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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Australia - a horror story

In what can only be described as a horror story, a northern territory in Australia has admitted virtual failure of its child protection system, particularly with the indigenous people. The stories are horrific examples of a child protection system that has utterly failed to do the very thing it must - protect children. The Minister responsible has acknowledged how bad it is and the need for a complete restructuring of the system.

What is perhaps true but also frightening is the fact more children will suffer while they try to put together something that might work. The government deserves praise for seeing the necessity of change but one has to wonder how this could go on for as long as the news reports suggest.

We must learn here about the value of constant monitoring. Transparency should be an essential part of this monitoring. The UK system of serious case reviews is not perfect but there is at least some reporting to the public when something goes wrong. All jurisdictions should be willing to do that at least. Britain has shown how it can be done while still ensuring confidentiality as needed.

The Australian story can be found at

The official report identifies some themes that those of us in Canada will recognize such as the failure to allow Aboriginal groups a valid say in the protection of their children. Under resourcing is another very familiar theme. So is fragmented services, an unstable workforce with high demands matched with high turnover, lack of needed services and failures to monitor children.

This report echoes themes that we have been seeing in reports from New Zealand, Canada, the UK and elsewhere. If the themes are common, perhaps the problems are about the ways in which we have been building, funding and servicing child protection. Has the time come for a large scale debate?

Here is the official news release:

"19 October 2010A focus on prevention, collaboration, greater Aboriginal involvement and control of service delivery, and strengthening families and systems are at the heart of recommendations by the Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory.

In addressing what it described as the ‘overwhelming failure’ of the Northern Territory’s child protection system, the Inquiry’s three co‐chairs said it was important to focus on systemic failures not the many hard‐working, thoughtful, dedicated people struggling to cope with limited resources in an environment characterised by extreme need.

They said their inquiry had uncovered a “tsunami of need” that could be addressed only by immediate action to deal with an overburdened system, preventative measures to deal with the problems upstream and a dual response system to helping vulnerable families that doesn’t depend only on statutory interventions.

The inquiry’s report, “Growing them strong, together”, found the Northern Territory child protection system is in crisis because of:
• insufficient resources to deal with both the number of statutory interventions needed and the many issues beyond child protection that are integral to effective case management;
• the number of notifications of children formally identified as at risk which remain uninvestigated – currently there are nearly 1000 children in the Northern Territory identified as at risk who are receiving no support or investigation, with many more cases likely to be unreported;
• the fact that mandatory reporting was introduced without a commensurate increase in support services, with a tripling of notifications since 2003‐04 and a 79.4 per cent increase in the past two years;
• an almost complete lack of Aboriginal controlled services, despite the fact that 73 per cent of notifications relate to Aboriginal children;
• under‐resourced out of home care options (such as foster care and residential care) despite the fact that the $34 million budget is the most costly component of the Health and Families budget. The number of children in out of home care has more than tripled to 555 in the past 10 years, with Aboriginal children four times as likely as non‐Aboriginal children to be in care;
• a failure to monitor children in out of home care or provide appropriate support to foster parents, many of whom feel they are not respected, that they are subject to arbitrary decisions, and that children are moved in and out of their care with little planning or consultation;
• a non‐government sector that is poorly resourced yet could play a critical role in supporting families and children;
• fragmented service delivery across agencies, many of which lack confidence in the ability of the child protection system to respond to notifications of children at risk and to work collaboratively with them in addressing problems;
• overwhelming workforce issues, such as problems recruiting staff, high turnover, untenable caseloads, low morale, a lack of Aboriginal workers, ad hoc training and staff inductions and poor supervision;
• a lack of support and therapeutic services for protected young people in the Northern Territory, who are at risk of adverse mental health outcomes, relationship difficulties and becoming clients of the youth and adult justice systems.

The Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory was appointed by the Chief Minister Paul Henderson in December 2009. Its three co‐chairs are Professor Muriel Bamblett, Dr Howard Bath and Dr Rob Roseb"

It is noteworthy that the inquiry itself sums up what we have been seeing elsewhere with this statement from its introduction:

"The foremost finding of the Inquiry is that there needs to be organisational reform in child protection in the Northern Territory which includes a re-orientation towards a more collaborative approach to the task, as well as an immediate investment in more staffing resources for statutory child protection and out of home care (OOHC) services. This said, unless there is a robust concomitant commitment to developing culturally appropriate, early intervention and preventive services, the statutory service will never be able to keep up with demand. If change is to occur, we need to invest as much, if not more, into preventing the need for vulnerable children to be placed into care as we do to investigating and monitoring families and placing their children elsewhere" (p.2)

Like many jurisdictions, the question of demand for service outstripping supply should also tell us that there are serious problems in our society's framework when we simply can't fund enough child protection for the children who need protecting. Even if we narrow the definition of the kinds of family environments that require intervention, we are still unlikely to keep up with the demand.

The Australia report adds to the conversation about what is needed by outlining a series of principles - worthy ones indeed - but can we fund them as a larger society?

Services must:
Recognise 1. the principles central to the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child (UNCROC) including:
• Children’s right to safety (including cultural safety), security and
• Families are best placed to care for children
• Government’s obligation is to provide the widest possible assistance to
support families in their child rearing role
• Children’s right to be free from abuse and neglect and that where
parents can’t or won’t protect and care for children (even with widest
possible assistance) the State needs to intervene and care for the child.
Statutory child protection is one part of a broad and robust system for
protecting children and ensuring their wellbeing.
2. Acknowledge the particular United Nations considerations that are
particularly relevant for Aboriginal children:3
• the interconnectedness between children, communities, culture and
• their present situation cannot be understood without reference to the
historical context and a large history of rights violations
• obstacles to the rights of Aboriginal self-determination remain a real
barrier to the realisation of the safety and wellbeing of children
• the significance of land and its loss and violation to Aboriginal people is
in part about its centrality in the future lives of the children.
3. Be child-centred in the context of family and community — protection of
children must occur within a framework of valuing children
4. Be based on the understanding that child protection is everyone’s
responsibility – whole of government and whole of community
5. Recognise the need to build capacity in families and communities which
requires family sensitive, culturally competent resources and systems for
families that they and their communities can influence and grow
6. Be culturally literate and competent enabling access and availability to all
cultural groups and able to acknowledge cultural differences and meet
unique cultural needs
7. Use local, place-based approaches and models as opposed to importing
ideas without adapting them to Northern Territory and local ways. Service
models need to be tailored to the local context – recognising that a system
for protecting children in remote communities, town camps, regional
communities and urban centres will be different
8. Be non-stigmatising and equitable and fair appreciating that all children
have the same rights to safety, security and wellbeing
9. Acknowledge that whilst procedures are important, the work involved in
caring for children, families and communities and keeping children safe is
deeply relationship-based
10. Establish a clear mission, philosophy and objectives; have a practice informed
management that can engage with front-line staff; and resource
and support a workforce that is enabled to do its work and have measurable
performance criteria
11. Use evidence-informed approaches and where this is not possible, at least
use theoretically informed approaches with a commitment to immediate
12. Be accountable to specific performance standards that demonstrate defined
outcomes for children, families and communities.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very similar to another country...maybe on we live in? I appreciate that Australia is beginning to recognize its need to change the structure around which they complete child welfare protection services, however I get frustrated with the way that government and systems put together a flowery plan with very appropriate and professional wording, but how are they planning to implement this 12 step plan and make it work? It sounds great, if only we could actually implement it into our way of doing things. This is where the rubber hits the road and, in my opinion, government needs to prepare for how to implement before making bold statments that they cannot follow through with.