Despite increasing government spending on programs meant to prevent child abuse and entries into care, record numbers of children are currently in Out of Home Care (OOHC) in Australia, and this is the most expensive part of the child welfare system.
However, the commonsense assumption that admissions and costs will fall by investing in 'prevention' is wrong. The number of children in care and the cost of care have continued to grow because the strategic direction taken by state governments is misconceived.
Counter-intuitively and paradoxically, placement prevention programs that prolong the time vulnerable children spend in the custody of dysfunctional parents are flawed in terms of child safety and a false economy in terms of public expenditure. The family preservation-based approach to child protection (which is already standard policy and practice in all jurisdictions) is the primary cause of the pressure on 'out of home' care.
Because Australian child protection departments are obsessed with family preservation, most children these days tend to have long child protection histories before eventually coming into care. In NSW, for example, the average number of days between a child's first report and first entry into care is more than 1,200 days (three and a half years).
For many children, statutory intervention and removal from the family home comes far too late. When they finally enter care, they have higher and more complex needs than in the past because they have been damaged, sometimes irreparably, by significant parental abuse and chronic neglect of physical, emotional and psychological needs.
Once in care these children are further damaged in the name of family preservation. They are left to linger, sometimes indefinitely, in 'temporary' care while waiting for their parents to be 'rehabilitated' and family circumstances to stabilise sufficiently to attempt reunions.
In the interim, their foster placements are highly likely to break down due to trauma-related challenging behaviours. And when finally returned home, living arrangements become highly unstable due to the propensity for unrealistic reunions to break down. When parental problems re-emerge, re-damaged children re-enter care.
Crucially, high needs children do not end up in care due to lack of access to early intervention and family support services as the orthodox policy focus on 'investing' in 'diversionary' programs insists. The first 2006 national comparative study of high needs kids found that these were the children 'most likely' to access a 'wide variety of services and interventions' before entering care, which failed to resolve family problems and necessitated removal into care.
These programs do not work due to the intensity of the extremely difficult-to-overcome parental problems (drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence) present in the underclass of highly dysfunctional families of those children most likely to need to enter care.
The national comparative study also found that the children and young people most likely to experience additional harm due to unstable living arrangements share a common history.
It established that the most damaged children in care have a long record of dealings with child protection authorities regarding serious welfare concerns; have been removed as a last resort at older ages; have been harmed by chronic abuse and neglect by highly dysfunctional families; and have had multiple placements because of complex problems and multiple episodes of care following failed family reunions.
The authors concluded that virtually all such children 'had been subjected to traumatic, abusive, and highly unstable family backgrounds' and that many who were 'displaying significant emotional and behavioural difficulties when they are older had already suffered significant, possible irreparable, physical and psychological harm during their early years.'
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