"Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amewndment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010"
- Category: Legislation and Acts
- Created: Wednesday, 01 December 2010 23:30
- Written by Alecomm2
Debate resumed from 24 November 2010.
Mr STUART AYRES (Penrith) [4.31 p.m.]: I shall make a brief contribution to the debate on the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010. The object of the bill is:
- … to amend the
Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998
- to require the Director-General of the Department of Human Services to act on reports on the homelessness of young persons who are 16 years old and to enable such reports to be made without the consent of the young person concerned. At present, reports on the homelessness of young persons (namely 16 and 17-year-olds) may only be made with the consent of the young person and the Director-General is not required to act on any such report.
The member for Goulburn made the valid point in her agreement in principle speech that the law change last year relating to school attendance left many young homeless people in somewhat of a bureaucratic limbo, given that the link has been broken between the school leaving age and the responsibilities of parents and guardians, including the Minister for Community Services in the role of guardian, and the importance of stable housing for young people. The amendments in this bill help to correct some of those changes. Youth homelessness is a serious issue across New South Wales. The Youth Accommodation Association has provided interesting data on this issue to many members in this place.
Youth homelessness is not isolated or focused in one region; it stretches across all of New South Wales. In 2006 the number of young homeless people aged 12 to 24 years in New South Wales totalled 7,672, representing 28 per cent of the State's homeless population. In the 12-year to 18-year age group, females outnumbered males 56 per cent to 54 per cent, not including the thousands of young people at risk of homelessness. The association expressed its view that homelessness is not just about rooflessness; it is also about missing a stable connection with family networks, friends, broader community groups, sporting clubs and areas where they find the love and support they so desperately need for a strong upbringing.
The majority of homeless young people are often categorised as secondary homeless. Many experience long periods of couch surfing and moving from house to house, with no stable environment in which to work. On Monday I hosted a mental health forum in the Penrith electorate. I thank the member for Barwon, Senator Marise Payne and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who has Federal responsibilities for mental health, for attending the forum. A number of organisations also attended, particularly those that look after youth accommodation across the Penrith and Nepean regions. The link between mental health and youth homelessness came through clearly in our discussions. A number of organisations operate with Youth Accommodation Interagency Nepean. Tomorrow I am attending a meeting of that organisation to hear more about youth homelessness across western Sydney.
A leading advocate on youth homelessness is the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service [NYAS]. David Keegan, who is the chairman of that organisation, was at Monday's mental health forum and raised a number of issues. In its 2010 annual report the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service spoke about accommodating 395 young people and families from a total of 607 inquiries. However, for that service the biggest demand is for the crisis youth refuge, which accommodated only 89 young people from more than 316 inquiries across the Nepean region. Youth homelessness continues to be a major challenge, particularly in the Penrith electorate, where rental accommodation is extremely scarce. This pushes many people into homelessness because they are unable to get into any form of shared accommodation.
Some of the things that the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service has achieved over the past year and some of the programs it runs include a supported independent living program for young people who are leaving State care. This group of young people is one of the most disadvantaged in our community. Research shows that these young people often end up suffering from chronic mental health, drug abuse problems and homelessness. One by one, we are facilitating the successful transition to young adulthood through holistic case management, which includes education support and employment outcomes. Other areas where the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service has been able to work is targeting vulnerable teenage mothers and young families. It works with approximately 30 young families on any given day to support them when they face homelessness or rental crisis.
The Nepean Youth Accommodation Service responds to the challenge with a strong sense of enthusiasm, and is also working towards developing a head lease program, which is proving to be successful as an important strategy for keeping families together. Another fantastic initiative on which the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service has embarked is the Nepean Youth College, which is run from the Penrith Police and Community Citizens Youth Club. The college offers a second chance to young people who have dropped out of school. It is interesting that this bill targets that group of people who often leave school at an age when they might fall through the cracks. The college will enable those who have dropped out of school to undertake a program for their year 10 study or other accredited courses through TAFE.
More than ever we see that attaining a positive education outcome is linked to solving homelessness. Giving opportunities to people to obtain employment is important in recognising that there is no better welfare than a job. The Nepean Youth Accommodation Service also runs a crisis accommodation program. In respect of one of its individual cases, the service states in its annual report:
- Stephen (17 years old) was accommodated at the youth refuge after spending most of his teenage years in different refuges. Stephen is illiterate, there are indications that he has a mental illness and his teeth are in a very poor condition.
Stephen had a couple of short stays at the refuge, leaving each time without a forwarding address. He was referred to our Dulkara service but did not stay long enough to go through the referral process.
He is that one person for whom we need to work just that little bit harder to see whether we can offer support. The Nepean Youth Accommodation Service is achieving excellent results. Across its client base, 21 per cent of its clients have found independent housing, 18 per cent have found their way into supported accommodation, 13 per cent have been returned to their families, 21 per cent have graduated from programs and only 8 per cent are falling into an unknown category, with 16 per cent going into other services. It is important to acknowledge the governance of the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service and the achievements of the board constituted by directors Siegfried Kunze, David Keegan, Michael Rosano, Gary Askwith, Cliff Foley, George Rabie—who is a very strong contributor to the local Penrith community—Carole Kelaher and Ken Buttrum, AM.
The bill that has been introduced by the member for Goulburn is excellent. It goes a long way to overcoming shortcomings that may have come about as a result of a change in the age at which students may leave school. I commend the member for Goulburn for introducing the bill. I commend the bill to the House.
Dr ANDREW McDONALD (Macquarie Fields—Parliamentary Secretary) [4.40 p.m.]: I lead for the Government in debate on the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010, which proposes to amend the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. On behalf of the Minister for Community Services, the Hon. Linda Burney, who is responsible for law and policy that is aimed at protecting each and every one of our children and our young people, I state for the record that the Minister takes a deep and personal interest in any issue affecting child protection in the State, including the impact of homelessness on young people.
The bill has been introduced as a private member's bill by the Opposition spokesperson, and the Minister thanks her for drawing attention to this most difficult issue. At some point many members are likely to come face to face with this issue in their own electorates. For some others, such as me, it is likely to be a frequent and at times a constant problem. However, all members would be aware that supporting young people who face multiple challenges and risks, which may include homelessness, is one of the most fraught areas of child protection. Very relevant to this debate is the fact that in addition to any one or more of the factors placing a young person at risk, young people are also likely to be struggling to understand and define themselves in relation to their environment and the world in which they live. Young people are more likely than younger children to understand the relationships between the challenges they face, their circumstances, those of their family and the people whose responsibility it is to care for them and keep them safe.
It is clear—and certainly the Opposition spokesperson attempted to set out some of these issues in her agreement in principle speech—that the myriad issues that may result in young people leaving home and remaining homeless for an extended period are many and complex. Without a doubt, family conflict, when it is present, is likely to be a trigger. Certainly abuse, neglect, violence, and mental illness affecting either the young person or their parent or guardian may also be a factor; so too poverty, social disadvantage, isolation and unemployment. All have the potential to heighten tensions within families and that may lead to a young person needing or feeling that they have no choice but to leave their home. There are no quick fixes to this issue. When I was a member of the Child Death Review Team, the team examined the mortality rates of children who are of a higher risk, and the words "enduring difficulty" come to mind—and that is a term applied in the reports.
During this debate, it is worth considering the intention of compulsory school attendance amendments to the Education Act that commenced in January this year. It is the implementation of those amendments that has spurred the Opposition spokesperson to, in turn, seek amendment of the child protection legislation. The Act does not set out to penalise parents who are trying their best to ensure that their child or young person satisfies a certain level of school attendance, nor the parents of a child who is living independently, The Act explicitly makes this a defence to prosecution. The Act seeks to address the issue of parents who are simply not prepared to make the effort. Whatever aspersions the Opposition spokesperson might wish to level at the Minister for Community Services regarding the Minister's responsibility for the parenting of many of the young people under her control, not caring—that is, failing to engage with, constantly seek and direct every resource available towards supporting young people, especially those in her care—should not be one of them.
The amendments to the care Act proposed by the Opposition spokesperson have a number of problems. I will address each in turn. First, the proposal flies in the face of the recommendation of the special commission of inquiry that statutory child protection services should focus on children and young people who are at risk of significant harm. That cannot be emphasised strongly enough. If a homeless young person is thought to be at risk of significant harm, the matter should be immediately directed to the helpline. However, forcing a statutory response, when there are no other risk issues and the young person does not want Community Services involved, is inappropriate, inefficient and almost certainly will be ineffective. What is certain is that such a response would place greater pressure on the statutory child protection system. It would mean both an increase in reports coming through the helpline and an increase in reports going out to the field, thereby affecting community service centres and particularly the crisis response team that is responsible for after-hours matters. They are the very outcomes that the special commission of inquiry found needed correction and which the Keep Them Safe reforms have been correcting. This bill would undo that work.
The second and even more persuasive case against this bill focuses on the related issues of participation and consent by young people in decision-making about their lives. It is assumed that children and young people have the right to participate in decision-making about their lives in the context of the New South Wales child protection legislation. In the care Act, this right is enshrined in section 10, which outlines the principle of participation by the child or young person. Beyond the right to participation is that young people in particular should, and do, have both the ability and the right to consent to many of the actions that affect their lives. This is supported by longstanding child development research findings and accepted at law. For example, it is widely accepted that a child, and certainly a young person, may independently consent to medical treatment. This legal principle, which is enshrined in the High Court case re Marion, affirms that when a child or young person sufficiently understands what is being proposed, they are capable of giving informed consent to medical intervention. The care Act also recognises that principle in section 121. It is one of the sections that the bill seeks to amend.
Section 121 of the care Act facilitates the reporting of a young person, which is defined as a person between the ages of 16 and 18 years, who is homeless but only with the consent of that young person. Acting on a report involving a young person who is unwilling to participate is, quite frankly, pointless and indeed is likely only to further isolate that person from support services and those who may be able to assist them in the medium to longer term. Those who are in touch with young people understand that participation is the crucial element to successful engagement with all young people, particularly those who have neither the immediate nor the ongoing support of their family. Participation and consent are vital components in developing trusting relationships with services and the workers who are seeking to engage with and support the young person. It is those relationships that in the longer term will lead to improved engagement and better outcomes for the young person, including locating and maintaining suitable housing.
This Government is more than aware of the devastating impact that homelessness can have on anyone, but particularly on the life of a young person. Young people constitute the largest group among all homeless people. Given their age, life experience, life skills and lack of resources, that is hardly surprising. Through specialist homelessness services, the State and Commonwealth governments fund services for people who otherwise would be living on the streets. In New South Wales, 150 of those services are targeted to young people. Together with youth support services, family counselling services, specific services for young offenders, youth drug and alcohol services, and support services for victims of abuse, the Government seeks to be able to offer the range of services that a young person who is vulnerable and homeless might need to access.
While doing our best to support young people who enter homelessness services, New South Wales also has a strong early intervention strategy to ensure that as many young people as possible receive help before they become homeless or before they become entrenched in the cycle of homelessness. The New South Wales Government's Keep Them Safe action plan to improve child wellbeing has a number of actions that improve services for vulnerable young people and aim to prevent the disengagement from family and community that leads to homelessness. Under Keep Them Safe, the Government has committed to examining the current evidence base and establishing an early intervention program for children and young people aged nine to 15 years.
A business case is currently being considered for the trial of a Vulnerable 9 to 15s Early Intervention Services model. The purpose of this project is to establish a time-limited trial of the service model in three sites across the State. The trial will be evaluated to determine the effectiveness of the model and enrich the evidence base about effective integrated early intervention programs for this age group. This trial model will target nine- to 15-year-olds who are at risk of continuing disengagement from family, friends, school or their community They may be at risk of entering or escalating in the child protection or juvenile justice system. Priority access will be given to Aboriginal children and their families. Homeless young people who still have a viable connection with their families will be eligible for the program.
More broadly, the South West Sydney Youth Hub, funded by NSW Housing and operated by Mission Australia, integrates social housing with education and job-readiness support for young people who are at risk of homelessness. The youth hub also provides links with drug and alcohol assistance, counselling and life skills development. Other New South Wales Government initiatives assist children and young people who are homeless and include specialist services to help young people reconnect with the community. For example, the Illawarra Youth Homelessness project is a Foyer-type program that provides accommodation and support services for young people with low-level support needs. Support includes assessment, referral, training in living skills, and help with education, training and employment.
The Nepean Youth Homelessness Service provides housing and intensive case management for high-risk young people from 12 to 25 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Young people who engage with this service are assisted to access accommodation and services through an interagency coordination group that will case manage their support for up to 16 weeks. Under an accord framework, Housing NSW provides some tenancies for homeless young people with high and complex needs. As I noted earlier, youth homelessness is one of the most difficult issues faced by Community Services. It is rare that a young person finds themselves homeless because of a single contributing factor. And so our response needs to be sophisticated. The strategies I have outlined reflect this and, I believe, demonstrate a commitment to an holistic approach to supporting young people who are homeless.
More than anything else, though, the response needs to be respectful of the young person's developing autonomy. I know the amendment before the House would seem to entirely dismiss this idea; but to help young people grow in maturity and take their place in society as adults, they must be taught to make their own decisions. However, as a community and as elected representatives we still have the clear responsibility to care for them, provide for them, protect them and guide them. We need to make available the support services they need to heal and develop. But this will only happen and it will only be successful if young people choose this path. If I have learned one thing from 30 years of paediatrics it is that at this age, unless there is buy-in from the affected adolescent, it does not work. In a nutshell it is this simple: when it comes to supporting homeless young people, coercion will not and does not work.
To think that removing consent requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds before reporting them to child protection services will make all the difference, or indeed any difference, to the outcomes for these young people is naive at best and destructive at worst. The Government rejects the amendments to the care Act proposed in this bill. They undermine the direction of child protection services in light of the special commission of inquiry, they undermine the participatory rights of young people who come into contact with the child protection system, and they undermine the right of a young person to consent to being drawn into the system, without other factors that place that young person at risk of significant harm. The Government will not support the amendments.
Mr GEOFF PROVEST (Tweed) [4.54 p.m.]: The private member's bill of the shadow Minister for Community Services makes important amendments to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 to make provision for the annual reporting to Parliament by Community Services of all deaths of children known to the department. It will also require a change to the legislation to include children who are currently excluded due to the change in the definition of "known to Community Services".
In her agreement in principle speech the shadow Minister referred to several pertinent Acts and said that the changes left homeless young people in terrible limbo because of the link between the school-leaving age and the responsibilities of parents and guardians, including the Minister for Community Services in the role of a guardian, and the importance of a stable home for young people. There is some background to this legislation. Prior to the Wood special commission of inquiry the definition of "known to Community Services" included children and their siblings who had been reported to Community Services in the three years prior to their death. The definition also included children's deaths where the cases had not met the threshold for assessment and Community Services was not involved with the family in the long term.
The legislation is important, and the Government's response to the issue is disappointing. I have a special interest in homelessness, particularly in the Tweed. The latest census report shows that 184 people are living on the streets of the Tweed, many of whom are young people. I have been working with a number of aid agencies, and I support those aid agencies, such as the St Josephs Youth Service. John Storey has been a dedicated worker over many, many years. The service does a great job, and it has turned around the lives of many young people. John Lee from the Make a Friend Association goes out on the streets and feeds many young homeless people and offers guidance. Unfortunately the success of the association is limited due to the lack of facilities. It is fine for the Government to say that there has been a record amount of funding, programs and so on.
I acknowledge those good programs. I have had a meeting with Father Chris Riley of Youth Off the Streets. I applaud his great work. I also honour the commitment and great work of the previous Minister for Juvenile Justice. It is disappointing that we have not been able to get a project in the Tweed called Square One, which offers emergency accommodation for youth, and facilities for guidance and early intervention. I have made a number of submissions to various Ministers; unfortunately the Ministers keep changing. It is frustrating when one goes back and sees the pain and suffering. This issue goes beyond politics. I have been out on the streets. I think my turning point was about two years ago when aid workers and I found two young girls under the age of 12 years who had been living in a tent for a month.
At 3.00 a.m. I walked away and thought, "We've got to be able to do better." We have heard a lot of rhetoric from the Federal and New South Wales governments about extra funding and so on. Recently I had a meeting with senior staff of NSW Housing. In terms of funding for homelessness on the North Coast, $4.5 million will be applied between Port Macquarie and the border. That is disappointing because we are talking about kids who are the future of Australia. We could make a difference. Tweed Heads, where it is estimated that about 80 young people live on the streets, will get two workers who will assist in finding some form of accommodation for them. Last year alone we spent $600,000 through the Department of Housing on emergency accommodation.
On the other side of the coin we have only 30 Department of Community Services officers and last year alone 2,300 category two cases were reported in the electorate of the Tweed, which has one of the highest incidences of child neglect, abuse and homelessness among young people. This is way beyond politics: it is about talking to people at the grassroots level. The Government rejects this bill and we keep moving amendments. People need to get out there and see the people on the street. I have not given up on Square One, which is a great proposal. It is the result of government agencies such as St Joseph's Youth Service, On Track and the Family Centre, all of which work at the coalface, forming a collective. We can pass differing legislation but once funding trickles down through the bureaucratic nightmare not much of it ends up on the street.
Some $4.5 million has been allocated to deal with youth homelessness from Port Macquarie to the border, yet all the Tweed gets is two extra workers. It is not good enough. These young people deserve our help and our support. I speak to a lot of young homeless people on the street, some of whom are suffering and continue to suffer sexual, physical or verbal abuse when they go home. I know of one 13-year-old girl whose mother gives her $100 on Friday and tells her to come back on Monday because the mother's boyfriend does not like her. What type of mother is that? The girl is keen, but just needs a friend and some support. There is nothing in the Tweed for the youth—no emergency accommodation. A few non-government organisations do a fabulous job and I support them, but they are desperate. They have to rely on using volunteers.
Recently John Lees organised a number of students to sleep out overnight to highlight homelessness. He is frustrated by the lack of funding and services. I am led to believe that in the past month two young women in the Tweed committed suicide because of the hopelessness of their situation. It is fairly trying for my electorate staff to have to deal with young mothers who have been sleeping in cars for many months. There is nowhere for them to go. They can get access to Department of Housing emergency accommodation, but that lasts for only 28 days. What happens after that? They are back in their cars. Predators are out on the street. It is a travesty that decent resources are not allocated to the homeless.
While I acknowledge the parliamentary process in relation to debate on these bills, the real issue is not what occurs in this place or who scores political points; it is about putting serious resources out on the streets to turn the lives of young people around. I was lucky to have a mum and a dad, a nice warm bed to sleep in, meals and clothing, but these kids have nothing. The Government has not supplied them with any resources. The not-for-profit organisations have to beg for free food from Woolworths. I congratulate Woolworths on providing food for the homeless. If John Lees, John Storey, On Track, and the Family Centre were not out there the kids would starve.
The number of young homeless children on the streets in the Tweed is increasing. Unfortunately, the Tweed has the highest percentage of unemployment among young people in the State. It is a travesty that we do not do more to look after these young people. They are at risk. Young girls and young boys are being raped on our streets. Earlier this year the large number of gangs and the high level of youth violence, as well as the lack of government resources in the Tweed, were highlighted on Stateline and Today Tonight. I have been talking about Square One for two years in this place. I have mentioned it probably 30 times. I have approached countless Ministers. I have been hurt personally because of the $4.5 million the Tweed will get only two extra officers. It will get no more money for other resources or emergency accommodation—nothing! Zero! Zilch!
How can I look a 12, 14, or 15-year-old girl or boy in the eye and say, "I'd really like to help you, but I can't. I have nothing"? About 1½ years ago a father came into my office with three young children under the age 15. He abandoned them at 4.30 on a Friday afternoon. He said, "I can't keep these kids any more. I'll probably do them physical harm", and he left. Those young kids had been sleeping in a tent at the back of a showground at Mullumbimby. They were devastated that their natural father walked out and abandoned them. I know a lot of our Department of Community Services workers in the Tweed. They are hardworking men and women who fulfil a role that I certainly could not. I do not think I am emotionally strong enough to deal with the misery they see. However, they responded quickly and the three children abandoned in my electorate office were returned to their natural mother.
I applaud the efforts made in Nepean, Penrith and the central business district, but further out, particularly in regional New South Wales, no government resources are being applied to youth homelessness. The Tweed got two extra workers out of $4.5 million, yet up to 80 kids are on the street in the Tweed. A lot of stakeholders in Square One are not government associations but local businesses, schools and organisations. A clear way to resolve homelessness is for the community to take control. I hope the Government reconsiders its position because youth homelessness is tangible, but at the moment it is not being given priority or resources. Any money that is spent on early intervention will save a lot of money and pain in our communities later. As the old saying goes, "You reap what you sow." I see a lost generation who will get into trouble as a result of antisocial behaviour. It behoves us on both sides of this Chamber to do all we possibly can to look after the homeless.
Mr MATTHEW MORRIS (Charlestown—Parliamentary Secretary) [5.07 p.m.]: I speak to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010, introduced by the member for Goulburn. The legislative effect of this bill is that 16- and 17-year-olds who are homeless can be reported to the State child protection agency without the young persons' consent. The member for Goulburn and Opposition spokesperson for Community Services introduced this bill because she is concerned that New South Wales has legislation in place requiring parents to ensure that children and young people up to 17 years of age attend a government or registered non-government school, or participate full time in an approved education or training program and/or paid work.
Under section 23 of the Education Act 1990, failing to do this is an offence, carrying a penalty of between $2,750 and $11,000. I have read and re-read the agreement in principle speech, yet I remain at a loss as to how the proposed amendment is likely to address the member's concerns. The bill is particularly worrying because the proposal demonstrates a clear failure to understand young people and how government and support services can effectively work with them to keep them safe and support them into adulthood. As anyone who understands young people will know, the one strategy that will fail every time is coercion. At this time in their lives nothing is more important to young people than their emerging capacity to make their own decisions. This is what growing up is all about. Young people have the right to express opinions on those things that directly affect their lives, to be involved in decision-making when the outcomes affect their lives, and to consent—when they have the capacity to do so—to actions that will affect their lives.
Reporting young people who are homeless without their consent is flawed in both law and in practice. Section 10 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 sets out the principle of participation when working with children and young people and making decisions under the Act. It emphasises the need to provide the child or young person with information, to provide the child or young person with an opportunity to express their views, and to be advised how their views may be taken into account in any decision-making. This is also reflected in section 121 of the Act, which recognises the rights of young people to freedom of expression, privacy and participation by requiring the consent of a young person who is homeless before a report is made to Community Services. That is the legal problem, but the practical problem is even more compelling. It is simply not possible to work with a young person who refuses to engage. No program or support service will be effective unless the young person consents to participation, and indeed unless some part of them wants to be helped. This is the heartbreaking and frustrating part of working with young people. If we do not recognise this, we set ourselves up to fail. But, more importantly, we set the young person up to fail either in the immediate or the longer term.
The concerns I have raised I know are shared by many. Importantly, they have also been identified by the Legislation Review Committee. The committee reported on the bill on 8 November 2010. The report raises concerns that the proposal may be in conflict with article 12 (1) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and may undermine article 16. Article 12 (1) relates to the privacy rights of a young person and article 16 relates to their right to express their views freely. In considering these possible infringements on the rights of young people and balancing those rights against the State's responsibility for their care and protection, the committee has referred the question of whether the amendment may constitute undue trespass on the rights of young people for Parliament's consideration. Those concerns, together with the fact that this proposal will in practice undermine services engagement with vulnerable young people, leave me with no option but to oppose the bill.
There is no doubt that more needs to be done to support young people who are homeless. More often than not, the issues they face are many and complex. As a Government, we need to ensure that young people are able to access the range of services they need at any one point in time. This of course includes education and training as part of a holistic, inclusive response to the needs of the young person. Most importantly, we need to work in partnership with young people. Only with their consent will we be able to help them achieve the very best outcomes for their lives. The problem with the bill is that it undermines the autonomy of young people and, more tragically, it will not work. Some members have illustrated cases that are pertinent to their electorates—and I could certainly do similar—but it is very clear that the challenge is, and I guess always will be, engaging young people, planting the seeds of ideas, and helping them to make good decisions that will assist them immediately and in the future in terms of where their lives go, and how they participate in and become part of our community. We all have an obligation to reach out and support those in need, particularly young people. They are our future; it is an investment. We have an obligation at all times to be there to support those in need.
Mr ROB STOKES (Pittwater) [5.14 p.m.]: The New South Wales Liberals and The Nationals support the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010. We think it is a sensible bill that introduces consistency into the treatment of young people in relation to the reporting of homelessness, bringing it into line with what is now the school leaving age. I noted with interest some of the comments by the member for Charlestown. He talked about the right that young people have to aspire to individual freedom and to explore approaching adulthood, and I agree that those things are important. But so is the right to have a roof over your head and the right to food—the basic human rights that we all rely on to survive. We do not believe that any notion of a young person's personal privacy should trump their rights to a place to live and food to eat, and that is what this bill fundamentally seeks to address.
The object of the bill is to amend the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 to increase to 17 years the age at which the Department of Community Services is required to investigate claims of homelessness and consider providing services and accommodation, thus aligning the reporting of child and youth homelessness with the new school leaving age. Currently, if a child under 16 years of age becomes homeless, a person may report this to the Department of Community Services and the department is obliged to investigate that report. However, a person may only report a homeless young person over the age of 16—that is, still at school in year 11 or completing the higher school certificate or in full-time training—with the young person's permission. Moreover, the Department of Community Services is not obliged to conduct an investigation and need not provide services for homeless young people as it does for children defined as being under the age of 16. A child is a child. A young person under the age of 18 is still a child, and he or she deserves the support and the protection of our society.
I support the legislation because I believe it tidies up the existing legislation and brings it in line with legislative changes passed by the House last year—namely, the Education Amendment (School Attendance) Bill 2009 and the Education Amendment Bill 2009. Those legislative changes provided that before being eligible to leave school a child must have attained the age of 17 years or have completed year 10 of secondary education, whichever occurs first, and aim to ensure that children of compulsory school age attend school or full-time training. With these changes in mind, it appears entirely appropriate that if a child is required to attend school or full-time training until at least the age of 17 years, then legislation that attempts to ensure their protection and wellbeing should not cease at 16 years of age. The bill will ensure that if the Department of Community Services becomes aware of a homeless young person between the ages of 16 and 17, and they are required to be at school, the department must investigate and provide services, including accommodation, where appropriate.
My immediate observation when looking through this brief bill is that it is incredibly important for schools to help students in their care who are encountering personal hardship, including homelessness. The current problem is that if a child at school has attained the age of 16 years, teachers, principals and staff are unable to step in and seek help and support for that child unless the child gives their consent to do so. This is an issue that I believe needs addressing. In light of this, I acknowledge the efforts of the shadow Minister for Community Services, the member for Goulburn, in identifying this issue and bringing it to the attention of the House. Her passion and interest in seeking to improve the lives of those members of our community in greatest need is admirable, and her commitment should be recognised.
One of the most effective things we can do in this place is introduce legislation that assists our society's most vulnerable, and I congratulate the shadow Minister on doing so. It is commonsense legislation that aims to address an increasing concern in all areas of New South Wales. The reality is that no community is immune to youth homelessness. It is an issue that is not spoken about enough and the extent of the problem is, by most accounts, unknown and only speculative. It is non-discriminatory. It is not defined by socioeconomic background, family structure or location. In my area of Pittwater one aspect of youth homelessness is children being left without parental care—they may have somewhere to live but their parents do not support them on a daily basis.
Recently the minister at one of my local churches in Pittwater found a bunch of 14-year-old boys living in a space under the church. They had been living there for some time. This is happening everywhere—it is happening in all members' communities. I conclude by mentioning some wonderful people in my community who are doing great work in relation to the care of young people. Tony Bates is doing great work with Point Zero, which has been set up on the northern beaches with volunteer workers. I note that at the Pittwater Business Limited breakfast on Wednesday morning local businesses banded together to support the wonderful work of Point Zero. I also mention Mike Kewley, who is a youth worker in my community and a strong advocate for the need for better accommodation options for homeless youth on the northern beaches. Finally, the Legislation Review Committee suggested the bill might somehow undermine Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to the privacy rights of young people aged 16 years. I reiterate that privacy is an important right, but so is having a roof over your head and food to eat. I note in that respect that Article 20 of the same convention states:
- A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State.
It is important that we provide the assistance required by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this bill does that. Ms PRU GOWARD (Goulburn) [5.21 p.m.], in reply: I express my deep disappointment that the Minister for Community Services has not seen fit to be here. That is a terrible mark against her. It is all very well to send the member for Macquarie Fields into the Chamber to read a speech that has presumably been written in the department, but this is an issue of such import to the Australian community—increasingly youth homelessness is the pathway into crime and to another generation of extraordinary disadvantage—that one would think the Minister, even in the dying days of this Government, might have been interested in making some comments about it. The Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment (Homelessness Reporting Age) Bill 2010 is very simple and, as a number of members have pointed out, is essentially in two parts. The first requires the director general to act on reports of homelessness involving children who are 16 years and older. At the moment the department is not required to do that. Secondly, the reports can be made without the consent of the young person concerned. It is my view—and I suspect if we went back through Hansard over the years it would be confirmed—that the age of 16 was specified originally because that was the age at which a kid could reasonably be expected to leave school and get a job. If they were "homeless" and supporting themselves it was really nobody else's business but theirs. They were able to function and they had a reasonable opportunity to be economically self-sufficient. But, as we know now, with compulsory education to the age of 17 that capacity no longer exists for a person between the ages of 16 and 17 years. The bill does not say that the young person has to compulsorily enter housing provided by the department. The bill merely says that the report may be made to the department without the consent of the young person. As many members have already noted, at this age we have to engage with young people quite differently from the way we engage with 8- and 10-year-olds. It is much more about negotiation and gaining their trust and consent. I would have thought that would apply as much to a child of 15 years and 9 months as it does to a child of 16 years and 9 months. When you are working with young people under the age of 16 for whom consent, under the existing law, is not required, you effectively have to negotiate in order to get that young person into the services they need because they can get out the window or they can go and sleep at a friend's place. They can "take off", as we say. It is an absolute nonsense and a disappointing piece of sophistry that the Government should decide not to support the bill because of the issue of consent, when we know that from the age of about 12 the same conditions apply: we are dealing with young people with whom negotiation, trust building and relationship building is very important if they are going to cooperate with an agency or the Government's proposals for their future wellbeing. I think the Government's argument is just a piece of sophistry and an excuse to oppose the bill. The reason the Government is so anxious to oppose a bill that brings the Act into consistency with the new school leaving age is the terrible shortage of services for kids in this age group. We know how few youth shelters there are and we know how few support services there are either in those youth services or in agencies aligned to youth homelessness. The Bowral youth service, for example, comprises a youth shelter that basically runs on the smell of an oily rag and a lot of donations from people such as the Springetts. But it is closed between 9.00 a.m. and 3.00 p.m. when kids are supposed to be at school. We all know they are not, but the shelter cannot afford to run a day program for those kids during school hours. They are expected to go to school—as they now will be up to the age of 17—but they can do what they like. They do what they like because there is no-one to build a relationship and work with those kids during the day and encourage them to go back to school or find a training course that would be suitable for them, and to address the trauma. We are inevitably talking about kids with post-traumatic stress disorder for whom going to school is clearly a bridge too far and something they are not able to manage. The Government's decision to oppose this bill is a shocking excuse. It does not want any further spotlight on the appalling lack of services for teenagers and the fact that there is a growing crisis in the number of teenagers hanging out on the streets, prostituting themselves, going in and out of other people's houses, and sleeping in bus shelters, and in the very small amount of accommodation that is provided for them. There are no backup services. As the member for Tweed noted—and as all members representing coastal electorates know—teenagers often sleep on the beach, which is why they are in those members' electorates. I commend the bill to the House.
Question—That this bill be now agreed to in principle—put. The House divided.
Mr J. H. Turner
Mr R. W. Turner
Mr J. D. Williams
Mr R. C. Williams
Question resolved in the negative.
Bill not agreed to in principle. (Source : http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LA20101202043?open&refNavID=HA8_1)