The AMA has been widely applauded for supporting calls to allow baby Asha to stay in Australia. However, what this latest episode in the highly-politicised debate about refugee children in detention shows is how some kinds of child abuse and its consequences are considered more important than other kinds of child abuse. The plight of refugee children receives the bulk of political attention from those in Australia who consider themselves humane and socially progressive, while comparatively little attention is given to the welfare of children who suffer abuse here.
What this dichotomy reflects is how comfortable or uncomfortable people are in talking about different problems and solutions for offshore child abuse, compared to domestic child abuse – possibly due to how this make people feel about themselves, and based on how politically fashionable discussing some kinds of child abuse is compared to different, politically unfashionable varieties of child maltreatment.
Hence the refugee lobby has often been accused of using children in detention as political pawns to promote quasi-open borders immigration policies. I have no doubt that refugee advocates hold sincere and well-founded concerns for the welfare of children detained in what they call ‘mental illness factories’ on Nauru and Manus Island.
But there is also a large group of children in Australia, numbering in the tens of thousands, who suffer from mental illnesses including depression, hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual deviance, conduct disorder, aggression, delinquency, and poor peer relationships and social functioning.
These children are among the more than 43,000 children who live in state-funded foster care in Australia. Virtually all children who live in care have some level of so-called ‘high needs’, and suffer from a complex mix of these behavioural, emotional, health, social, educational and other psychological problems.
The cause of these children’s mental illness and other problems is that they have been severely damaged by Australia’s flawed child protection policies. Because state and territory child welfare authorities over-emphasise ‘family preservation’ at almost all costs, these children have been exposed to prolonged and highly-damaging abuse and neglect by dysfunctional parents. When they have finally been removed as a last resort, many of these children have been further damaged by highly unstable foster care and repeat breakdowns of family reunifications.
Many of these children could have — and should have — been protected from the profound harm they have suffered in and out of care, had they been removed earlier and permanently from their families, and been adopted by a safe and stable family. Yet adoption is almost non-existent in Australia because it is considered a taboo and socially unacceptable practice. Hence there were only 89 children adopted from care nationally last year.
While there are loud and persistent cries to free kids from detention, there is no campaign by human rights activists to free kids from this destructive cycle of maltreatment and instability. The explanation for this is cultural. Human nature means that most people tend to prefer to take so-called brave stands on popular issues rather than unpopular ones. Hence, many people prefer to support only those causes the prevailing culture rewards them for endorsing, based on how these choices affect their social standing and self-perception.
If you support closing detention ‘camps’, you will be lauded a social justice warrior. If you support adoption, however, you will find yourself marginalised as a conservative throwback to the era of forced adoption and the stolen generation. Hence adoption is not well supported among members of the political class especially, due to status anxiety — the fear that by endorsing adoption they will forfeit any claim to being considered socially progressive. Hence in the public debate, or lack thereof, about child protection policy, what is best for adults takes priority over what is best for the victims of child abuse.
The Australian of the Year, General David Morrison won great acclaim from those who consider themselves socially aware by promising to take up the fight against the racial and gender discrimination that he claims are the greatest barriers to equality in Australia. Imagine, though, how different the reaction might have been had Morrison’s equality agenda highlighted the need for more adoptions to tackle the national child abuse problems that are a major cause of the gross and life-long social inequalities that keep child abuse victims on the bottom rungs of society.
Australian child welfare laws state that the best interests of children are paramount. Yet family preservation-focused practices make a lie of these laws, and adoption remains a largely taboo political subject because this so-called ‘conservative’ cause does not suit the interests of status-conscious adults. For so long as the needs of adults come first, and the needs of kids come last, thousands of Australian children will continue to be churned through the mental illness factories that are child protection systems in this country.
Dr Jeremy Sammut is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Madness of Australian Child Protection: Why Adoption Will Rescue Australia’s Underclass Children, (Connor Court).
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