Policy Monographs

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Fatally Flawed: The Child Protection Crisis in Australia

Jeremy Sammut | PM97 | 25 June 2009


Despite record government spending on child welfare services in this country, the child protection system is in crisis—most markedly in New South Wales. Australian child protection authorities* are failing to fulfil their core responsibility of protecting and rescuing vulnerable children. Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are not being fully investigated, and the ‘Ebonys’ of Australia are falling through the cracks in increasing numbers.

The reason that even the most serious cases of child maltreatment fall through the cracks is said to be the increasing numbers of ‘less serious’ reports of suspected neglect and abuse. These ‘less serious’ reports are supposed to have overloaded the telephone reporting Helplines and overwhelmed child protection authorities who have to assess the reports.

The consensus among policy advisers and makers seems to be in favour of raising the threshold for mandatory reporting to ensure only higher risk reports are referred to child protection authorities. A dual or alternative reporting pathway is also recommended to stream ‘less serious’ from more serious reports. Under these arrangements, the disadvantaged and dysfunctional families that are the subject of so-called ‘lower risk’ reports would be referred to early intervention and family support services.

This flawed take on how best to structure child protection services forms the foundation of the Rudd government’s recently released National Child Protection Framework and the NSW government’s response to the report of the Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into child protection services. This strategy has gained policy traction because it seems calculated to remove bottlenecks in the reporting system and ensure that child protection authorities are better able to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk children in the community. The supporters of a prevention focused approach to child welfare also claim—based on evidence that is weak to the point of being non-existent—that boosting family support services will reduce demand for child protection services by preventing family situations spiralling into crises and serious abuse and neglect.

This paper takes issue with the accepted account and the accompanying policy recommendations on the following grounds:

• Though there has been an enormous increase in reports following the introduction of mandatory reporting, this growth is not concentrated in the ‘less serious’ category as claimed. In fact, the proportion of reports (around two-thirds) requiring further assessment has not changed much in NSW over the last decade.

• Rather than function inefficiently, mandatory reporting has mass screened disadvantaged families and worked spectacularly well. As intended, early concerns about child welfare have been picked up, and the most vulnerable and at-risk children have consistently been identified and re-identified.

• Heightened surveillance means that growth in reports has captured the increased level of parental dysfunction in Australia’s expanding underclass of welfare-dependent families, which are over- represented in child protection activity. These families face multiple chronic, difficult, and often inter-generational problems, including domestic violence, drug abuse, and mental illness.

• Not all ‘less serious’ reports are less serious. The family support focused response downplays the real risk of child maltreatment involved in many ‘less serious’ and ‘lower risk’ reports involving dysfunctional families.

• The reality is that many so-called ‘less serious’ reports concern families who find it difficult to engage with support services and involve children at risk of experiencing the cumulative harm and permanent development problems caused by chronic and ongoing parental neglect and abuse.

• ‘Less serious’ and ‘lower risk’ reports therefore require a full child protection response: a home visit and ‘sighting’ of the child and a complete assessment of the family circumstances, child protection history, and the risk of neglect and abuse.

Blaming the child protection crisis on growth in ‘less serious’ reports is an exercise in minimisation and denial that ignores the real problem. In NSW, 2,100 dysfunctional, repeatedly reported families account for a quarter of the more than 300,000 reports made each year, and 7,500 of those dysfunctional families account for nearly half of all reports.

A high proportion of reports and re-reports are mandatory reports made by doctors, nurses, teachers, and police. These professionals frequently re-report the same dysfunctional families because in too many cases, child protection authorities fail to take the expected statutory action despite report after report of serious child health and welfare concerns. These children are exposed to increased risk of severe harm because of the lack of intervention or intervention that comes too late.

The real cause of the child protection crisis is the large number of ‘hard core’ obviously dysfunctional parents who retain custody of their children because of the lack of an appropriate child protection response in thousands of higher risk, and potentially catastrophic, frequently re-reported cases of abuse and neglect.

The staggering NSW statistics reflect the controversial and questionable family preservationcentred institutional and ideological shifts in child protection. Traditional child protection work has been crowded out by other forms of social work with dysfunctional parents. The challenge for policymakers is to reverse these shifts and protect children by establishing stand-alone child protection departments committed to fully investigating risk of harm notifications, staffed and led by child protection specialists, and overseen by a minister solely responsible for protecting vulnerable children.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He has contributed four papers to the CIS Papers in Health and Ageing Series, including The Coming Crisis of Medicare and The False Promise of GP Super Clinics, and has had opinion articles published in newspapers throughout Australia. Jeremy has a PhD in history from Monash University and has published articles on historical subjects in The Journal of Australian Colonial History, The Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and Quadrant.

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