Last night’s Four Corners program presented evidence of widespread abuse and neglect suffered by children in the out-of-home care system. Sadly, it was an all too familiar story. The Australian care system has been subject to criticism for over a century.
Children described bullying, harassment and sexual abuse inflicted by other children who share their homes. Children also described adult men preying on and sexually exploiting girls in “resi” or residential care.
There were allegations of 12-year-olds being left without adequate clothing, stable accommodation or sufficient food, abandoned by the agencies that were supposed to care for them. Private, for-profit agencies were accused of financial mismanagement and rorting of taxpayer funds.
Some of the most horrific allegations didn’t make it to air, but were reserved for the digital broadcast available online immediately after the program. This included recent revelations of an alleged rape in New South Wales by UnitingCare staffers who had been entrusted with the care of 13-year-old “Girl X”. The girl died from a drug overdose just weeks before she was due to give evidence against her alleged attackers.
A damning review of Facs’ approach to Aboriginal families finds urgent reform is needed.
New South Wales child protection workers regularly give “misleading” evidence to the children’s court, often take the most traumatic option by removing Aboriginal children – including newborns – from their families, and operate in a “closed system” that needs urgent reform to make it more transparent and child-friendly, according to a new report.
The Family is Culture review released this week is a three-year study of the case files of 1,144 Aboriginal children who entered the NSW out-of-home-care system between 2015 and 2016.
Abstract: This article reports on a study of Children's Court files relating to completed applications for variation of care orders (section 90 applications) in three specialised Children's Courts in New South Wales. All files that could be located for completed applications were reviewed and nonidentifying data was recorded. The study attempted to examine the type of applications, the characteristics of applicants and the outcomes of the applications. One hundred and seventeen applications were reviewed: almost half of these were made by the then Department of Community Services (DoCS), and about the same proportion of applications were made by parents. After the section 90 applications were determined there was an increase in care orders allocating parental responsibility to the Minister for Community Services with 73% of the children placed under the care of the minister to age 18.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s national apology to the victims of child sexual abuse was a moment of reckoning for the government – an admission of the country’s failures to protect children from abuse in institutions ranging from churches and schools to orphanages and foster home.
We too often hear about child protection when there is a scandal or crisis. For young people who grow up in out-of-home care, however, we need to go beyond simply reacting to terrible incidents like these and focus more attention on whether our systems are delivering the outcomes they should on a daily basis and for the long-term benefit of young people.
Rectifying failures of the system time and again
A series of national inquiries has found that hundreds of thousands of children have suffered lifelong consequences due to the failures of the country’s child protection policies.
ABSTRACT: The concept of a shame-based family system in which parents shame their children was applied to the relationship between Child Protective Services (CPS) and families accused of child abuse. Twenty families who reported that they had been wrongly accused of child abuse completed a questionnaire. Content analysis of the questionnaires supported the hypothesis that the elements of a shame-based family system are present in the relationship between CPS and the families they investigate. The respondents indicated feelings of powerlessness, self- doubt, depression, and isolation, and perceived the CPS as omnipotent, abandoning them, quickly accusing them, and acting in emotionally harmful ways towards them.
In Victoria, 35 young people aged 12-17 years ended their lives by suicide between 2007 and 2019 – all were entangled in the child protection system. This was the focus of a new report, “Lost, not forgotten”, released last week from the Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, which described how these children “experienced multiple and recurring forms of abuse”.
In their short lives, they were reported to child protection 229 times. For most of these children, including six who identified as Aboriginal, reporting began when they were three years old. Some 90% of these reports were ignored – closed at intake or investigation.
Sometimes families were offered community-based support through a voluntary program (called ChildFIRST). But according to the report, what the program offered was “inadequate to meet the complexity of issues identified” by families and, in many cases, ChildFIRST reported them back to child protection.
The commissioner describes this as a “referral roundabout”. While the report looked at Victoria only, these issues are nation-wide. And this isn’t just happening in Australia – a 2014 report in Canada showed a similar problem.
How is it possible child protection in two different jurisdictions have made the same mistakes?
My research shows these are not mistakes. The inaction these kids experience is a systematic ignoring, set up by the child protection model. And that’s why the commissioner’s recommendation to increase resources won’t fix it.
An outdated, reactive system
Child protection relies on community members and professionals (teachers, nurses) to identify and report safety issues for individual children.
While this may offer some benefit to some children, The World Health Organisation identifies how such case-by-case approaches have come “at the expense of efforts to prevent maltreatment occurring in the first place”.
Individualised approaches ignore the magnitude of the problem of child neglect and abuse, and fail to address the underlying causes and contributing factors.
By prioritising case-by-case reporting, investigation and substantiation, the system is resource-intensive and set up to only address the worst cases.
This approach was developed in the USA after Dr Henry Kempe’s landmark 1962 paper, The Battered-Child Syndrome. He and his colleagues used X-rays to visualise broken bones at different stages of healing in children to substantiate their abuse.
Within a decade, the investigation-substantiation model of child protection began in the USA, Canada and later in Australia, supported by the promise medical imaging could help substantiate child neglect and abuse.
But there are three faulty assumptions underpinning this model, which is still used in today’s child protection systems. These are that child neglect and abuse:
is rare and can be addressed one child at a time
if you look carefully enough you can see it
it can be addressed by identifying perpetrators and holding them accountable within the justice system.
Child protection is an outdated, reactive system. We, as a society and as researchers, now understand child neglect and abuse is a common, pervasive social problem.
We also agree neglect, emotional abuse, and exposure to domestic violence are also abuse and can be as harmful to children and young people as physical and sexual abuse. And we have learned visualising physical signs of abuse is complicated, often illusive and usually only possible in the most extreme cases, which are relatively rare.
Young families need more support
Individualised interventions set a severity threshold to justify child protection intervention. This means when a child’s situation is not good, but not yet bad enough, little is done until the violence escalates.
What’s more, justifying intervention is considered necessary because the home is a private domain, under the control of the head of the household.
In many of these cases, the situation for the child’s parents isn’t good either, but this is understood to be their own responsibility. When young parents live in poverty and struggle to provide basic needs for their family, the dominant view is they haven’t worked hard enough, or they’ve made bad life choices.
Yet, children from birth to five years old endure a disproportionate amount of poverty compared with any other age group. Young families consistently struggle with the lack of affordable childcare, social isolation, precarious employment and housing instability.
Most child neglect and abuse isn’t a just matter of poor parenting, it’s a matter of having poor parents.
Overhauling the system
Violence is connected with poor social position and power. Similar to how we’re beginning to understand domestic violence, the roots of child neglect and abuse can be traced to inequities such as socioeconomic disadvantage and “invisible” social and cultural norms that marginalise children and their mothers.
Addressing this means shifting tax structures and access to quality nationally funded childcare. It also includes disrupting dominant social beliefs that position children and their mothers with little power.
This includes, for instance, the pervasive belief that the family home is a man’s property, and he should hold power over and privacy within it. This belief underpins the practices of removing children if they are being abused, or encouraging mothers to leave.
Resisting this belief allows us to consider removing the perpetrator of abuse from the home instead of the child or mother.
A revision of child protection is overdue. Including a system oriented to prevention of child neglect and abuse from a social perspective needs creativity, vision and, importantly, the input of children, their mothers and other professionals who play a substantive role in supporting children’s wellbeing.
We need to start by respecting children as equals within society. We need to recognise and publicly name the hierarchical social structures that decrease the power of women and children.
And we need to develop an infrastructure of support for parents that ensures resources to support families’ basic needs, addresses the exploitation of reproductive labour and the isolation of women and children in the privacy of the home.
The list below was initiated on the 14 March 2012 and new points are added as time allows.
The list contains arguments all of which have been used by the Nordic child protection service (CPS) and/or allied professions and people in actual cases, such as in case reports and in court when the CPS argues for the necessity of taking children away from their parents and placing them in foster homes or institutions. They bring up the same kind of arguments to prevent foster children being allowed to return home in cases in which both parents and children say clearly that they want to be reunited. A couple of standard arguments are then added: The foster child 'has now developed attachment to its foster parents' (even when the child says no) and 'the child must have routines and stability and not be moved' (even when the CPS has moved the foster child many times).