by Michael Hawton, MAPS
According to the recent release of Unicef’s Children's Report, the number of children entering and remaining in out-of-home care has more than doubled. The report also stated that one in six Australian children are living in poverty, that Australia is one of the few developed countries that has not conducted a national prevalence study of child abuse and neglect, it condemned our youth justice facilities and generally stated that Australia is failing its children.
Tony Stuart, the chief executive of Unicef Australia, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, LGBTIQ children, asylum seeker and refugee children, children living in regional and remote areas and children in out-of-home care were being failed. It is shocking to conceive for many that suicide is the leading cause of death for young people. In the report, one child from the ACT stated: “My count of how many people I’ve lost to suicide is up to seven … They were aged around 15 and 16.”
Unicef’s report made 200 recommendations, including calling on the government to fund a national independent peak advisory body of young people to influence decisions made for them. “People sitting at their desks making decisions about our lives and they have never once, I’m assuming, set foot inside a residential care home or a foster care house, spent a week there every day for eight hours,” one child said. “Live it. I dare you.”
Recently, the Tasmanian, South Australian and Victorian governments have made a commitment to extend the age that children leave out-of-home care from 18 to 21 years of age, with the hope of reducing the ever-increasing number of homeless youth, but other states and territories are yet to follow.
When it comes to children in out of care, I believe better support and measurable, consistent goals for parents to improve and thereby retain the care of their children is a priority. After all, despite what some people might think, most of these parents love their children and they are motivated to do what they can to improve. Unless the child is in a dangerous situation, is dealing with a personality disorder or severe drugs and alcohol issues, it is far better that parents retain care of their children.
In my capacity as a psychologist in the child protection area where I have written hundreds of reports used in the family and children’s courts which help the court decide whether to restore children to their parents’ care or to make a longer-term fostering arrangement, I have at times been surprised at the variable quality of assessments undertaken at the beginning of the process, but which have nonetheless resulted in the initial removal of children from a parents’ care.
By the time these same parents attend interviews with someone like me, quite late in the process and just prior to a court case, it is not unusual for parents to tell me that they didn’t fully understand why their children were removed or they say that ‘the goalposts were shifted’ while they were attempting to address what they thought they had to do to see their children restored to them. On reviewing some of the files, it was not clear to me what they were meant to do either - and why they were being asked to undertake certain steps.
It’s important to note that once children are removed from their parents’ care only a minority end up being returned to their parents*. So, it is imperative that the system gets its initial decision right if it is to place children into out of home care.
The various Australian and New Zealand child protection acts focus on much the same things: a child’s best interests are paramount. Every effort must be made to rehabilitate the parent/s, before more serious steps are taken such as removing a child from a parent’s care. The thinking goes that a child is better off, in the longer-term, to remain with their parents providing that parent’s capacity is ‘good enough’.
I think one of the problems in the Australian and New Zealand child protection systems is that specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) goal-setting is done infrequently, if at all.
As in the corporate world which for decades has used SMART goals for professional development and for organisational change, using smart goal setting with parents in the child protection system would provide more clarity for parents. In fact, it would make the child protection case worker’s job easier, because it would allow them to re-assess parenting capacity improvements against some clear markers. Lack of clarity has often led to confusion and poor decision-making. Parents need to know exactly what they need to do and to be given clear reasons ‘why’ they need to take the steps outlined by authorities. Total transparency is needed so that procedural justice is followed. Setting smart goals holds both sides accountable.
In the past two decades, the number of children in out of home care has doubled. Further, for those children in the first year of leaving care, 35% are homeless, only 35% complete year 12, 29% are unemployed, 46% of males are involved in the youth justice system, and 70% are dependent on Centrelink for some form of income support,” the report found.
If Australia is ‘failing it’s children’, it is imperative that, as individual adults and as a nation, we support improved parenting. As the Unicef Children Report findings advised, we must provide capacity to listen to our must vulnerable young people to enable better decision making that impact on their lives. Let’s hope the Australian Government is listening on this one and that a peak advisory body of young people can be the much-needed voice for positive change.
Michael Hawton is a psychologist with 30 years’ experience and an expert witness in both The NSW Children’s Court and in The Family Court of Australia.
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