Child protection authorities across Australia have been engulfed in controversy this year. This has followed some high-profile cases in which authorities failed to remove children from abusive homes, with fatal consequences.
Doing their best to ignore this, speakers at the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies Conference in Sydney last week argued that it was already too easy for children to be removed from their families. They argued that it should be even harder for child protection agencies to separate children from their parents.
Today, child protection authorities have been transformed into de facto providers of family services. Having to wade through unconfirmed cases of abuse and assist families in need is consuming vast amounts of case workers' time. This is seriously compromising the ability of child protection authorities to carry out their most important work, which is to intervene as soon as possible in the most serious cases of abuse.
Child protection regimes were established to provide a crisis intervention in only the most serious cases involving severe abuse. The original purpose was to deal with cases where children were in dire need of protection by the state. The conference would have served a better purpose had it exposed the real problems that are impeding the work of child protection authorities.
Following numerous commissions of inquiry, the definition of child abuse and neglect has gradually been widened. Health and educational professionals and members of the public have been encouraged to report families they have concerns about. As a result, more and more cases are being brought to the attention of child protection authorities. But, once investigated, about 80 per cent of notifications of child abuse are found to be unsubstantiated. These reports can include minor incidents such as an anonymous complaint about a mother smacking a child in a shopping centre.
The distinction between families in crisis and families that are simply in need has been blurred. While many of the families reported to child protection authorities fall below the threshold for state intervention, a large proportion of these are typically classified as in need. These families have serious problems and parents may be neglecting, as opposed to abusing, children. They need to be guided to appropriate early intervention services to prevent escalation.
The critical issue, then, is what to do about families that are in need. Part of the problem is that child protection authorities are often the first point of contact for families requiring counselling and other early intervention services. But many of these families fail to qualify for these services.
In NSW, for example, if a child is over the age of nine they are ineligible for assistance from early intervention services, even though they may be at risk. Because they are not considered to be in imminent danger of harm, their case is closed.
When a family receives no assistance, their home situation is in danger of running completely out of control. Appallingly, in many instances a child's case is reopened after their neglect or abuse has escalated.
Unsurprisingly, greater funding is channelled into child protection rather than preventative services, despite most clients requiring just early intervention and family support.
To ease the pressure on child protection services, a better child welfare system would have multiple entry points and would clearly delineate between child protection and family services cases. The existing reporting regime could be bypassed.
The bottlenecks this system creates could be eliminated if families were directly referred to local, non-government community services equipped to deal with their specific requirements.
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