The “Ebony” or “Starved Girl” case has once again highlighted Australia’s child protection crisis. But we are yet to fully understand, let alone address, the systemic problems that impede effective child rescue and contribute to tragic outcomes for the most vulnerable children.
Ever since child protection failures dominated the headlines in 2007, prominent child protection academics have been out there promoting a misleading account of the crisis, which has been widely accepted and gained policy traction, most recently in the Rudd Government’s National Child Protection Framework.
According to this account, the most appalling cases of child maltreatment fall through the cracks in the system due to the unintended consequences of inefficient mandatory reporting requirements. Overwhelmed child protection agencies have failed to effectively respond to the most serious reports of child abuse and neglect because centralised reporting systems (such as the Kids Helpline in New South Wales) are clogged by an ever growing number of less serious reports.
Because only 13 per cent of reports receive an investigation that includes a home visit by a caseworker, the Wood Commission into NSW child protection services recommended that the threshold for mandatory reporting be raised to risk of significant harm to reserve the DoCS Helpline for more serious reports. In response to Wood, the NSW Government has also established an alternative reporting pathway. New child wellbeing units are being established in six government departments including health, education and police, which will be responsible for directly referring families who are the subject of less serious reports to family support and other community services.
Inspired by the Victorian child protection reforms of recent years and pitched to policy makers as a way to free up agencies like DoCS to better protect the “Ebonys” of Australia, the NSW reforms will actually create a system which denies a child protection response to at-risk children. Far beyond establishing a separate pathway for less serious reports, Wood also recommended that DoCS directly refer allegedly lower risk of significant harm reports to support services.
This is typical of the flawed thinking that has contributed to the crisis. The primary aim is to substitute what is viewed in social work circles as a narrow, traditional approach to child protection work (forensic investigation of reports and statutory removal of at risk children from the custody of parents) with a broader preventive approach for more and more of the dysfunctional families involved in child protection matters.
Yet many so-called less serious and low risk reports are nothing of the sort. These reports concern dysfunctional families and children at risk of experiencing cumulative harm and permanent developmental problems caused by chronic parental neglect and abuse. In these cases, a full child protection response - a home visit and sighting of the child by caseworkers, and a complete assessment of the family circumstances and of the risk of harm is required.
These are just some of the problems with the accepted account and accompanying policy recommendations, which are an exercise in minimisation and denial of the real causes of the crisis.
Since the introduction of mandatory reporting in the 1990s there has been an enormous growth in child protection reports across Australia. But the increase has not been concentrated in less serious reports. Over the last decade in NSW, there has been little change in the proportion of reports (around two-thirds) requiring further assessment and investigation.
Rather than function inefficiently, mandatory reporting has mass screened disadvantaged families and works spectacularly well. Due to heightened surveillance, growth in reports has captured the increased level of parental dysfunction in Australia's expanding underclass of welfare dependent families. These families are over-represented in reports because they experience ongoing, difficult to resolve, and often intergenerational problems associated with domestic violence, drug abuse, mental illness, and single parenthood.
The crucial fact which entirely debunks the accepted account is that the most at risk children have consistently been identified and re-identified, mostly by mandatory reporters. As detailed in the NSW Government s response to the Wood Commission, 2,100 dysfunctional, repeatedly reported families account for a quarter of reports made each year, and 7,500 dysfunctional, repeatedly reported families account for nearly half of all reports.
The reason doctors, nurses, teachers, and police are frequent re-reporters of the same families is because, despite having reported serious child health and welfare concerns, nothing happens.
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