Left hungry and too cold to go to school: Urgent review of children in care

Left hungry and too cold to go to school: Urgent review of children in care

The state government has ordered an immediate review of out-of-home care services for children in NSW, following claims two boys were left hungry and too cold to go to school this year while their care provider sought thousands of dollars a day to look after them.

In a devastating assessment of the sector, a children’s court magistrate has detailed the “unconscionable” treatment, “appalling neglect” and “failure” in care by providers, including Lifestyle Solutions, and the NSW Department of Communities and Justice.

In granting an application for a clinical report into the wellbeing of the boys, dubbed Finn and Lincoln Hughes by the court, magistrate Tracy Sheedy put on record details of the plight of the children, including:

  • how they complained to their school principal of hunger pains and to their lawyer about not having enough food;
  • how they were too cold to go to school because they did not have a winter uniform;
  • how their care provider quoted $77,000 per month to care for them;
  • and how their psychological welfare was suffering having experienced a police raid, separation from siblings and abuse in care since coming to the attention of authorities.

“It is both shocking and unacceptable that children in care of the state are too cold to go to school because they do not have a winter uniform,” Magistrate Sheedy said in a judgment.

“It is of overwhelming concern to this court and unconscionable that these children have had their therapeutic needs … that are well known to [the department] and to Lifestyle Solutions, ignored for so long.”

The magistrate detailed how the not-for-profit Lifestyle Solutions sought payment from the department of $18,096 per week to look after Finn and Lincoln, or $1200 per day for 90 days, before then subcontracting some care of the children to another provider, Connecting Families.

According to the judgment, the subcontractor said that “the allocated and approved budget by Lifestyle Solutions in relation to groceries and activities for the children was $80 per child per week.”

Lifestyle Solutions, which operates nationally, declared annual revenue of $187 million in 2021, of which $94 million was federal government funding and $70 million from the NSW government, according to financial statements. It posted $72 million in revenue for out-of-home care and foster care services.

It describes itself as “a leading national provider of services and supports for people with disability, and children and young people in out-of-home care.

“Our purpose is to enable the people we support and their communities to achieve what is important to them. What matters to them, matters to us,” it states in its annual report.

Case sparks ‘independent review’

In response to questions from the Herald, the Minister for Families and Communities Natasha Maclaren-Jones said she had “asked the Office of the Children’s Guardian, an independent oversight body, to look into the adequacy of current oversight arrangements for placements of this nature, to ensure improvements are made to meet the needs of children in [out-of-home care] in NSW”.

She said she had also “asked the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) to acknowledge that it needs to reflect the standard of care the community expects.

“I have also asked that the secretary take steps to make any changes that will prevent a repeat of the failings identified in this judgment, which I note he has committed to.”

In a statement, the department said secretary Michael Tidball “has ordered an independent review into the issues raised in the judgment”.

“The review will explore the adequacy of casework services provided by Lifestyle Solutions, Life Without Barriers and DCJ.”

Abuse matters raised in the case had been referred to the police, the statement said.

“Lifestyle Solutions is being closely monitored by DCJ to ensure any practice or systemic issues are addressed. Lifestyle Solutions has made a number of changes to its leadership team and DCJ acknowledges that this is a positive step forward.”

In this year’s budget, the government announced a $1.6 billion program targeting children in out-of-home care. A 2018 review into child protection services in NSW labelled the system “ineffective and unsustainable”. More than 45,000 children were in out-of-home care in Australia last year, with about 16,000 in NSW, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Department’s behaviour ‘alarming’

The Hughes children’s predicament emerged when Magistrate Sheedy heard an application involving the boys, Finn (born in 2009) and Lincoln (born 2011), and their twin siblings, dubbed Marina and Blake (born 2012), following the death of their father and failure of their mother to provide care due to alcohol abuse and neglect.

Following a drug-related police raid on their mother’s house in June 2020, the children were removed from the family home and put into state care

The children were moved between their mother’s ex-husband, other family members, foster care and supervised out-of-home care. They were also separated into two groups – twins Marina and Blake, and Finn and Lincoln.

The Children’s Court was examining whether there was any realistic possibility of returning the children to their mother. As the matter dragged on, Magistrate Sheedy laid bare the trauma and treatment of the children, admitting she was troubled by “disingenuous” evidence presented to the court.

She singled out the department, saying its behaviour was “alarming” given it should be a “model litigant”.

When Finn and Lincoln were with out-of-home care provider Life Without Barriers from February to June 2021, the department received five risk-of-serious-harm reports, including that one of the boys had been hit and strangled by a staff member.

In April, the department was informed of “suspicious indicators consistent with sexual abuse”, including access to pornography.

In June 2021, an assessment detailed concerns about sexual abuse and being grabbed and pushed by a worker. Other reports detailed that the children said they were sad and depressed, workers would scream or swear, and one of the children expressed suicidal ideation that resulted in hospitalisation.

Months later, three further risk-of-serious-harm report notices were lodged, including physical abuse, risk of physical harm and sexual act or exploitation.

In December 2021, Finn and Lincoln moved to the care of Lifestyle Solutions amid hopes they could join their siblings in a foster placement managed by the same provider.

By March, as the department sought a ruling that there was no realistic possibility of restoring the children to their mother, the mother objected, and the matter was deferred to August.

The interim care of the boys broke down, and they were placed in “crisis” care-style accommodation managed by Lifestyle Solutions and staffed by agency providers, the court heard.

At an April meeting between the department and Lifestyle Solutions the department “expressed concern that Lifestyle Solutions had not provided any support to Lincoln and Finn”.

Concerns were also expressed about Lincoln being allowed to play his Xbox 12 hours a day.

The magistrate noted that six weeks after the children’s deterioration had been noted by the department “there is no evidence of any changes or strategies put in place to assist these children, save for an extra worker three days per week”.

Caseworker speaks up

In July, a department caseworker dubbed Ms P expressed concerns about what had happened since Lifestyle Solutions had taken over the case management.

“Ms P’s affidavit outlined an appalling neglect of Finn and Lincoln’s needs whilst under the case management of Lifestyle Solutions and the failure of Lifestyle Solutions to provide for the boys’ short-term and long-term needs,” Magistrate Sheedy’s judgment read.

Ms P “has been diligent in attempting to address the needs of these children,” the magistrate said, noting that despite the concerns raised in April about the boys’ mental health, nothing had been done to support them.

“Lifestyle Solutions were not providing any therapeutic support to Finn or Lincoln despite this being identified as a current need,” Sheedy wrote. “There are many references in the evidence filed in these proceedings to the decline in the mental health of Finn and Lincoln when they were placed in Life Without Barriers interim care model.

“The children have experienced, since removal from their mother in a police raid, multiple placements, multiple carers, separation from siblings, abuse in care, a lack of stability and ongoing uncertainty. It is likely that the children’s need for therapy has intensified in the more than one year that the clinician’s report was published.”

In her statement, Minister Maclaren-Jones thanked the caseworker for her diligence.

Not enough food

In June, the department was alerted to concerns about Finn’s school attendance, “due to a lack of appropriate school uniform and inadequate food within the home,” the court heard.

Finn told his lawyer “they run out of food at his home, that the carers buy food on a Tuesday which is meant to last a whole week but the food usually runs out by Friday and they have to wait until the following Tuesday to shop for food”.

In June, Lincoln’s school principal advised DCJ and Lifestyle Solutions that Lincoln had reported “often feeling pain in his stomach which was attributed to hunger”.

Lincoln also felt too cold to attend school as he did not own a winter uniform.

The magistrate turned her attention to the funding of Finn and Lincoln’s care, noting the department provided the court a quote from Lifestyle Solutions dated April 28. The department did not indicate the quote was not accepted, Sheedy said.

“Lifestyle Solutions quoted $232,668 to look after Finn and Lincoln for 90 nights in the period 24 May 2022 to 22 August 2022,” Sheedy noted, adding she calculated weekly and daily rates taking into account the allocation of funds based on details from subcontractor Connecting Families.

“Lifestyle Solutions’ quote sought payment from DCJ of approximately $18,096.45 per week to look after Finn and Lincoln,” Sheedy wrote.

“On 1 August 2022 Connecting Families informed DCJ that “the allocated and approved budget by Lifestyle Solutions in relation to groceries and activities … for the children…was $80 per child per week,” Sheedy wrote, highlighting the money was for both categories.

“Out of the $1,292.60 daily payment quoted by Lifestyle Solutions to DCJ to look after Finn, Finn was allocated $11.43 daily for food and activities. Out of the $1,292.60 daily payment quoted … to look after Lincoln, Lincoln was allocated $11.43 daily for food and activities.

“No specific sum or funds were sought by Lifestyle Solutions for therapy for either Finn and Lincoln and it appears that no funds were spent on therapy.”

When Finn told his lawyer he needed new clothes he said he had been told by Lifestyle Solutions “they do not have money for these items”.

In response to questions about the children’s care, the provider’s accountability and the claims of spending on the children, Lifestyle Solutions issued a statement, saying it “is committed to providing high-quality support and care to children and young people in out-of-home care, their families, carers and communities”.

It said it was not a party to the court proceedings and “the magistrate was not adequately assisted in interpreting the financial data”.

“As part of our commitment to continuous improvement, we have reviewed and taken advice on the magistrate’s recent judgment following the interim hearing, for ways we can further improve how we support children in partnership with the Department of Communities and Justice.”

It said it will seek representation at a future hearing.

In response to questions concerning the treatment of children in its care, Life Without Barriers said in a statement: “We will be co-operating with any processes initiated by the Department of Communities and Justice into this matter.”

Activities that might bring joy

The magistrate raised “another area of apparent neglect of these boys, namely the seeming lack of recreational activities provided to them.

“There is no evidence that the staff took the children to any recreational activities except for taking Finn to the skate park. There is no evidence of swimming lessons, taking the children to the movies or bowling or to watch a game of football. There is no evidence of engaging the children in any fun activities or any activities which might bring them some joy.”

The department’s manager of client services, dubbed Ms G by the court, acknowledged that “the $80 currently allocated for food and activities was an insufficient allocation of funds”.

The magistrate was critical of both the department managers and a Lifestyle Solutions manager, to whom the court granted anonymity.

The magistrate expressed “great concern” about the evidence given by Lifestyle Solutions caseworker Ms X, describing it as “quite disingenuous” given it “contained at least three statements which were not accurate”.

Magistrate Sheedy also singled out the department for criticism.

“It is clear that management of [the department] have been well aware of the ongoing issues of abuse and neglect for these children in care as DCJ management has been involved in many meetings discussing the ongoing concerns.

“Ms P, the DCJ caseworker, was doing everything she could, within her means, to have Lifestyle Solutions meet their obligations in relation to looking after the boys. Despite the ongoing and determined efforts of Ms P, the care of the boys did not significantly improve.

“The power to make a real difference to these boys’ lives was with senior management within DCJ. Although there were regular meetings and ongoing requests to Lifestyle Solutions, these measures did not produce significant positive change and no decisive or effective action was taken by DCJ.”

Magistrate Sheedy said the department has resumed case management of Finn and Lincoln and “the situation … has improved but is still not good”.

In granting the application for a fresh clinical assessment of the boys, Magistrate Sheedy was circumspect about the outlook for the children.

“There are four children, each with complex needs,” she wrote. “The children have been separated and they have suffered harm whilst in care. Their futures in care cannot reliably be predicted at this stage.”