There’s an ethical dilemma that we all may face at some time. When you see a parent screaming at a child in a public place should you intervene?
Responses to this vary from minding your own business, stepping between the two to comfort the child or moving to empathise with the parent in order to diffuse the situation.
Whatever you do it is likely that you will be criticised by someone who holds a different opinion.
Writ large this is the dilemma faced by our front line child protection workers every day. Do they intervene? How? Who should they first support? What right do they have? It is a tough job. It is unenviable in many ways but holds its own rewards.
The child protection system has many parts: reporting and recording concerns, investigating those notifications, deciding on the best first response, meetings with the family and others, decisions by the Youth Court on what legal arrangements should be made, making alternative care arrangements, providing other services to the child and family and helping young people who face major conflict or trauma.
There are three brass tacks to the child protection system. It is necessary. It can’t be everything people want. We all have a stake in it.
It is necessary because we have jointly made a decision that children should be protected from harm and some children are at risk. This year is it likely that more than 600 children and young people will be taken into temporary or ongoing care of the Minister for Families and Communities to protect them from harm.
For different reasons some families will not be able to adequately care for their children and we, through the child protection system, intervene. Three out of four of the children taken into care will be cared for by the state until they reach the age of maturity. A significant number will live with extended family.
The child protection system can’t be everything we want because like the ethical dilemma above there is different opinion on what should be done, when and for whom. Add to this the constrained capacity of services and workforce because resources are not endless and you have disappointed and disaffected punters.
There is a sizeable gap between what many of us think constitutes good or even adequate parenting and the legal and moral mandate for the state to intervene.
This has partly come about because over the past century we have made great strides in first recognising childhood as a distinct human condition and subsequently ascribing rights, characteristics and responsibilities to and for children. This is progress. Like other such social change though, it happens in fits and starts, there are proponents and detractors and the institutions of our time reflect this mix.
So we allow considerable leeway in parenting practice before we can legally intervene. This is good. It acts as a brake on abuses of power and until we can offer families more support we must not judge quickly.
And the third brass tack is that we all have a stake in the child protection system. It is our response to what our society needs to protect children from harm and it is part of our society. The system needs to be both strong and adaptable. It needs to respond flexibly to different cultures and communities, taking into account capacity, history and belief but without compromising a child’s safety and wellbeing.
It is fair to expect that when the state intervenes we offer good care, and at the very least better than what we are removing children from. It is imperative that we respond with appropriate reparation and that we learn everything we can from instances of sexual abuse that occurred in the past. It is my view, shared by many others, that we are doing better at this now with higher levels of training, support and scrutiny. However no one would claim that all children in care are safe from harm.
Children and young people in the child protection system are not someone else’s children. Once we jointly decide to intervene, through our courts and agencies, we accept a greater responsibility for their development and care.
Workers and carers may be at the centre providing day to day assistance but, if we value such basics as opportunity, trust and participation then we all play apart in rearing and caring for children who are most in need of our help.
A version of this article first appeared in The Advertiser in September 2005.