The Guardian • Issue #2013

The systemic failure of child protection services

Photo: Nenad Stojkovic – (CC BY 2.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, racial victimisation, child abuse, and suicide, involving minors.

An investigation conducted by the ABC has found that a staggering number of children placed under state protection are subjected to further abuse in the homes they are relocated to. More than 700 people from across the country have come forward as part of the investigation to speak about the failings of the child protection service – from the children who have gone through the system, to current and former government care workers, to school principals.

The investigation includes harrowing first-hand accounts from the victims, abused not only by the “carers” assigned by the government but some by government workers themselves. There is no shortage of stories of sexual abuse, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts, and racial abuse from survivors of the system. Former and current employees of child protection services have also spoken out about how their concerns were dismissed by senior workers. A current principal of a school in Western Australia revealed that, despite receiving reports from staff that over two-thirds of students had been abused in some way, the police and Department of Communities had failed to effectively act on them, even after repeated follow-ups.

This occurs despite the vetting process government departments put in place for potential carers. By the time the relevant department of child protection services has even acted on any reports, typically children have already been subjected to prolonged periods of abuse. To further compound the issue, protection services vary between the states and territories due to differences in funding and whether it’s a rural or metropolitan area.

In Tasmania, the state’s child sexual abuse commission of inquiry has found that their child protection service has repeatedly left teenagers at risk of homelessness to live in unsafe environments. Over-represented in this demographic are Indigenous teens. This is consistent with the ABC’s findings that Indigenous children across the country are ten times more likely to be removed from their families. While department policy states that Indigenous children should be assigned to Indigenous carers this isn’t always possible which means children can be left with care workers isolated from their communities.

Despite repeated attempts at various reforms, the problem is fundamentally a systemic one. Over 200 current and former child protection workers have stated that they risk, or have risked, being “performance managed” out of departments whenever they challenge how a child’s case has been managed. They allege that management is more concerned with manipulating statistics and cutting corners than actually protecting children. There is a general consensus that nothing short of a complete dismantling and reconstruction of the system is necessary to confront how deeply ingrained the problem is.

However, even if the departments for child protection were completely restructured this would only address part of the issue. As the various witnesses from this investigation attest, this problem is not simply the result of some government mismanagement but is reflective of the deeper socio-economic attitudes and divisions around class, race, and gender, within society at large.

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