People are rightly angry at child abuse and neglect. It seems decent common sense to investigate all claims of abuse. But even in an ideal world we may not want to go down the investigation route in every circumstance. Child abuse notifications range from clear evidence of sexual and physical abuse to concern about lack of parental presence or truancy at school.
In South Australia the most common type of abuse substantiated in 2004-05 was neglect which makes up 42 per cent of the total. At 35 per cent emotional abuse was the next most common. Of course all are signs of a child in need of attention. And herein lies the crux of the matter.
Before leaping in to sending two investigating officers around to the child’s house to question the family, good child protection workers consider what is the best approach in the child’s circumstances. Sometimes it should be heavy-handed and decisive.
More often than not though a supportive approach to the family as a whole will benefit the child in the long run.
Put yourself in the child’s world. Mum or dad may be having a very rough time and you’re copping some of it. You do want someone to help but you want them to help your mum and dad as much as help you. Children generally have such strong bonds to their families that they’ll put up with barely adequate parenting in preference to being separated.
The difficult decision required of the child protection worker and other professionals is what is the best approach that both keeps the child safe and protects what is dear to the child. I don’t envy them that decision, a decision they have to make every day. I also don’t envy them the disappointment when the help the family needs isn’t there. That’s when the cycle of re-notifications starts and the child is at risk of escalating tension, neglect or abuse.
Lack of timely family help is one possible reason for the 45 per cent rise in notifications in South Australia over the past five years. The other likely reasons are heightened public awareness and greater willingness to report. Health professionals are reporting a rise in the use of amphetamines by adults. Child protection professionals are reporting a rise in the number of children neglected because of drug-affected parents. We can remove the children and place them in an overstretched alternative care system, temporarily or permanently. And, sometimes, your inclination is to do just that and punish the parents.
The 32 per cent rise over the past five years in the number of South Australian children coming into care suggests that this is a growing response. But again, if you asked the children they would almost certainly say they wanted their parents to do better by them.
So, if for no other reason than putting children first, we have to think about support for their birth family and what the best approach will be.
Drug and alcohol services, parenting support, mental health services, secure housing and practical home assistance may be just what the child needs – for his or her parents.
This is not an argument or excuse for inaction. There are sizeable gaps in the child protection system and one of those is in the capacity to investigate notifications.
We could keep putting dollars into investigations but we have to make choices. The bigger gap, in my view, is in capacity to respond to family crisis or persistent problems.
In plugging this hole, we can curb the growth in notifications, investigations and children in care. I know where I’d put my money, and more of it.
[This article first appeared in The Advertiser on 5 January 2007.]