Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they share their experiences supporting children on the run from child protection, reuniting families and discuss the catastrophe of Australia’s world record high rate of child removals.

“I think of eight young children, now orphans, who found their dad after his suicide and a year later would come home again to find their mother after her suicide – they are all in the care of child protection but just about all have run away,” Megan Krakouer.

“I remember two sisters who fled out-of-homecare, aged 11 and 12, invisible to Australia because legislation prohibited their stories being told – they roughed the streets and transient with kin – the 11 year-old when 17 took her life – her sister at 18 gave birth to a daughter who she named after her sister,” Gerry Georgatos

“I think of a 35-year-old mother of nine children, who child protection irregularly placed children with – she often asked for help that never came – when the mum took her life, she was caring for 13 children. The silence to her pleas for help had become too much,” Megan Krakouer

On December 16, 2019, The West Australian newspaper published a breakthrough story – front page and four-page feature of a child failed by child protection and how Gerry Georgatos fought to keep her alive and change her life. He took on the very system that was supposed to help her. It was the first time, child protection anywhere in Australia had given permission for an out-of-home child to tell their story. It is a must read – How to be there for each other

These lives lost, their harrowed tragedies, represent a significant sliver of children in out-of-homecare who are failed by child protection. Their stories must be published, read, heard, otherwise many more young lives will be betrayed.

Nationally, annual funding for child protection exceeds $6 billion but overall, state and territory governments spend only 17 per cent of it on family support services. Child protection and family services should refocus on assisting vulnerable families.

We referred to children who have run from ‘out-of-care’ – whether foster, residential, respite – and we support far too many – we are overwhelmed – some we have reunited with their families, and we continue to support.

Children removed from their biological parents are among the most elevated risk groups to serious aberrant behaviour and to suicide.

In our work with suicide affected families, we come across stories that the nation should hear. Nine years ago, two sisters under child protection orders ran away from their carer. The protection orders were not lifted. Next to no work was done to assist these girls to kin and other support. They were 11 and 12 years old and spent the majority of the six years on the streets. The eleven-year-old took her life – on the streets – as a 17-year-old. So much more should have been done. We keep on fighting, in her memory, in the memory of far too many.

One in 32 of Australia’s children have come into contact with child protection – a diabolical rate, world’s highest – and as we all know it’s abominably worse for Australia’s First Nations children, at least one in 10.

Child protection authorities and their personnel may think they are doing a good job, but they are not. The majority are well-meaning but that’s not good enough. There are prejudices, class and racist assumptions and horrid policies that betray the well-meaning bit. There should be a royal commission into the child removals, and the horror stories told to the nation in the same manner and with as wide a remit as the nation was allowed to hear the long overdue stories of the institutional sexual abuse victims – more than 8,000 stories.

Presently, 23,000 First Nations children have been removed – an abomination – where instead, the majority of families should have been supported. All up, 60,000 of Australia’s children have been removed, but more than one in three are First Nations children.

Australia has to be brought to account for its high rate of child removals — of tearing families apart instead of the much-begged-for focus on working alongside families. The future will condemn the present generations as the present condemns the past. But we should not wait for a mere condemnation from the future.

In our view, the best way to radically reduce the damage being done by child protection authorities is to reduce their funding.

The “child protection” monoliths right across the nation are vastly overfunded. It is not true they are underfunded and overstretched. Child protection budgets should be radically reduced to one-sixth in order to end the humanitarian crises they are generating.

In 2014-15, 151,980 children – a rate of 28.6 per 1,000 children – received child protection services. Child protection authorities and family services across the nation are increasing the numbers of their personnel each year and in turn, churning out more “services”. These workers may score the quid, but families are the victims. Child protection authorities need families to investigate, monitor and, in our view, effectively harass instead of substantively support.

The 2015-16 Department of Child Protection budget for Western Australia was $644 million. Each year, there is a “cry poor” by child protection authorities, who need more funds to monitor “vulnerable” families. Each year, in every jurisdiction in the nation, the child protection budgets increase and, subsequently, the number of children removed increases.

In NSW, the child protection budget for 2015-16 was $1.7 billion. These monies could be better spent in providing various assistance to struggling families instead of ripping apart families — instead of child protection authorities deploying reductionist policies that lead to children being removed.

An outrageous “dob-in” system has been set up which knocks-up work for thousands of child protection workers across the nation. Each year, on average 400,000 calls are taken by child protection authorities, where complaints about other people’s families are lodged. The majority of the grounds for monitoring and child removals relate to “emotional” abuse of the children.

‘400,000 calls are taken by child protection authorities, where complaints about other people’s families are lodged.’ 

The majority of families investigated by child protection authorities can navigate acute socioeconomic pressures, and even various asserted negative behaviours within their homes, including exposure to alcohol abuse, substance abuse and various psychological and psychiatric illnesses.

The involvement and over-involvement of under-skilled but overly judgmental child protection workers, in general, does not only fail to assist, but compounds vulnerabilities and is trauma-inducing — there is generated constancy of trauma. People make mistakes, they can wound each other but empathy and forgiveness are likely if families, for the most part, are left to themselves to work through their lot.

It is a grim reality that 18 per cent of the Australian population lives below the Henderson Poverty Line, and for First Nations peoples, it’s around 40 per cent. Poverty should never be an excuse for the removal of children. It is grim reality that, thereabouts, ten per cent of children live in families where there is excessive substance misuse, but for the majority of these families, there is still no genuine reason to remove the children.

Reduce the child protection budgets and the child removals will reduce. This is the solution to the child removal catastrophe. Nearly half the children removed were under five years of age, when their form and content is in most need of their biological parents.

The child protection monolith is washing into society stereotypes of the majority of parents of children removed as “drugged up”, as “drunk”, as “violent” and as “incompetent”. The majority of the parents are none of these.

Some children will need foster care. The majority of children should remain with their parents. The reductionist aspiration that relative or kinship care is the way to go for children removed is not a solution. Relative/kinship care is the best option for some children for a period of time or permanently but, for the majority of children, it is a damaging experience because they should never have been removed from their nuclear families. The majority of children in out-of-homecare are in relative or kinship or foster care but the fact remains they are not with Mum and Dad, nor with their sisters and brothers.

The gaols are filling with individuals who as children were removed from their parents.

For now, the only way forward is to reduce the child protection budgets and so limit the scope of child protection workers to those genuinely ‘at-risk’.

Five-sixths of the nation’s child protection 6 billion dollars funding must be reallocated to outreach social services who are prepared to relentlessly support vulnerable families and improve their lives. The five billion dollars stripped should go to social services who will outreach and psychosocially support vulnerable families, validate and stabilise, you know, help.

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