By Guardian Penny Wright
As I reflect on this year’s theme for Children’s Week, that all children have the right to be healthy and safe, I wonder what this really means for the vulnerable young people who fall within my mandate as Guardian for children and young people in care.
Although there are many South Australian children and young people who have continuous access to nutritious food, quality health care and a safe home, there are many others who don’t. And for those who don’t, the consequences are far reaching, not only to their health but to the very core of their identity, family connections and faith that the world can be a good place.
The just-released Family Matters Report, which describes the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care, notes that a family’s access to safe and healthy housing has a profound impact on their ability to provide safe and supportive care for their children. When families cannot provide this kind of environment, it is often seen as ‘neglect’ and children are removed so they can be ‘safe’. The paradox, as we know from my office’s own data, is that too many children and young people continue to feel, and remain, unsafe while in care.
According to the report, nearly one third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living below the poverty line, noting that poverty and homelessness are significant factors in decisions to remove children from their homes.
This alarming statistic reflects the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care; nearly 35% of children currently in care in SA are Aboriginal, with the nationwide rate being similar to that in SA.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children who are removed from their homes suffer greatly from disconnection from their culture, destabilising their sense of identity and undermining relationships with their family and wider community. They are also more likely to be in care for the long-term and are less likely to be reunified with their family than non-Indigenous children.
Children don’t necessarily care for the fancy house and toys. In fact, as highlighted in the SA Commissioner for Children and Young People’s latest report Leave No One Behind children weren’t so much concerned about the home in which they live and its contents as the emotional toll that ‘poverty stress’ creates in their families not being able to afford the basic necessities to run a household and provide safe care.
This presents us all with a wider, more systemic issue: how to ensure that families can afford to live sustainably and with dignity? There is now a chorus of voices across the social and political spectrum calling for an increase in Newstart, for instance, which has not been raised in real terms for 23 years. From the OECD to local councils, from KPMG, former Prime Minister John Howard, the Business Council of Australia and the South Australian parliament (with unanimous multi-party support) to ACOSS and many organisations devoted to helping families in need, they all recognise that no-one can live adequately on Newstart. At a time when we have the highest number of children ever living away from their families under care and protection orders in South Australia, this is not an issue we can afford to look away from.
One of the recommendations from the Family Matters Report is to focus on preventative action and early intervention by ensuring families can obtain the resources and supports they need to provide safe care to their kids.
We all know that children can thrive when their parents are supported, and that prevention and timely intervention can be the key to children’s health and wellbeing. Rather than a future that sees more and more children taken away from their families, culture and community because of ’unsafe’ environments, it is crucial to invest in the resources families need for the healthy and safe environment in which their children can thrive. Not only will this benefit every child or young person who can ultimately stay at home with their family – but SA as a whole, as thriving kids and families contribute to a stronger, safer community.