Hardly a day passes in this country without a newspaper report of yet another child abuse tragedy, with the blame usually placed on statutory child protection services such as the NSW Department of Community Services. It is hard for us to accept that no child protection system can prevent all child abuse deaths - just as no mental health system can prevent all suicides.
Those who do this work on our behalf are extraordinary human beings. Few of us have what it takes to face what they confront every day they go to work. In the wake of child abuse tragedies, there is a serious risk that statutory child protection services will become even more fragile as the severe problems of staff morale and vacancies are exacerbated by uninformed media and public criticism.
It is not the people working in child protection who are at fault; it is the policy framework in which they operate that is fatally flawed. Rarely is this examined. Instead, more money is poured into bigger child protection systems and more inappropriate referrals flood in. Trying to find and respond to the seriously endangered child in such an overloaded system is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
In NSW there will be about 250,000 child protection notifications this year. One in 15 NSW children is the subject of a child protection notification each year; one in five by the time they reach 18. This is completely unsustainable. No child protection system can function under such pressure. It is forced to ask: "How quickly can we close this case so that we can get on to the next one?" instead of: "How is the child and how might we help this family?"
Bringing more children into state care is not the answer. The number of children in care in Australia is double what it was a decade ago; NSW and Queensland have the highest proportion of children in state care. Where do we place these children and what does this do to them? Despite the wonderful work that foster carers do, recent research shows that children removed from their families are frequently exposed to multiple placements and many children end up with worse mental health than when they were removed from their families. The trauma of multiple placements corrodes the core of a child's being.
Why the increase in the number of children in state care? Most are in care because of emotional abuse and neglect related to parental substance misuse or witnessing domestic violence and not because of physical and sexual abuse.
Victoria is paving the way in child protection policy. It has a significantly lower proportion of children in state care than the national average and the number of child protection notifications has remained steady while escalating in most other jurisdictions. How has it achieved this?
Victoria has a good system of universal local services for children and families, with 98 per cent of infants seen by maternal and child health nurses, a figure that is among the best in the world and well ahead of other states. The level of participation in pre-schools is also high. These early childhood services support parents as well as children and can make early referrals for families in trouble. In South Australia a new sustained nurse home visiting service is offered to 12 per cent of families for the first two years of a child's life, reaching some of the most vulnerable infants. Early results are encouraging, especially with Aboriginal families.
In Victoria families at risk of child abuse and neglect do not have to go through the child protection service to get the support they need as occurs in some other states. Unnecessary child protection investigation not only stigmatises families but overloads the system with families that don't need to be there; it is like having to go through casualty to get to the GP. With promising results from a series of family support innovations projects, new strategies for child protection have been developed in Victoria in close partnership with other government services and local community service organisations.
New legislation in Victoria enshrines these diversionary strategies while also giving greater salience in court decisions to stability and the cumulative harm to a child from conditions such as chronic neglect. However, there is still a long way to go, even in Victoria. For example, adult mental health, drug treatment and family violence services all need more resources so they can address the parental roles of their clients and respond directly to the needs of vulnerable children. And reducing alcohol abuse by banning alcohol advertising is a challenge no government has been willing to tackle.
As long as we tolerate poverty, poor housing, the marginalisation of indigenous people, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, problem gambling and the sexualisation of children, increasing numbers of children will suffer. In an election campaign perhaps we could hear a little less about interest rates and a little more about these issues. Then we may begin to see fewer children die from child abuse and neglect.
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