Ross Womersley - Executive Director, SACOSS
Our news has been dominated in the last few days with yet another case of alleged horrible abuse of children in our care system — a system that should ensure very vulnerable kids get real protection from further harm, and then real help to recover from the traumas they’ve experienced.
The trouble is that achieving this is never as simple as it sounds.
In the face of such horrible cases the temptation is to call for immediate solutions: some measure that will stop this from ever happening again.
We call for the perpetrator to be lynched. We suggest men should be banned from caring for children on their own. We say the experts don’t know what they’re talking about. We call for orphanages and institutions to be rebuilt. We argue that we should be able to keep suspicious types away. And so it goes.
As the lynch mobs gather, our politicians, bureaucrats and others in authority are pushed to take action, any action, to show they are doing something about this problem.
Yet we seldom seek to address a key underlying question: Why are kids in state care in the first place?
That’s the real challenge this issue points to. How do we ensure that in all contexts — at home, in the care of family and friends, or while in the care of other adults in positions of authority — our kids can be in an environment where they are safe, secure and loved?
And how do we do this in ways that avoid perverse consequences for those kids, their families or our community?
There are many things that are often present in situations where kids are subject to abuse and neglect: poverty, domestic violence, poor mental health, addictions, limited parenting skills, to name a few.
These are all things we can address. However, most resources currently get spent mopping up the mess after it’s been created.
Our system of alternative care also needs to be much better than it is now. There are longstanding issues that need to be addressed, including: providing greater professional advice and support to foster carers; transitioning children from emergency care to secure long-term placements faster; not using residential care in place of family-based care; reducing the disproportionate number of Aboriginal kids in care; getting greater stability into placements; recruiting high-quality residential care staff; supporting young people to transition from care; and building more effective partnerships between government and non-government services.
The issues are many and complex. If we are serious about addressing them, no single reaction is adequate.
A royal commission with well-constructed terms of reference may help shine a light on what’s gone wrong, but to be useful it must examine the way we approach this whole issue and not just find blame in this instance.
First published in The Advertiser, 25 July 2014.