Child Protection: Adjournment Speech, 26 November 2013

The Hon. JAN BARHAM [11.18 p.m.]: On Thursday 21 November 2013 the Minister for Family and Community Services introduced the Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. Like many members of Parliament I will be taking a very detailed look at what the Premier termed “radical” legislation in a press conference last Thursday. I will be consulting with a broad cross-section of stakeholders and talking with parents, grandparents, foster carers and children who have experience with the crisis-driven New South Wales child protection system. Prior to the formal introduction of the legislation a large number of non-government organisations, including Community Legal Centres NSW, Domestic Violence NSW, and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights sent an open letter dated 7 November 2013 to Minister Goward which, in relation to the reforms proposed in the Child Protection Legislative Reform Discussion Paper, stated:

We believe these changes, in large part, take child protection public policy in a direction that is contrary to international best practice which demonstrates the benefits of serious commitment to early intervention, particularly where mothers have experienced domestic violence; or where disability, trauma, social exclusion and poverty are the causes of child protection concerns.

To increase the focus on adoption as a child protection strategy suggests we have not learnt from the past and are set to repeat mistakes that will necessitate another apology in the future.

While this is neither the time nor the place to deal with the bill in detail I will say that some of the tough love rhetoric and dysfunctional family horror stories thrown across media broadsheets in the lead-up to the release of the bill is unfortunate. The Minister’s argument that the legal stability inherent in adoption is enough to improve the life outcomes for children in out-of-home care is simplistic. It ignores the complexity of providing environments in which children and young people who have been subject to abuse and neglect can thrive.

No-one wants a child to experience a revolving door of care placements. While adoption seems like an alluring answer to achieving permanency for children, the jury is still out on whether it is a superior option to foster care that is appropriately managed and supported. I believe we have to start with a much more sophisticated understanding of child protection and adopt a more holistic approach to understanding family resilience, as Justice Wood sagely recommended in his 2008 special commission of inquiry. My private member’s bill, the Children and Young Person (Care and Protection) Amendment (Reporting Requirements) Bill 2013, proposes to establish a more stringent and comprehensive reporting framework for child protection. The aim of the bill is to give all communities, families and stakeholders enough information about what is happening within the child protection system to hold mature and empirically informed dialogue. Without such information we are left with little more than ideology and prejudice to shape our discussion of best-practice child protection.

Open adoption is an alluring and easy solution for armchair commentators who cast dysfunctional families as the architects of their own deep and persistent disadvantage. The parents are identified as the root cause of dysfunction and the solution is placing a child with a financially well-off couple in one of Sydney’s more affluent suburbs. This mentality ignores the longer-term anguish that children are likely to feel as a result of being permanently removed from their biological parents. A much more difficult and undoubtedly long-term vision would be to examine and investigate the root causes of family dysfunction and resilience. What are the urban planning, trade and investment, transport, local government, education and training, housing and health policy decisions that may indirectly or directly affect child safety and family resilience?

The Department of Community Services completed an excellent report in 2009 entitled, “Resilient Communities: Socio-demographic factors associated with lower than expected rates of child protection reporting in small areas in NSW”, which considered local government areas that had lower than expected child protection engagement rates. The report highlighted the importance of service provision to family and community resilience. This State cannot collectively throw up its hands and disown the alarming result in the past financial year, during which 64,470 children and young people were the subject of 104,817 risk of significant harm [ROSH] reports. We must investigate the geographically specific social and economic causes of family dysfunction and child neglect for communities with disproportionately high numbers of risk of significant harm reports and child protection orders.

We must ask: What is the liquor licence or poker machine licence intensity per square kilometre for these regions; how long are the waiting lists for social housing; what is the regional unemployment rate; what is the scale of infrastructure deficit; and how accessible are critical social services, education and training opportunities, moderately priced fresh food and transport? Asking those sorts of questions, transparently reporting the relevant data and then targeting the provision of supports and services toward the identified problems is essential to genuinely addressing the intergenerational cycle of harm that is at the source of our child protection crisis.

Source: Legislative Council Hansard, 26 November 2013

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