Responding to neglect

Pam Simmons Guardian

My 2011 consultation with health, education and child protection workers is nearing an end and I have had the benefit of a great deal of practitioners’ knowledge about how well we are doing in looking after children.

There was much talk of difficult decisions in removing children from families, decisions that are never made lightly and are tested thoroughly in the court process. In particular, I heard something of the complexity of decisions about chronic neglect.

Neglect is the failure to receive socially acceptable standards of care. Chronic neglect is arguably the most damaging type of maltreatment, causing delays in normal child development that are very difficult to overcome.

In South Australia, neglect is now around 40 per cent of the substantiated reports made to the Child Abuse Report Line, making up a substantial part of the statutory child protection work. It is also highly contested because one person’s definition of neglect is likely to be different from another’s.

Recent history tells us that definitions of neglect are value-laden and shifting. In the last century definitions of child neglect had a profound impact on Aboriginal people. Our attention was drawn to this in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. It provided evidence of the history of seeing Aboriginal children` as synonymous with neglected children. Perhaps in overreaction, we now have some evidence of Aboriginal children being neglected by both family and the broader system for protecting children, such as evidence examined in the Northern Territory’s 2010 Bath Report Growing them strong, together.

I learned that neglect is a hard concept to work with and an appropriate response is equally hard. Social workers can easily become overwhelmed by seemingly intractable family problems or underwhelmed because they have seen it all too often. The underlying drivers of neglect such as low incomes, substance abuse, mental illness and the isolation of sole parenting are complex and chronic and the statutory child protection agency is not geared well to deal with these problems.

I heard angst in the voices of those responsible for taking action when children are reported as being neglected. It is not only that their decisions will be subjected to scrutiny and criticism but also because sound decisions require good professional judgment. Professional judgement in turn depends on forming a relationship with the child and family, critical reflection, professional reasoning and skilled supervision. I think that too many were afraid that there was too little time in a busy demanding day to get this right.

This round of visits reminded me of the challenges of being a child protection worker, the significance of a sound, safe and well resourced organisation within which they work, and the importance of trust and respect between agencies so that conclusions can be tested by different viewpoints and values.

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