Fewer children to rescue – more families to help

Pam Simmons Guardian

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.

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.

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.

Response to Discussion Paper, Attorney- General’s Department – Review of Domestic Violence Laws

Among other statutory functions the Guardian for Children and Young People acts as an advocate for the interests of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister for Families and Communities.  We have a major interest in preventing children from requiring statutory protection and protecting children from harm.

This response is prepared on the basis of the Office’s experience in investigating individual matters and talking with experts in the area of children and domestic violence.

You can download a PDF file of the Response to the domestic violence law review.

Support the family and the child

Pam Simmons Guardian

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.]

“There’s no point in her being at school…” homelessness and children

The following are excerpts from an address to the Homelessness SA forum on the impact of homelessness on children, 31 March 2006.

There’s no point in her being at school, it’s not like you can sit her down at night and read her books, with this stuff going on around us.

homeless family in a private hotel

Pam Simmons Guardian

Children come into care to protect them from harm. Their families cannot care for them for a variety of reasons. This ranges from parents who cannot get enough support to care for a child with profound disabilities to parents who seriously and criminally abuse their children. The contributing factors for Aboriginal children are steeped in their families’ history of separation and alienation.

It is of no surprise that the factors that place families under stress and lead to the separation of children from their care are similar to the factors that contribute to homelessness. These are domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, intellectual disability, low incomes, transience and poor family supports, among others. There is significant overlap between homelessness and children being in care.

You’re just a totally isolated unit as a family, friendship just doesn’t come into it. Even the kids, they’re like ships in the night, you know? None of us have any relationships, it’s really weird.

homeless family

 The impact of homelessness on children is huge but has largely been overlooked. In the past we have treated the family as a homogenous unit with the parents representing and protecting the interests of the children. It is only since the 1980s with growth in the study of children, and the consequent ‘discovery’ that they were social actors, and the commitment to children’s rights that we have started to consider the needs of children as linked to but also distinct from the family as a whole.

From a child’s perspective, homelessness may look like this: losing pets, leaving treasures behind, being in strange and threatening environments, being separated from friends and sometimes siblings, changing or missing school, falling behind, insufficient food, persistent illness with no treatment and adults distracted all the time.

It happened lots. I just got used to it. They’d just come and pick us up and take us when mum was going psycho.

In their own words, Create June 2004

Children in care who are often changing placement are homeless but have not been considered as such. It is not our notion of what homelessness is. But the definition of ‘secondary’ homelessness covers such circumstances – constantly moving between relatives or friends because of no home of their own.

We do know that young people who are in state care use homelessness services. In South Australia at 30 June 2005 there were 190 young people on care and protection orders and in independent living arrangements such as private board, renting on their own, engaged in a program of learning to live independently and living with their partner and children. It has been estimated but not confirmed that 100 of these young people drift in and out of homelessness services. We don’t have accurate data here.

There are many things we still don’t know. We don’t know how many families were homeless when the children were removed. We don’t know how many children have been separated from their parents because residential services couldn’t accommodate children. We don’t know how well our homelessness services meet the needs of children or how safe children are while there. We don’t know how many homeless people are care leavers but we suspect it is a significant number. We don’t know how, or if, homelessness services should be integrated with alternative care.

We do know though that child safety starts with awareness of children and empowerment of children. So we can proceed without perfect knowledge to improve our approach to children in planning and providing homelessness services.