at all.
NEWS: In what way will you change it?
LAMBLEY: We want to roll back the enormous amount of money we are spending on residential care services. Some of these child placements are costing in excess of half a million dollars a year.
NEWS: Per child?
LAMBLEY: Per child, per year. It’s outrageous. They are so inefficient. You just don’t need to spend that amount of money, even for the most difficult child, with all the challenges in the world. And that’s a fairly conservative sum, from what I’m hearing. There are savings to be made, with more effective kinship carers. [The average annual cost for the placement of a child was $80,000 in 2010-11.]
NEWS: What about institutions? It’s an awful word, none of us like it. But what about kids committing offences, going before a court, getting bail, offending again, caught up in a legal system that is clearly non-achieving. Do we need somewhere these children can be taken, to be looked after, but where they must stay, by order of the government?
Ms Lambley says there are children who don’t need incarceration. The former Labor government spent big on two facilities, one here and one in Darwin.
A facility for young people has been built adjacent to the gaol at a cost of $7m. It is yet to be opened, pending legislation governing its use.
One wing is a  “high risk care facility” with eight beds. The facility was initially planned for Ross River Highway, at the eastern edge of town, but this was knocked on the head because of public opposition.
Local residents were frightened of inmates with serious mental disorders escaping.
The second wing, also with eight beds, is a secure care facility.
LAMBLEY: It’s not a gaol, it’s not a detention facility. It will be for children with high needs and complicated problems. It is recognition that at times children are needing restraint and securing, a high level of secure care.
NEWS: How many are there in Alice Springs needing that kind of care?
LAMBLEY: It’s a temporary thing and it’s often needed only for 24 or 48 hours. They are not psychotic, they don’t need medical care. They require that secure facility for their own safety. They are kids with challenging behaviour. They will be in a secure, homely, friendly environment.
NEWS: For how long would these kids need to be kept there?
LAMBLEY: It depends on their needs. You wouldn’t imagine they would need this high level care for more than six months, but some kids have deep-seated torment and problems and the might require it for longer. If you are talking about an institution, that’s probably the closest we would get. It’s a beautiful facility, it’s got everything there, a high level of care and supervision, in what is a beautiful environment.
NEWS: How many kids in our region would require that kind of attention?
LAMBLEY: I was told by staff showing me around they could fill the whole facility tomorrow.
NEWS: How many kids in total would need that kind of care?
LAMBLEY: I don’t know.
NEWS: Would it be tens, hundreds?
LAMBLEY: I wouldn’t be prepared to put a number to it. [Given that we could immediately fill both facilities] you’d have to say dozens. It’s not just about care, it’s about therapeutic intervention.
NEWS: Is it right to say you’re against the youth curfew largely because you’d have nowhere to put the kids?
LAMBLEY: I am against a blanket curfew. I’m more than prepared, during a period of high social unrest, through the Chief Minister, of course, to instruct the police to implement a curfew, for a limited period of time. But you’re right. It is about expense.
NEWS: What’s your view on parental responsibility and liability for the actions of their children?
LAMBLEY: This is something we’ve talked about in opposition quite a bit, that parents should be made to provide restitution on behalf of their kids.
NEWS: How will you enforce it?
LAMBLEY: Well, we haven’t got to that point. I think it makes sense. It’s what the broader society would expect. There always would be complications. These kids come from low socio-economic backgrounds. Their parents usually have nothing, no money. Getting blood out of a stone is almost impossible.
Ms Lambley says that children in state care are entitled to have a legal representative funded by the state is not in dispute.
What needs to be clarified is whether that entitlement applies to the period when the court is preparing to make an order, or whether it extends beyond that.
NEWS: Who appoints the representatives, the government or the courts?
LAMBLEY: Well, it can be both. That’s my understanding. If it is a grey area it needs to be clarified.
NEWS: Either way there should be a free flow of information?
LAMBLEY: Absolutely. Where the communication break-down has occurred is in a lack of clarity around that issue.


  1. Thank you, Robyn, for answering the call and giving this interview.
    Assuming, and I do, that there is good will and a real commitment to help on all sides of this debate, everything seems to pivot on funding. Where do we get the money to help the youth in need of assistance, and which program do we choose?
    For what it’s worth:
    It has always seemed to me that by the time a child is eight years old, behavioral patterns have been set. So go in hard before then.
    It has also always seemed to me that to expect a child to grow into a sober adult after being raised in an alcoholic environment just ain’t gonna happen. So don’t send a child brought to your attention back into one, and ignore any black / white noise that this might generate.
    And grog. It’s always grog. And not just here in the Centre. I’ve recently read that young women living on the coast are presenting with cirrhosis of the liver when still in their 20s. Since this condition can take up to a decade to develop, there has to have been some serious under-age drinking going on. Foetal alcohol is just beginning to kick in. And the alcohol industry, caught as it is in a world of turbo-capitalism answerable to shareholders, cannot be expected to effectively self-regulate.
    So don’t hide your head in the sand, but get stuck into that one as well.
    And good luck. I look forward to your next interview.


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