Some 374 children in state care have been accommodated in hotels or motels in the past 14 months, according to data the NSW government is accused of trying to hide.
The figure was revealed at a parliamentary budget estimates hearing on Tuesday after the government avoided providing the number in March, saying “the information is not publicly available”.
That response – also given to 22 other questions taken on notice in March – frustrated opposition MP Rose Jackson.
“(It) is a serious breach of the estimates process to not provide information that you had and claim the information is not publicly available,” Ms Jackson said.
“That is not an acceptable response.”
The figure represents all children who have been in so-called ‘last resort’ alternative care arrangements at any stage between July 2021 and late August 2022.
It follows the revelation last year that half the children in such care in NSW were Indigenous, including a 12-year-old who’d spent more than 300 days in a serviced apartment.
Families and Communities Minister Natasha Maclaren-Jones defended the initial response, saying the number of children in alternative care arrangements can fluctuate and are often taken at a certain point in time.
She also suggested information could be inaccurate or commercial in confidence.
“I have a responsibility to ensure the information you are provided is accurate, includes any research and that the data is up to date,” she said.
Ms Jackson said she understood the government might be concerned about context or outdated data, but that could be explained when providing the figure requested.
“But you didn’t,” she told Ms Maclaren-Jones.
“Who made the decision to not provide it and consistently say that information was not publicly available?
“I can only assume … these officials have tried to provide the information and that you and your office are the blockage.”
Department secretary Michael Tidball committed to having oversight of answers about data in future, having observed the line of questioning in budget estimates.
“I am very concerned that there is confidence in our processes,” he said.
Another official said they would tell the parliament why the “information is not publicly available” response was repeatedly delivered, following an investigation.
Meanwhile, Ms Maclaren-Jones said she was “actively reviewing” but avoided committing to lifting the leaving age for out-of-home-care from 18 to 21, as other states have.
“It’s not just making this announcement (to raise the age) – it’s about what would work in our current framework because we do a lot more in supporting young people in care and leaving care than other states,” she said.