Inside child removal in Australia

IT seems like the government can be damned if they do, and damned if they don't when it comes to removing children from their homes.

No one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. But when it comes to protecting Australian kids at risk of neglect and abuse, our state and territory-based child protection agencies are expected to not only find out what's happening but to act when a serious threat of harm threatens the health, safety and wellbeing of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal that, as of 30 June 2015, there were 43,400 Australian children living in out-of-home care.

New South Wales, where the highest population resides, is the clear front-runner when it comes to child removal with a staggering 16,843 children in 2015 in out-of-home care - almost double that of Victoria.

Child welfare is a complex, demanding and contentious responsibility that can involve the removal of children from their families if child protection officers deem them at risk of serious and immediate harm. However, with an annual increase in child neglect and abuse reports, most child protection agencies around the country are struggling to meet demand due to insufficient funding, resources and community support.

The decisions of child welfare agencies are not without their vocal critics, with departments regularly coming under fire for perceived actions - and, in hindsight, inactions - on contentious and high profile cases. Recently the removal of a medically fragile four-year-old from his parents sparked intense debate and outrage from supporters around the country.

The disabled boy's parents have expressed anti-vaccination sentiments (claiming their child was vaccine injured at birth) and are alternative medicine advocates including the use of medicinal marijuana. They sparked an Amber Alert resulting in a cross-border search earlier this year after unlawfully removing their child from a Brisbane hospital. Subsequently, the court ordered that their wheelchair-bound son be removed from their care.

The Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) told Kidspot that its caseworkers and staff work hard to ensure children are properly protected. "Where children are found to be at risk of neglect or significant harm, the legislation empowers FACS to take appropriate action," A FACs representative said in a statement.

"The decision to remove a child from their parents is not a decision taken lightly, other options are always explored and all decisions to remove children at risk of significant harm are overseen by the courts, which make the final decisions. Practitioners, specialist consultants and legal officers all have input into the decision to remove a child from their parents."

And while the child's best interests are always at the centre of FACS actions, for the families whose children are removed, it can be a devastating blow from which they may never fully recover.

So what is life like for those that have had their children removed? Sally* shares her experience.

Sally's* then 15-year-old wheelchair-bound son was removed from her care by FACS in February 2016. Alan* has hereditary spastic paraplegia and moderate intellectual delay and his devastated mum says that up until he was taken from her, she'd been working tirelessly to ensure her son received everything he needed to thrive.

But since his removal from their family home, Sally says she feels utterly broken. "All I've known for the past 17 years is to be a mother … I've given my all, my heart and soul, and every part of my being has been dedicated to my son's care, wellbeing and welfare," Sally says. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Alan and nothing brings me joy … I'm just not the same person I once was."

Sally believes the case of neglect charged against her by FACS was based entirely on fabrications and false allegations, and unfairly focused on events that transpired several years earlier when Sally went through an immensely difficult period in her life.

"I had all this stress and I guess I had a bit of a breakdown and turned to alcohol," she says. "During that time, I became involved in a relationship with a person who was abusive towards me and that's how the police and FACS ended up being involved in our lives."

FACs determined that Sally attend rehab if she was to continue caring for her son and since then she says she's continued to meet all FACS requirements. But three years on, new allegations of neglect were reported and resulted in FACS approaching Sally again with a list of requirements she was expected to meet within a set timeframe.

"There were accusations of neglect, like that I hadn't packed proper school lunches for Alan and that he turned up to school in a dishevelled state, which were completely untrue," she says. "They came to my home and sat my partner and I down and said, 'This is a safety plan and these are things you need to do or else we will be taking Alan'," she says.

One of those requirements was for her and her partner to provide FACS with urine samples and, when they failed to achieve this within the set timeframe, Sally says Alan's removal from her care was dramatic and swift. "I got the call saying, 'Look, Alan won't be coming home. We'll be picking him up straight from school. You won't be able to contact him and you won't be able to see him'," she says.

Alan is being cared for in a facility for disabled kids and Sally says she has very limited contact with him. "Due to the stress of being taken from his home and from a loving, devoted mother, and with communication completely cut off between us, my son is in a distressed emotional state and has symptoms of depression and anxiety," she says.

"I just recently got a telephone schedule, which means that they've allocated two days when Alan can call me and they've also stipulated what can and cannot be discussed in those same conversations."

She says the few times she has had phone contact with her son to date, she's been told by the FACS caseworker not to tell him she loves or misses him because it 'upsets him'. "Every day of our lives I've told my son how much I love him … how can they have that much control as to tell me what I can and cannot say to my son?" she says.

Jules Allen has a particularly unique overview of child protection services in Australia. An award-winning youth advocate with a passion for empowering children to overcome adversity, Jules catapulted into the public spotlight in 2013 as a competitor on MasterChef Australia. She is now the face of several Australian charities, including Adopt Change and Foster Care Australia and is using her high profile to continue advocating for at-risk kids.

Having experienced a rough start to life herself, this mum-of-four has also previously worked for FACS (then known as DOCS) as a child protection officer and been a foster carer for 32 children in crisis.

"I understand it from a lot of different perspectives … both those working within child protection and from the parents whose children are removed … they're all working within a flawed system and just doing the best they can with what they've got," she says.

"But when people say, 'oh that's a bit rough that child was removed', you've got to understand you're working with an incredibly under-funded department with a lack of foster carers so in order to justify that removal, my god, it has to be bad."

She says that resources are so stretched that kids aren't necessarily going to be removed because they're 'at threat' of harm. "Like with domestic violence, one in seven kids will witness violence within the home, and you would assume that would be enough to remove a child. But the fact is that for a child in a very violent home, that violence really has to be turned on the child for them to be removed … witnessing violence is not enough."

Jules says that, in her experience, the most common form of abuse she's witnessed with children in crisis isn't physical or sexual. "Neglect is the most common form of abuse … when a child's basic needs are not being met, that's potentially the most harmful of all," she says.

"Kids can kind of recover from other forms of abuse but when it comes to neglect, they're all under the assumption that they're not worthy or good enough, that someone is going to turn and walk at any minute, and they'll always carry that."

Sally says there's nothing for her to do but to continue to fight the system to have her son returned to her. "People just think, 'Oh yeah, well you deserve to have your kids taken away because you're junkies, you're this, you're that'. You know? But we're more than that - we're mothers who love our children," she says.

"After the damage and devastation this has caused both myself and my son, who will be left to pick up the pieces? We'll be left alone to heal the scars, to restore our lives and our relationship. What 'intervention' from government [will we receive] then?"

Jules says there needs to be an increase in funding and prioritisation of children in crisis, as well as a heightened focus on foster care on governments' agendas. "The whole thing needs a complete overhaul and we need to look to models overseas that work because ours here in Australia have not been working for a very, very long time," she says.

"Kids are dying … and we're wondering why we have so many dysfunctional kids coming through. It's just frightening. But this isn't just a government or departmental problem, this is a societal problem because we're not putting our hands up to help.

"Sure, we can pump more funding into the department but it's not going to help because there's actually nowhere to put these kids. There aren't enough foster carers out there. So kids are being forced to stay in these abusive situations … and then you scream at the telly when they die and you say, 'Where was the f@*!ing department?'

"But hang on, where were you? Why haven't you opened your door to these kids?

* Names have been changed

If you needs to speak with someone about any of the issues raised in this story call: Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

https://www.northernstar.com.au/news/inside-child-removal-australia/3198903/

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