At Risk Kids - PROFIT

07 September 2016
We know the child protection system in Australia is a basket case. As Lisa Pryor reported in this harrowing article on child protection services, and the horrifying choices caseworkers are forced to make, there are simply too many children at risk of serious harm, and too few caseworkers to investigate and help them. Imagine a hospital emergency room where only a handful of cases deemed by the triage system as being in need of urgent medical attention got to see a doctor; the rest were simply sent home to an uncertain fate. Well, that's what happens to most children at risk of serious harm in NSW. Calls are made to the helpline, trained staff assess that a child is genuinely at risk, and then - di nada for most of them. Child protection knocking on your door because you post on Facebook that your child has a bruise? Forget it. Due to workloads, most children at risk of sexual, physical and psychological abuse will never get a visit from a caseworker.

Of course, once kids are actually removed from abusive situations, you've got to find somewhere to put them. This can be tricky. Best practice says kids are best off staying with family members and in their own community if at all possible, but how do you make sure the kids will be safe? How do you work out where is the best place for them to live? Because life is messy, these are not simple questions. Deciding where to place vulnerable kids can require a great deal of careful consideration of psychological factors, physical safety, criminal records, substance use and lots more. But how do overworked community service caseworkers do this when they're flat out trying just to determine which kids are at risk?

Enter Assessments Australia. The NSW government, amongst others, hires Assessments Australia to carry out assessments of the suitability of foster and family placements for vulnerable children. The problem here is, as the company announces on their site, they're owned by Max Solutions. Max Solutions have gained something of a reputation for questionable practices in their provision of employment services - bullying the unemployed by suspending payments for failure to attend "interviews" people were never notified about, demanding people attend their centres to search for jobs whilst offering no support, being rude, condescending and unhelpful, and claiming government bonuses for jobs service users found themselves without support from Max. The rort which is job agencies in Australia is a huge problem, and one for another post. But it shows the mindset we're dealing with here, the lack of respect, empowerment and dignity  for vulnerable people - and the lack of services to actually help people rather than punish them.

So that's Max Solutions Australia. Max is owned by Maximus Inc., a US for profit corporation with the stated goal of "Helping governments achieve their goals with a dedicated team, proven processes and innovation" (emphasis mine). Governments - not the people they serve. And what do Western governments want in this era of neoliberalism? Efficiency, cost saving, self reliance - and Maximus delivers that in spades; proudly boasting that "We deliver business process solutions to improve the cost effectiveness, efficiency and quality of government-sponsored benefit programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Health Insurance BC (British Columbia), as well as welfare-to-work and child support programs around the globe". And it's working well for them; they have 16,000 employees and annual revenue of over $1 billion US. But they want you to know that, since 2000, they've donated $2 million to community organisations. Isn't that special?

And what could possibly go wrong? Surely a corporation accountable to its shareholders will be driven to provide the best results? Well, actually, when you are making money in human disadvantage, things tend to go wrong. There's the depressingly predictable outcomes of poor service delivery, inefficiency, privacy breaches, racial discrimination, and in a bizarre irony, given the push to drug test welfare recipients, health professionals in Maximus employ failing drug tests.

For all I know, and I sincerely hope, Assessments Australia have none of these issues. But am I the only one who is seriously fucking troubled by the idea that the fates of seriously vulnerable Australian children are generating profits for American neoliberals who want to dismantle the welfare state? Vulnerable children should not be outsourced to overseas, for-profit corporations. These are things we need to fix ourselves.


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