10 Blunders in Child Welfare


The ten worst blunders in child welfare in  Australia  since 1788. COUNT DOWN TO NUMBER 1

It has been hard deciding which of all the many mistakes of the past – and those which continue to be made – warrants the title “the worst”. But here it is.

BLUNDER # 1: Having inflicted significant damage on children in their ‘care, authorities pushed them out with unseemly haste, and failed to see that they needed to put right the damage done and restore the connections to family and community.

After traumatising the children in their ‘care’, welfare authorities turfed them out as soon as they could and promptly washed their hands of all further responsibility.

The authorities have never felt the responsibility that a ‘normal’ parent would feel for their child moving towards independent adulthood. Most ‘normal’ families prepare their young for leaving home and provide a safety net to which young people can return over a considerable period of time after they leave.

Most young people from intact families still live at home till their early 20s, and their parents continue to give them practical, emotional and financial advice and support years after they leave home.

Although some young adults are anxious to leave home as soon as they can, the process usually involves a long transition period during which young adults leave and return home again as needs arise.

By contrast, many a ward of the State will tell you how, as soon as they reached school leaving age, they were sent on their way with a change of clothes, a paper bag or a flimsy brown suitcase, some small change and, if they were lucky, a temporary boarding address and a job. A good parent would never dream of dumping their child in that manner.

Some ‘care’ leavers vividly recall being told in harsh language not to come back…or the tongue lashing from a staff member about how they expected them to be soon in gaol…or working on the streets. There would be no safety net if things went wrong – as they often did.

The vast majority of ‘care’ leavers were poorly educated and unskilled. Many were psychologically traumatised, angry and confused, emotionally vulnerable and ill-prepared for independent living – with no idea about handling money, how to use public transport, how to relate to people of the opposite sex. Some had no experience whatsoever of how a regular family operates.

Many had been brutalised – physically, sexually and emotionally – while in ‘care’ and began life in an unwelcoming adult world as adolescents with a massive chip on their shoulder and a sense of shame about their background. Those who had been sexually abused often felt that they would have to carry their dirty secret with them for the rest of their lives. And many did keep it a secret for decades – and suffered even more for that.

Many did not know if they had family members who were still alive, or if they were, how they might meet up with them.

The Senate Inquiry (2004) reported on health issues:

Evidence was received of general physical, psychological and dental health problems through to severe mental health issues of depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The consequences of lifestyle for many since leaving care such as drug and alcohol addictions, homelessness, unemployment, unsafe sex practices and other destructive behaviours have also had a damaging impact on their health. For some, they carry the legacy of injuries suffered through the abuse they received as a child (6.20).

A recent study by Philip Mendes and others confirms what we know from an abundance of anecdotal evidence that young people in, or leaving, care are disproportionately involved in the youth justice system. And subsequently, having got off to a very bad start, are then caught in a web of unemployment, homelessness and adult prisons. Read more here and here.

What should be expected? A Leaving Care Guarantee

In a nutshell, before leaving ‘care’, all young people should be given every opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills and resources needed to thrive and survive in the community.

All ‘care’ givers should be obliged to provide a Leaving Care Guarantee under which every young person leaving ‘care’ can expect:

  • Support comparable to that given to children who are raised in regular families including the families of child welfare authorities;
  • Support in essential matters such as employment, housing, health and education/training should be available up to at least the age of 25;
  • If things don’t go well in the years after leaving ‘care’ there will be a system in place to lend a helping hand for as long as it is needed;
  • A plan for connecting with kin including access to personal and family records; and, for those who are not able to return to their own family, supported access to community resources who will lend them a kindly hand while they become re-established in the community.

But many ‘care’ leavers need more compensation

Not only should the state provide the care that a good parent would provide for their own offspring leaving home, but it should also try to compensate abused and neglected children for the disadvantages produced by their traumatic ‘care’ experiences.

The state should also actively compensate abused and neglected children for the enduring effects and ongoing disadvantages produced by their traumatic care experiences.

The state and the agencies that held the children are morally bound to assist them to the greatest extent possible. This would include at least the following:

  • Free access to counselling and psychological care for survivors of childhood abuse on a life-long basis
  • Expedited access to the existing health and mental health care system
  • Helping them through access to personal and family records to understand their childhood in ‘care’ and to connect, wherever possible, to their family.

Redressing past wrongs: restorative justice

When introducing a redress scheme for ‘care’ leavers in Tasmania, the then Premier, Jim Bacon, commented:

We cannot change the events of the past but we can demonstrate that we are genuinely sorry and that we are willing to help these people move forwards.

No amount of money will compensate for their abuse as children, but lump sum payments – or ongoing monetary assistance – to survivors of abuse must be paid

  • to assist them to recover from the criminal abuse;
  • as a symbolic expression of recognition of the enormity of the crime;
  • as an expression of the community’s sympathy and condolence for the significant adverse effects experienced or suffered by survivors; and
  • to allow survivors to pass the remainder of their years with some degree of physical and mental comfort and to provide their dependants with material benefits as a form of compensation for the difficulties these dependants underwent as a result of the abuse suffered by their parents.

In the light of the failures of the ad hoc redress schemes provided by some States and some churches in the past, a national redress scheme funded by churches, charities and government but administered by an independent statutory authority is required.

Furthermore, those who were abused in ‘care’ should expect to have their allegations referred to police where the alleged perpetrator may still be alive. Prosecutions are still too rare.

In exercising their rights to take civil action against those responsible, legal impediments such as time limitations, impossible requirements to provide documentary accounts and corroborative evidence (in a one-on-one abuse situation) should be eliminated.




BLUNDER # 2: Authorities failed to supervise and make carers accountable, failed to hear the voices of the children, and were blind to a massive betrayal of trust of vulnerable children Continue reading 10 Blunders in Child Welfare

Indefinite Detention of Asylum Seekers Not Lawful

After a long period of ambivalent rulings, the Australian High Court on Thursday (11 December 2014) finally defined the limits of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

In  recent years, many of us in Australia have been disturbed by what seemed to be a routinised indefinite detention of thousands of refugees, including children.

“Since September 2013, the average time spent in detention facilities in Australia has risen from 100 to 350 days, and there are currently nearly 4,000 asylum seekers in detention facilities. These numbers don’t include asylum seekers living in detention in the community”  (Guardian Australia 12/9/14).

Thursday’s ruling establishes that governments do not have the power to detain asylum seekers without a legal process of determining “at any time and from time to time” whether the duration of that detention is lawful (para 29).

The lawfulness of such detention, therefore,  must be determined and enforced by the courts and, ultimately, by the High Court.

On the surface, this seems to be a landmark affirmation of human rights and the rule of law. But the Abbott government is notoriously slippery – and I for one would not be surprised if they find a way around this ruling.

Read more commentary here.

And the judgment here.