For abuse to occur, a child’s voice must be silenced

11 July 2017

For abuse of a child to occur, the first necessary condition is that the child remain silent, that their voice not be heard.  This silence may be engineered by the abuser, using their status, fear or shame. It may be engineered by institutions that are passive in protecting children or complicit in covering it up or by adults and peers who are not alert to the signs or do not know how to respond.

A just-released Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) Practice Paper Protection through participation – Involving children in child-safe organisations is a practical guide to how to talk with children about their safety and feelings of safety.  The paper is itself based on the Australian Catholic University’s research into how children understand and experience safety in institutions conducted last year for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

The paper is an excellent resource suitable both for organisations developing their systems and for individual concerned adults.  It combines general discussion with some specific and practical advice and tools.  It tells us:

  • Children want to be in the know. They want to understand if there are risks or troubling events.  Adults sometimes minimise this information thinking they are protecting the child but, in the words of one young person, ‘They think they should hide that stuff from kids to keep them safe but you feel more scared if you don’t know what’s happening.’
  • Children want to be asked for their views and involved in solutions.  Sometimes group discussions are appropriate but in some situations, where the level of trust is not high or there is likely be shame or embarrassment, anonymous reporting via suggestion boxes or surveys may be a way to start the conversation.  Involving children in decisions about a wide range of issues that affect them is good practice and should be normal in institutions.  It builds confidence in children for when more challenging matters arise for them.
  • Adults need to be skilled and calm.  They need to be informed about the real risks faced by children, the possible signs of abuse and to know how to approach a child or how to respond if approached.  Responses that adults may have heard and learned in their own childhood like ‘just grow up’, ‘walk away’ or  ‘it’s not a big deal’  can close down approaches by children and end conversations about abuse.  Adults must be aware of their own emotional triggers and set them aside to explore a child’s disclosures calmly and reasonably.
  • Adults need to be available.  Children will raise issues more readily with people with whom they have a meaningful relationship and this takes time to build.  Opportunities for discussion can occur at unpredictable times, like doing the dishes or driving somewhere in the car, and the adults who are physically and emotionally present are key to hearing a child’s concerns.
  • Recognise and use the power of peers. The paper says it most succinctly:

‘Young people are more likely to listen to peers and those people who have successfully protected themselves or dealt with situations if they arose. Working in partnership with young people to run workshops, teach classes or initiate conversations were all seen as helpful.’

The creation of the Department for Child Protection

picture of Amanda Shaw

Amanda Shaw Guardian

I am pleased to hear the Government’s commitment to creating the new Department for Child Protection and I look forward to the Guardian’s Office developing a strong relationship with the new Chief Executive and leadership team.

I welcome Commissioner Nyland’s recommendation that the new Department for Child Protection ‘must be headed by a Chief Executive with established credibility in child protection work…’

The new department will be a solid base from which to work on Commissioner Nyland’s other recommendations which will be contained in her full report due for release early in August.

But creation of a new department will not be sufficient in itself.

The new department will immediately need to undertake long-term planning to ensure better placement options for children in care.

The quality and suitability of out-of-home care and the large numbers of children in emergency placements requires urgent attention.

Collaboration between and among government and non-government agencies will be needed to strengthen family support services to prevent children from coming into care where it is safe for them to remain with their families.  Where that’s not possible, we will need to intervene early to protect children and make sure those who come into care do so in a timely and appropriate way.

The new department must ensure there are sufficient numbers of skilled child protection workers with access to regular supervision and support, professional development and information about the latest research promoting best practice.

In these areas and across the whole child protection system we must encourage and support the active voice of children themselves.  If we listen, genuinely listen, children will tell us what is happening for them and what the reinvented system needs to provide.

Changes to SA’s Children’s Protection Act prioritise safety

19 May 2016

In the wake of the death of Chloe Valentine and the subsequent Coroner’s Inquiry, the April 2016 amendments to the State’s Children’s Protection Act shift the emphasis to safety.

  1. Inserted into the objects of the Act is ‘The primary object of this Act is to keep children safe from harm and in the administration of the Act that object must, in all cases, be the paramount consideration.’
  2. Removed is reference to ‘Fundamental principles’ which prioritised considerations of wellbeing and best interests.*
  3. Observation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Placement Principle which was deleted with the rest of Fundamental Principles is restored under Provisions relating to dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children.
  4. The provision for ‘temporary guardianship instruments and restraining notices‘. These can apply where a parent or guardian of a child committed, or attempted to commit the following acts against a child victim – murder, manslaughter, criminal neglect, causing serious harm or creating risk of serious harm. This can be retrospectively applied, that is, offences committed prior to these amendments can be taken into consideration.
  5. Specific weight is given to the views of the child by this insertion into the objects of the Act. ‘If decisions are to be made under this Act in relation to a child, the decision maker must have regard to the the views of the child (if the child is willing and able to express such views).’

* Previously the Act referred to:

  • the child’s right to be cared for in a safe and stable family environment, or in an alternative form of care which provided the child with every opportunity to reach their full potential if a safe and stable family environment could not be provided
  • the child’s wellbeing and best interests as paramount considerations
  • observation of the Aboriginal Placement Principle (thought his was restored elsewhere)
  • provisions for children placed in alternative care such as being provided with a nurturing safe and stable environment, being allowed to maintain relationships with  family where possible without serious risk and consultation with children in decision making.

Gendered violence and its impact on children

Gendered violence is violence inflicted or suffered on the basis of gender differences.  It is commonly used to mean violence against women and girls – but it does apply to boys and, more rarely, to men.

Excerpts from an address delivered by Guardian Pam Simmons to the 20 September forum organised by the Addressing Violence Alliance are available in PDF in Just one violent incident…Gendered violence and its impact on children .

Hear about new publications as they are released on our Twitter feed.

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Wellbeing of children and young people in care 2008-09

The Guardian for Children and Young People monitors the circumstances of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister for Families and Communities. The feedback and findings of monitoring activities are reported directly to the agencies involved and to the Minister.

The Report on the wellbeing of children and young people in care in South Australia – 2008-09 summarises the information in one place and makes the general conclusions available to a wider audience.  We will publish a written response from Families SA in the near future.

[ddownload id=”5313″ style=”button” button=”black” text=”Download the Report”]

link to GCYP twitter

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.

Six themes from the Mullighan Report


Pam Simmons Guardian

Capturing public attention in the past two months has been the release of the report from the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry (the Mullighan Inquiry). It has drawn renewed focus on past abuses of South Australian children. Such inquiries or investigations have been sadly necessary and repeated across the country and there is great sorrow and abhorrence at the stories of abuse that have emerged.

Commissioner Mullighan took evidence from 792 people who said they were victims of child sexual abuse and 242 had been children in state care at the time of their alleged abuse. Many of the alleged incidents were in the 1960s and 70s.

The Commissioner has acknowledged that most state care provided is good care and, in the glare of the inquiry’s spotlight, it is important to remind ourselves of this while paying close attention to what still needs to be done.

Here in the Office of the Guardian we are in a privileged position to see how the child protection system works for children and every day we see evidence of great achievements by children and young people, excellent care and superior professional practice.

We are also acutely aware of the challenges in delivering the best child protection service. Not the least of these is a huge change of emphasis from a notification and investigation-driven model of child protection to a child and family-centred system of early response to problems. This is very difficult to achieve in the over-heated political environment that accompanies the stories of children who have been let down by family and state.

There is opportunity, though, to learn from examining what happens when things go horribly wrong. Here are six themes that emerged for me in reading the Mullighan Report.

  • Prevent abuse happening through, among other things, empowering children to voice their experience and views in an environment of trust and respect. Much of the response to abuse in care has rightly focussed on regulation, monitoring and scrutiny. Less attention had been paid to the organisational culture and power imbalances between children and adults and between staff and management that prevent the alarm being raised when things go wrong.
  • Clear and decisive action is required when children disclose abuse and the response must be constantly supportive of children. The stories of children telling someone but nothing happening are chilling. Alarming too is the response that effectively punishes the child by separation, scepticism, and frightening interactions with too many strangers.
  • Clear messages should be sent to all about what constitutes abuse, that it is wrong and that there are serious consequences for perpetrators. This includes timely and resolute pursuit of abusers in dismissal from employment, charges and prosecutions.
  • We must also consider how best to follow up with children and young people and adults on the impact of child abuse. This will include assisting them to overcome the trauma, to believe in themselves and to trust others again.
  • We must learn from mistakes, oversights and false assumptions by reviewing where things went wrong and then acting on what was found to be deficient.
  • Important, but perhaps less obvious, is the reminder to re-examine our routine practices for potential disrespect or disregard that can creep into family meetings, conversations with children, case conferences, case records, decision-making and responses to requests for help.

Other readers will have read other themes in the report but there is no doubt that each will be as determined as we are that such abuse will not occur while we have voice to speak and courage to act.

Good systems learn from mistakes

Pam Simmons Guardian

Jodi was nine and one of five children. In total there had been over 40 child abuse notifications made about Jodi and her siblings. On their own the notifications were relatively minor. It was the pattern that told the story. When Jodi was admitted to hospital with a serious injury, people were angry that nobody had intervened before now. Everyone was looking to blame somebody.

To state the obvious, child protection is a seriousb usiness with weighty responsibilities. It is highly contested and there are few absolutes. It is a ‘high hazard’ environment where mistakes or oversights have a big impact for someone.

There are other high hazard environments, such as public transport, hospitals, mining, aviation, armed conflict and family law, to name a few. Some systems do better than

others at minimising the incidence and impact of mistakes.

Two international experts on human error and safe systems are Marilyn Rosenthal at the University of Michigan and Jim Reason at the University of Manchester. They make comparisons between aviation and health systems pointing to the success of the former in accepting that human error will occur and constructing a mostly sound system

of checks against error. Health systems do this too, to a greater or lesser degree, but it is a more ‘personal business’ with the health consumer playing a key role in safety. In health systems there is also a greater, and largely unhelpful, tendency when errors occur to blame the individual.

The same comments could be made about the child protection system. It is a highly personal business and we do tend to look to blame somebody. Bad parents, bad child, bad social worker or bad carer. Wrong court judgement, wrong assessment, wrong school or wrong choice. This is not always misplaced but it rarely provides a complete picture of what led to an incident or error in judgement.

So, what makes a good system with low incident rates and successful correction for mistakes?

Clearly, employing good workers and providing them with ongoing skills development and reward for good work is a start. Maintaining a healthy workplace and work hours is another. But good workers make mistakes too. Every good worker has. In most circumstances we don’t want to lose good workers because of a mistake, but we do want the wrong done to a person and its impact to be well acknowledged.

A good response to a mistake is to report it, admit it and apologise. But few people will do that if they expect to be hung out to dry.

What happens when we look to lay blame? Everyone keeps their head low, hopes someone else made a bigger mistake, searches for justification to support their judgement, and bunkers down until the storm passes. Most also continue to feel bad.

A good system is analytical and responsive. It will encourage the reporting of mistakes, help put things right, avoid blame, examine the mistake or incident closely and look at how the system should change to minimise the chance of it happening again. It should provide the checks and balances against escalation or repetition. It must also of course deal fairly and decisively with ongoing poor performance.

Any number of things could have gone wrong in Jodi’s case. The data system was inadequate and the notifications weren’t linked, there was high turnover of staff so no one made the connections, the notifiers expected that someone else would take responsibility, staff were intimidated by threats from the family or there were too many more urgent matters ahead of this one. Jodi should have been better protected. She wasn’t. We owe her an apology and assistance to recover. We ask why and we talk to everyone involved, without blame but looking for answers.

Dismissing a mistake or oversight as ‘just the system’ is also not useful. As said, child protection is a personal business and relies heavily on human interaction and

communication. A bad day can be a gravely bad day. Good workers will recognise when they are in a high risk situation. It may be the seriousness of the matter, the

difference of opinion, their personal feelings about one of the people, their tiredness and state of mind. They may start to look at something through a single lens and

recognise only the evidence that supports their view or recommendation. Good workers will seek help and good systems will have it.

There must be a way of attending to problems that accepts fallibility and is not shaming to people who talk about their mistakes. This will also support a professional culture that is consumer centred and will acknowledge the hurt done.

There are more external checks in the child protection system in South Australia now – Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee, Health and Community Services

Complaints Commissioner, the Guardian for Children and Young People. There are also internal checks, the Adverse Events Committee, the Special Investigation Unit, and the Customer Relations Office. The more significant response though will come from deeper in the system – at the agency level where the services are provided. And the answer does not lie in increased regulation or scrutiny but in safety to report, admit, examine, review and change. It also of course lies with compassion and empathy.

Human error and health systems are discussed in the work of James Reason, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Manchester in the U.K. who has written books

on absent-mindedness, human error, aviation human factors and on managing the risks of organizational accidents. Read more of his ideas in an interview at Marilyn Rosenthal, Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, has researched extensively on why doctors make mistakes.  Two of her books are Dealing with Medical Malpractice: The British and Swedish Experience and The Incompetent Doctor: Behind Closed Doors.

Response to the Consultation Paper on Keeping Them Safe – In Our Care

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.  It is in this capacity that the following submission is made.

This submission is prepared on the basis of the Office’s experience in investigating individual matters, talking with children, workers and carers about their experience, listening to the young people associated with our Office and our knowledge of policies and practice in Families SA and alternative care agencies.

You can download a PDF file of Response to Keeping Them Safe In Our Care (draft) .

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.]