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The Week that Was.

As Child Protection Week has now ended for 2011, it’s timely to consider the question, “Are the systems and services designed to protect our children improving?”

The answer is a mixed one – many things have improved, whilst others have a long way to go before, as a community, we can feel confident that our children are being adequately protected.

If we look back in time, some major milestones can be seen to have been achieved.  Due to an absence of any laws designed to protect children, the first action ever taken through a court to protect a child took place in Britain in the early nineteenth century under laws governing the protection of animals.  It seems that the rights and need of animals to be protected was understood before anyone realised that children also needed protection.

Looking back to the early parts of the 20th century, Queensland children who were viewed as “neglected and destitute” were often housed in hulks moored at wharfs at Lytton in Brisbane or sent to properties to work as unpaid farm hands.  This was followed by the period of large orphanages and farm homes where, as vividly recalled during last week’s “Remembrance Ceremony for Forgotten Australians”, many children suffered severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse.   A “stolen generation” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and child migrants and other vulnerable children endured similar atrocities at the hands of those who were charged with the responsibilities for their care.

If we compare the child protection system today with those earlier times, we can see that great gains have been made.  This is largely attributable to people such as those who were the recipients of this year’s Child Protection Awards – Bruce and Denise Morcombe who, despite enduring the most horrendous experiences imaginable for a parent, continue to promote ways in which children can be kept safe from those who threaten their lives and innocence, Hetty Johnson and Bravehearts who have campaigned tirelessly for many years in raising public awareness about the vulnerability of children to sexual abuse by family members and others who should be those who are the most close and protective of them, Corelle Davies from Queensland Health who has exemplified the collaborative effort needed across government departments in ensuring the protection of children, Legal Aid Queensland Child Protection Unit and Advocate in promoting the legal rights and protections that should be afforded to all young people, the Mount Isa Substance Misuse Action Group that has provided a model for partnerships between a Police and Citizens Youth Club and local community organisations in arriving at innovative solutions to local community needs and Jill Wesche who represents the often unsung efforts of volunteers who selflessly contribute their time and efforts to protecting children.

Whilst we celebrate the achievements of these people and the improvements that they and many others have brought to the child protection system, it is important to note that we still have a long way to go.  The increasing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children within the child protection system says that not enough is being done to adequately address the impact of social and economic disadvantage that continues to be experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and the longstanding impact and trauma of the Stolen Generations.  The increasing rates of notifications of children being abused or neglected and numbers of children entering care that has occurred over recent years says that families are struggling.

The tragic murder of Brisbane school girl, Sidonie Thompson and the apparent suicide by her mother says that the protection of children holds no bounds in relation to the culture or socioeconomic background of children.

More than ever, the child protection system is in need of highly experienced, suitably qualified and professionally supervised practitioners able to properly assess and make well-informed decisions about the needs of families and their children.  It is in this area however that the child protection system is struggling.   At a time when they are most needed, well-trained, experienced and professionally qualified Social Workers are not there in the numbers required to ensure high quality services.

Government expenditure on child protection services has dramatically increased in the past decade, spurred on by findings of the 1998-1999 Forde Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Institutional Care and the 2004 Crime and Misconduct Commission’s Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Foster Care.  An increase in the funding provided to the right programs and services is only a part of the answer however.

Child protection is a “people-driven” system.  It now needs to more actively recruit, support and sustain the involvement of properly qualified Social Workers along with valuing the contributions to be made by other professional and para-professional groups, foster carers and volunteers.  These are the people in whom the public needs to have confidence that they are well-equipped and able to deal with the complexities of child protection.  In turn, these are the people who will be seeking, and are deserving of, the support of the public in exercising the onerous responsibilities of their jobs.

Lindsay Wegener – Executive Director, PeakCare

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