Helping neglected children


Pam Simmons Guardian

Dramatic events in several states, including South Australia have sparked nationwide interest in the neglect of children. While we would all wish that the responses to children’s needs were swift and adequate, and certainly prevent tragedy, this cannot be guaranteed. No child protection system is foolproof. What we aim to do is to make it as strong and responsive as possible.

Neglect is an awkward concept to work with because it depends so much on prevailing standards of care, which change over time and over cultural context. It is very difficult to assess what is ‘good enough parenting’. Let’s not forget too that the concept of ‘neglect’ has a particular shameful history in its use against Aboriginal families. The Bringing Them Home report provided evidence of Aboriginal children being seen as one and the same as neglected children.

Regardless of the difficulty of defining neglect, it is seriously damaging for children and that is why the public debate should be welcomed, albeit preferably not in the heat of real or just averted tragedies. The public will help decide what the child protection system will respond to by discussing what are acceptable standards of care and safety and by learning about responsibilities before statutory intervention.

The underlying features of neglect such as low income, substance abuse, homelessness, the burden of sole parenting and mental illness, are complex and often chronic. The child protection system, in its narrow sense, is not well placed to deal with these entrenched problems and services to support the family must come from other quarters. However, someone must take responsibility for working closely with the family to progressively address the needs of the children. The community does not care who does it as long as it is done.

One of the uglier sides of the recent public attention was the damning of ‘welfare mothers’ for having more children. Birth rates are falling across every social group and are falling faster at the lower end of the economic range. However, it is reasonable to question whether a one-off lump-sum payment like the baby bonus is the best way to offset the significant costs of having a child. The debate here leaves open the bigger question for Australia of a paid maternity leave scheme paid to all regardless of employment and replacing the baby bonus and maternity payments. It could be accompanied by a children’s trust fund with payments to all children at birth and at regular intervals for use on turning 18.

It is not acceptable to say that the responsibility for children’s wellbeing rests solely with individual families. Good outcomes for children are not determined by leaving families alone nor by the wealth of a country. Good outcomes are decided by policies which focus on family support, valuing parenthood, early childhood services and reducing inequalities. And for children at high risk we need a robust child protection system that responds confidently to family problems and children’s needs.

What makes a good social worker? – the director's cut

Last edition the Youth Advisors asked some young people, a youth support worker and a social worker, ‘What qualities make a good social worker for children and young people in care?’ This time it is the turn of the Families SA Executive Director.

A good social worker must:

  • have the appropriate qualifications. They will have studied, can show that they have thought about the theory and understand the link between theory and practice and have an ability to apply the learning and skills.
  • have the right personal qualities. They must have passion, believe in what they do, believe they can make a difference and want to work with children and young people in care.
  • have a good work ethic.
  • be robust and grounded with good coping skills, and a good life/work balance in their own lives.
  • be a good listener who is able to listen with empathy and understand the individual they are working with.
  • be a problem solver and be organised and methodical. • have the necessary skills for their work duties such as client work, whether working with children or adults, presentations (for example in court) or case planning.
  • have a sense of fun. They must be energised and have ways of looking after themselves.
  • work within a team and cooperate well.
  • have a commitment to ongoing learning, reflective practice and continuous improvement.
  • have integrity and honesty, recognising the power imbalance between them and their clients and not taking advantage of it or of a disempowered young person.

Safe Keeping Orders in South Australia

As a result of growing interest and support for introducing safe keeping provisions in South Australia the Guardian for Children and Young People wants to understand better the views, risks and benefits of safe keeping for young people at risk.  In addition, the Minister for Families and Communities has recently requested the Guardian provide advice in relation to the recommendation made in the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry final report that a secure therapeutic facility be established in South Australia.

This discussion paper has been prepared to elicit views on whether there is a need for safe keeping provisions, the concerns and risks in instituting safe keeping provisions and what can be done to address those risks. The responses will inform the policy advice the Guardian provides to the Minister and the Guardian’s position in relation to this matter.

A PDF file of the discussion paper Safe Keeping Orders can be downloaded.

[ddownload id=”6673″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download the discussion paper”]

Helping families care for kids

While more children are in state care, families at risk have been neglected by successive governments in South Australia. The erosion of funding for intensive services for families in serious trouble stems back to the 1990s and by 2006-07 this state spent only $4.81 per child compared to a national average of $30.07. Our expenditure in this area has fallen 10 per cent since 2002-03 while the national trend is a rise of 81 per cent over that same period.

This is important because, at the same time, South Australia has had a 37 per cent rise in the numbers of children in state care. In response to this the government has significantly increased expenditure on child protection and alternative care.  However, much of the additional expenditure is meeting demand from the previous year.  We are chasing our tail on child protection.

Our response to child abuse and neglect has largely narrowed to what the government agency can do in investigating reports, seeking court orders and removing children, as a last resort. The social worker faced with a child at risk has too few options. They can pick up the pieces but they do not have the time to get in early to stop the downward spiral.

Most other Australian states and territories face the same problem of a growing number of reports of child abuse or neglect and escalating demand for out of home care.

Projections in NSW show that, if current trends continue, one in every five children born in 2007 will be reported to the Department by the age of 18.

This is a shocking prospect. If we do nothing other than remove children at risk we will have many more in state care than five in a thousand, as we have now.  But the more probable scenario is that the child protection system becomes so overwhelmed with investigations, court orders and removals that the truly high-risk situations get missed.

Further, the more children we take into care the less likely we are to be able to provide a safe caring alternative.

Another approach, and one that seems to be working in Victoria, is two-pronged: invest well in looking after children in state care and invest equally well in helping families in trouble. This is not simply parenting classes, information brochures, and fortnightly visits by a nurse, all of which are good. This is something much more intensive to help families with major and protracted problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, spiralling debt and mental illness.

Early evidence in Victoria shows that where a sustained effort to help families in high need has been made, child protection reports, substantiations and court orders have fallen.

This is not cheap. Victoria commits around $75 million per year for family support services, $22 million of that in intensive services. This state reports around $2 million for intensive services. South Australia has recently spent wisely and well on universal children’s services such as home visiting and children’s centres. These universal services will benefit all children but children most in need require something more.

We understandably question why abusive or neglectful families should be given a second chance. Fair enough – a child’s safety and wellbeing comes first. But children need families and the state cannot always provide an effective substitute.

Removing children to punish parents also punishes children. It is not done lightly and, in most cases, the decision to remove children permanently is not done suddenly. But we would be so much more confident that we were doing right by children if we had first seen what their parents could do, with help.

Pam Simmons

Guardian for Children and Young People

This piece was first published in The Advertiser on 30 May 2008.

What makes a good social worker? – the Youth Advisors ask

For kids in care, their social worker is very important. So for this edition of the Youth Advisor’s page we asked a few people, ‘What qualities make a good social worker for children and young people in care?’

First, we asked some young people…

  • honesty
  • keep us informed when access changes – tells us why
  • do stuff for us – find me a new placement when I need it, make sure I see my family
  • visit me at my placement – don’t just talk with me on the phone • call us back after we call you • spend time getting to know me
  • ask me what I think about stuff – school, placement, family, the people I live with
  • help me sort out problems at school or in my placement
  • talk to me about how the decisions are made

Then, a youth support worker’s perspective…

  • communicate regularly with youth support workers about changes in arrangements such as access and worker allocation
  • have regular face-to-face contact at their placement, not just in the district centre • show honesty and integrity
  • follow through with promises
  • be fair minded and realistic with expectations
  • be willing to follow up on necessary funding to cover basic needs like education and health
  • provide the necessary support with life decisions

Finally, a social worker themselves…

  • find the time to get out and about to have face-to-face contact with children and young people, rather than just by phone or email.
  • give the children and young people the chance to express their opinions and takes the them into consideration for decision-making. For example, consult with them before annual reviews and when writing case plans.
  • make calls or visits for significant events like the first day at school or to go out for lunch to celebrate a birthday.
  • make regular contact
  • links with as many stakeholders as possible and keep in regular contact to communicate the views of the child or young person in care.

Six themes from the Mullighan Report


Pam Simmons Guardian

Capturing public attention in the past two months has been the release of the report from the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry (the Mullighan Inquiry). It has drawn renewed focus on past abuses of South Australian children. Such inquiries or investigations have been sadly necessary and repeated across the country and there is great sorrow and abhorrence at the stories of abuse that have emerged.

Commissioner Mullighan took evidence from 792 people who said they were victims of child sexual abuse and 242 had been children in state care at the time of their alleged abuse. Many of the alleged incidents were in the 1960s and 70s.

The Commissioner has acknowledged that most state care provided is good care and, in the glare of the inquiry’s spotlight, it is important to remind ourselves of this while paying close attention to what still needs to be done.

Here in the Office of the Guardian we are in a privileged position to see how the child protection system works for children and every day we see evidence of great achievements by children and young people, excellent care and superior professional practice.

We are also acutely aware of the challenges in delivering the best child protection service. Not the least of these is a huge change of emphasis from a notification and investigation-driven model of child protection to a child and family-centred system of early response to problems. This is very difficult to achieve in the over-heated political environment that accompanies the stories of children who have been let down by family and state.

There is opportunity, though, to learn from examining what happens when things go horribly wrong. Here are six themes that emerged for me in reading the Mullighan Report.

  • Prevent abuse happening through, among other things, empowering children to voice their experience and views in an environment of trust and respect. Much of the response to abuse in care has rightly focussed on regulation, monitoring and scrutiny. Less attention had been paid to the organisational culture and power imbalances between children and adults and between staff and management that prevent the alarm being raised when things go wrong.
  • Clear and decisive action is required when children disclose abuse and the response must be constantly supportive of children. The stories of children telling someone but nothing happening are chilling. Alarming too is the response that effectively punishes the child by separation, scepticism, and frightening interactions with too many strangers.
  • Clear messages should be sent to all about what constitutes abuse, that it is wrong and that there are serious consequences for perpetrators. This includes timely and resolute pursuit of abusers in dismissal from employment, charges and prosecutions.
  • We must also consider how best to follow up with children and young people and adults on the impact of child abuse. This will include assisting them to overcome the trauma, to believe in themselves and to trust others again.
  • We must learn from mistakes, oversights and false assumptions by reviewing where things went wrong and then acting on what was found to be deficient.
  • Important, but perhaps less obvious, is the reminder to re-examine our routine practices for potential disrespect or disregard that can creep into family meetings, conversations with children, case conferences, case records, decision-making and responses to requests for help.

Other readers will have read other themes in the report but there is no doubt that each will be as determined as we are that such abuse will not occur while we have voice to speak and courage to act.

Review of programs in youth training centres

In July 2007 the South Australian Guardian for Children and Young People commissioned the Centre for Applied Psychological Research, University of South Australia to conduct a review of programs available to young people in secure custody. The report was completed in January 2008. There had been no independent review of programs in secure custody, although the need to develop youth justice programs was identified by the Families SA Youth Justice Directorate in their 2007 Training Centre Action Plan, the SA Social Inclusion Commissioner, and the SA Parliamentary Select Committee on the Youth Justice System which reported in 2005.

The report is in two sections. Part 1 is a review of the scientific literature on theories and practice in youth justice. Part 2 reports the findings from interviews with a range of stakeholders and focus groups with young residents. Part 2 also contains the recommendations.

Download the literature review

Download the report

link to GCYP twitter

Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia

It is widely acknowledged that children and young people under guardianship are highly disadvantaged in achieving a good education. This does not mean they are not capable, nor that individual educators and carers do not support them. It does mean that we can do more to overcome the significant obstacles the students face with recovering from trauma, changing schools, and early neglect.

In February 2007 we commenced an investigation into improving educational outcomes for students in care. The Office engaged Ms Julie White and Ms Helen Lindstrom to investigate what was available now for children in care and prepare an ‘ideas’ report on additional action required to improve children’s experience of school and learning. In the subsequent months they conducted a review of the literature in Australia and overseas, summarised the strategies currently in place in this state, interviewed children and young people under guardianship or formerly under guardianship and interviewed a range of stakeholders.

Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia and a summary of Improving educational outcomes for children and young people under guardianship in South Australia can be downloaded as  PDF files.

Download the Summary Report here.

Download the Full Report here.