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Child protection is simple, isn\'t it?

by PeakCare Qld on 4th September 2012

Home -> Articles -> 2012 -> September -> Child protection is simple, isn\'t it?

Child protection is simple, isn’t it? Work out who the bad parents are who abuse their kids and give them to more deserving families who will love and care for them.

But what about the loving mother who is struggling to save herself as well as her children from domestic and family violence perpetrated by her estranged husband? Is she also to be regarded as a bad parent whose children should be removed on grounds of her failure to protect them? Even when her children want nothing more than to remain in her care?

And what about the parents who find themselves at a financial, physical and emotional breaking point in their attempts to care for a son with profound disabilities, who think that the only way their child will receive the services he needs is if they relinquish their care of him? And what about the parents who are fighting a losing battle against the ravages of poverty or racism or isolation from extended family and community support? And those who, despite the love they have for their children, are fighting their own demons left over from the abuse they experienced as children, with little knowledge gained during their own childhoods about what good parenting entails?

And, most importantly, what about the children? While there are some for whom care outside of their immediate family is necessary and who want this to occur, there are others who seek nothing more than to be returned to the care of, or at least have an ongoing relationship with, their own families. For many children who have endured the trauma of abuse or neglect, their removal from their families can be equally, if not more, traumatic.

Sadly, there are some parents who do not want their children or who intentionally harm them. But they do not represent the majority of parents who come to the attention of child protection authorities. Most families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families especially, come to the attention of these authorities for reasons of child neglect and not physical or sexual abuse.

Much of the debate that has been occurring during recent hearings of Queensland’s Child Protection Inquiry has focussed on the meaning and adequacy of the phrase “if a child does not have a parent able and willing to give the child ongoing protection in the foreseeable future” as the legislated grounds for the State intervening in the lives of families and removing their children. This phrase firmly places responsibility for the safe parenting of children in the hands of their parents and gives the State the power to intervene when parents are not able or willing to live up to this responsibility.

Yes, parents should be held accountable for those factors that are within their control in meeting their responsibilities as parents. But what about those factors which are outside of their control? What is the extent of responsibility held by the state to address those factors on their behalf and provide the right supports at the right time that enable parents to care safely for their children?

Child protection should not be a process that pits the rights of parents against the rights of children when, in reality, the best interests of both are often one and the same.

Properly qualified, highly trained and experienced professionals are needed to undertake the complex assessments necessary to weigh up and make well-informed judgements about individual children and their families. Without them, there is a very high risk indeed that the actions taken to protect children may compound the difficulties that these children will experience, either now or in the future.

It is laudable that proceedings of the Child Protection Inquiry are being screened live so that the general public can view and be engaged in the discussion and debates about child protection. At the same time, this carries with it an onerous responsibility held by all parties involved with the hearings to take care with the language they use and the notions they explore during the hearings. People watching the hearings are likely to include young people who are or were formerly in care, people whose lives have been devastated by forced adoption practices of the past and parents who are currently involved with the child protection system and are struggling to retain care of their children or working hard towards being reunified with them. Great sensitivity must be shown in not causing further distress or feelings of hopelessness to these people when hope is a commodity that is already in short supply. The characterisation of parents as ‘hopeless’ can significantly undermine the dedicated and skilled efforts of both government and non-government agency personnel in working with families to instil hope and a confidence in their capacity to overcome the range of factors that have been negatively impacting their lives and the lives of their children.

Already it is strongly emerging that there are no quick-fixes or a one-size-fits-all approach that will meet the needs of all children and families. Parents cannot be simply categorised as hopeless and their children as victims without a voice. This rarely reflects the true stories of their lives and is an approach that will not work. The solutions are much more complex.

It is clear that fundamental changes and systemic reforms are needed if we are going to see improved outcomes for children and families. These include not only changes to the legislated powers and authorities given to authorities to intervene in the lives of families, but also the ways in which legislation can most effectively serve as an expression of government policy about the preferred approaches to supporting the safety and well-being of children and families generally.

Beyond legislation, there are also structural changes needed to better position both the government and non-government sectors to administer and deliver the required reforms. And what must not be forgotten is the investment needed in public education - the range of strategies needed to shift community values, attitudes and behaviours and reduce the stigma and fear felt by both children and families in reaching out for help when help is needed.

In developing a roadmap for child protection over the next ten years, the Child Protection Inquiry must draw both from the lessons of the past and new ideas for the future. The stakes are high if the best answers cannot be found.

Child protection is far from simple, isn’t it?

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland