Working in human services is rewarding and challenging, and child protection every bit so. I was reminded of this during Child Protection Week when I listened to Justice Robyn Layton talk of the need to combine practice supported by evidence of effectiveness, with personalised and individualised service. This requires a high level of skill and use of professional knowledge. A great deal of satisfaction results when they come together to help and empower someone in need.
At the same time, I was reading Rosemary Kennedy’s book Duty of Care in the Human Services: Mishaps, Misdeeds and the Law. The responsibility sometimes feels overwhelming, not for fear of legal action but for fear of getting it wrong and the harm caused. Ms Kennedy comprehensively argues that, while the costs of mistakes are high, the value placed on human services is relatively low. The low value attributed to human services partly stems from society’s unease about the people we serve and the ambivalence about those considered ‘undeserving’.
This ambivalence is seen at times in implementing policy and planning. Six years ago, when the State Government responded to Justice Layton’s comprehensive review of child protection, the resulting plan, Keeping Them Safe, inspired a collective effort to do better by children. It also resulted in two significant boosts to the budget, the first in 2004-05 and the second in 2006-07. The bit of the plan that suffered under the twin handicaps of low value and ambivalence was family services.
As simplistic as this analysis seems, I think society feels good about rescuing children and, at the same time, feels bad, and angry, about parents’ failure. So the subsequent financial and human investment shifts from the ‘feel bad’ to the ‘feel good’.
Those of us who work in human services often end up overwhelmed, and troubled, by rescuing children while lacking the resources to intervene to prevent harm occurring in the first place. Six years ago, at the release of Keeping Them Safe, there were 4.2 children per thousand on care and protection orders. There are now around seven in a thousand. It is not that children are being brought into care unnecessarily. Far from it. Partly it is that decisions to take action are being made when children are younger. Very likely it is also partly explained by curtailed intervention services for families in crisis.
A similar fate awaits the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. Simon Schrapel, Chief Executive of UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide, drew attention to this in a June 2010 opinion piece Can A National Approach Really Make a Difference?. [Sorry, this link is no longer available] Early action on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of out of home care standards and a common approach to assessment, referral and support, he says, will not revolutionise the way we protect children and young people.
What will make a difference to the growing child protection demand are services to families in high need. Our most vulnerable children live in families grappling with drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and violence, sometimes compounded by isolation and poverty. Greater focus on family services by federal and state governments will not stop the growth in numbers of children requiring state care but it will slow it down.
Even if South Australia reduced the growth to five per cent instead of the average nine per cent now, that’s 93 children at the end of the 2010-11 year who would not be in state care. The change would not happen in a single year, and probably not two or three, but it would happen. Fewer children to rescue but more families to help. This is a whole lot more satisfying and empowering for all. And working in human services would be that much more satisfying.