Human rights

Australia's child protection system is ripping families apart

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(image @Tjook via flickr)

Child protection and family services should focus on assisting vulnerable families as opposed to removing children, says Gerry Georgatos

LAST WEEK, I reunited a 14-year-old girl with her biological mother. She had been removed from her mother at 12 months of age.

Children removed from their biological parents are among the most elevated risk groups to serious aberrant behaviour and to suicide.

On the day of her reunification, she called me to thank me. I was happy for the child and mother and, at the same time, sad in the knowledge that the majority of children removed should not have been.

In my work with suicide affected families, I come across stories that the nation should hear. Six years ago, two sisters under child protection orders ran away from their carer. The protection orders were not lifted. Next to no work was done to assist these girls with kin support. They were 11 and 13 years old and spent the majority of the six years on the streets. The eleven-year-old recently took her life – on the streets – as a 17-year-old. So much more should have been done.

A quarter of Australia’s homeless – nearly 20,000 – are children aged 12 years and less.

Australia has the highest rate of child removals in the world.

Child protection authorities and their personnel may think they are doing a good job, but overall they are not. The majority are well-meaning but that’s not good enough. There are prejudices, class and racist assumptions and horrid policies that betray the well-meaning bit. There should be a royal commission into the child removals, and the horror stories told to the nation in the same manner and with as wide a remit as the nation was allowed to hear the long overdue stories of the institutional sexual abuse victims – more than 8,000 stories.

Presently, 17,000 Aboriginal children have been removed – an abomination – where instead, the majority of families should have been supported. It will continue to get worse and more harrowing with more than 50,000 children removed by 2030.

A quarter of Australia’s homeless, nearly 20,000, are children aged 12 years and less.'

However, despite the tragic disproportionate over-presentation rate of Indigenous child removals, the high rate of child removals hits White and Brown children too, not just Black. Australia has to be brought to account for its high rate of child removals — of tearing families apart instead of the much-begged-for focus on working alongside families. Personnel defend their good intentions, but the majority of child protection workers are from the sea of privilege. The future will condemn the present generations as the present condemns the past. But we should not wait for a mere condemnation from the future.

In my view, the best way to radically reduce the damage being done by child protection authorities is to reduce their funding, as I explained in October 2016, in 'Radically reduce child protection budgets so only genuinely at-risk children will be focused on'.

The "child protection" monoliths right across the nation are vastly overfunded. It is not true they are underfunded and overstretched. Child protection budgets should be radically reduced to one-sixth in order to end the humanitarian crises they are generating. The child protection and "family services" monoliths are responsible for the record levels of child removals, and directly responsible for the wilderness of grief, the multitudes of broken and ruined lives.

In 2014-15, 151,980 children – a rate of 28.6 per 1,000 children – received child protection services. Child protection authorities and family services across the nation are increasing the numbers of their personnel each year and in turn, churning out more "services". These workers may score the quid, but families are the victims. Child protection authorities need families to investigate, monitor and, in my view, harass.

These child protection monoliths have conjured up similarly monolithic investigation units and never-ending "care protection services". A significant layer of these services is Kafkaesque. It is the poor who seem to be a target, albeit maybe inadvertently. The 2015-16 Department of Child Protection budget for Western Australia was $644 million. Each year, there is a "cry poor" by child protection authorities, who need more funds to monitor "vulnerable" families. Each year, in every jurisdiction in the nation, the child protection budgets increase and, subsequently, the number of children removed increases.

In NSW, the child protection budget is $1.7 billion. These monies could be better spent in providing various assistance to struggling families instead of ripping apart families — instead of child protection authorities and "family services’" deploying minimalist and reductionist policies that lead to children being removed.

When children are removed from their families because of alleged emotional abuse or various other reasons, they are seldom provided with adequate healing or restorative therapies. The removal of a child from his or her family is a significant psychosocial hit. It goes straight to the validity of the psychosocial identity – it hurts – and, for many, this pain is unbearable. For many, the trauma of removal is unresolvable, inescapable and relentless. For some, this trauma is also compounded with multiple, composite traumas, which may degenerate into disordered thinking and aggressive complex behaviours.

For the most part, child protection and family services should reconsider how they allocate their budgets and, instead, focus on assisting vulnerable families, as opposed to the reductionist and minimalist approach of removing children. But the majority of child protection and family service workers are not skilled in any number of ways that should be requisite, and are ill-qualified and inexperienced. In my interfaces on behalf of families with child protection workers, I have been appalled by the low level of skills and understanding of the workers.

Governments have created a nightmare with these insatiable monolithic child protection authorities, with the consequence that families are degenerated by these workers to broken and, for many, ruined lives. Individuals removed as children from their biological families are the most elevated risk group to aberrant behaviour and suicidal ideation. Last year, one in 35 Australian children "received" child protection services. This statistic beggars belief.

An outrageous "dob-in" system has been set up which knocks-up work for thousands of child protection workers across the nation. Last year, nearly 400,000 calls were taken by child protection authorities, where complaints about other people’s families were lodged. The majority of the grounds for monitoring and child removals relate to "emotional" abuse of the children.

'Last year, nearly 400,000 calls were taken by child protection authorities, where complaints about other people’s families were lodged.' 

The majority of families investigated by child protection authorities can navigate acute socioeconomic pressures, and even various asserted negative behaviours within their homes, including exposure to alcohol abuse, substance abuse and various psychological and psychiatric illnesses.

The involvement and over-involvement of under-skilled but overly judgmental child protection workers, in general, does not only fail to assist, but compounds vulnerabilities and is trauma-inducing — there is generated constancy of trauma. People make mistakes, they can wound each other but empathy and forgiveness are likely if families, for the most part, are left to themselves to work through their lot. Child protection workers majorly invalidate people, diminish them and most certainly traumatise every family member.

It is a grim reality that more than ten per cent of the Australian population lives below the Henderson Poverty Line, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it’s around 40 per cent. Poverty should never be an excuse for the removal of children. It is grim reality that, thereabouts, ten per cent of children live in families where there is substance misuse, but for the majority of these families, there is still no genuine reason to remove the children. We are accumulating more stressors on individuals and families — dumping upon them sanctimonious and unreasonable expectations.

More than 46,000 children live in "out-of-home-care" — in other words, they have been removed from their biological families. A small percentage, yes, needed to be removed, but not nearly 50,000 children. Each year, the rate of children removed increases, but that is because the child protection budgets increase. Nearly 60,000 children are under care or protection orders.

Reduce the child protection budgets and the child removals reduce. This is the solution to the child removal catastrophe. Nearly half the children removed were under five years of age, when their form and content is in most need of their biological parents.

The child protection monolith is washing into society stereotypes of the majority of parents of children removed as “drugged up”, as “drunk”, as “violent” and as “incompetent”. The majority of the parents are none of these.

Some children will need foster care but the majority of children should remain with their parents. The reductionist aspiration that relative or kinship care is the way to go for children removed is not a solution. Relative/kinship care is the best option for some children for a period of time or permanently but, for the majority of children, it is a damaging experience because they should never have been removed from their nuclear families. The majority of children in out-of-home-care are in relative or kinship or foster care but the fact remains they are not with Mum and Dad, nor with their sisters and brothers.

The removal of a child from his or her family is dangerous. It can invalidate the individual and not just disrupt them. The gaols are filling with individuals who as children were removed from their parents. They are the most elevated risk group for suicide. Unless we radically change policies to authentically work with families, instead of tearing them to pieces, the number of children removed and the suicides of these children as adults will increase.

For now, the only way forward is to reduce the child protection budgets and so limit the scope of child protection workers to those genuinely "at-risk".

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos. This article first appeared on The Stringer and is republished with permission.


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