PM - Monday, 29 October , 2007 18:26:00
Reporter: Emma Alberici
EMMA ALBERICI: A Federal Parliamentary Committee last month recommended that children of drug addicts be adopted out. One Liberal member said children were routinely returned to homes where they were at risk because state governments were against adoption.
Another Labor MP who also sat on the committee, said the death of two-year-old Dean Shillingsworth, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase floating in a western Sydney lake, was quote "just another example of a child dying because the state government Department of Community Services is totally unable to see that quite a few of these children need to be adopted out."
But speakers at a conference today rejected that philosophy.
The 2007 Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies Conference was told that the goal of any intervention should be about helping parents better manage their children's behaviour and helping them connect with extended family members.
Professor Sharon Dawe is the Director of the Griffith Psychological Health Research Centre at Griffith University. She presented at the conference and I spoke to her a short time ago.
I began by putting the parliamentary committee's proposal to her that for drug addicted parents with children under five years of age the default action should be to adopt those children out:
SHARON DAWE: It seems to be both practically an untenable suggestion and in terms of everything that we know about child development and parenting, a less than useful proposition.
I would not support it.
EMMA ALBERICI: But repeated studies have shown, have they not, that these children are at risk of serious abuse and neglect and even death?
SHARON DAWE: Many studies have highlighted that children raised in multi-problem families whether that be with, due to mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse or all of the above, have very poor outcomes. That is absolutely true. We also have, however, growing evidence that providing intensive family based interventions for multi-problem families is associated with a substantial reduction in child abuse potential.
EMMA ALBERICI: But that's not happening in any Australian state at the moment?
SHARON DAWE: We have some extremely good work happening across the sector in Australia but you know it is being done in a patchy kind of manner and it's being done on a shoestring budget.
EMMA ALBERICI: So there is a fundamental problem at the state level, the state government level?
SHARON DAWE: I think there is a fundamental problem at state and national government level. The first problem is that there has not been sufficient recognition of the importance of working with families and children where there is substance misuse problems. I think there is also problems that substance misuse has been kind of targetted as the defining characteristic of multi-problem families and in fact it is very often isn't.
When you've got a family with parental substance misuse, there is often domestic violence, there is often social disadvantage, there is often mental health problems. There is often literacy and numeracy problems in the children so it is not really just about 'oh, let's identify family, mum's got a drug problem, we'll take the children away'. It's actually stepping back and saying, 'this is a family with lots of complex needs'.
EMMA ALBERICI: Do you advocate that at some point, children should be taken away?
SHARON DAWE: Yes, I think there is always going to be a situation when your family focused intensive intervention has failed to improve family functioning sufficiently that children should be considered to be better placed elsewhere. That is certainly true, but that shouldn't certainly not be the first line of attack.
EMMA ALBERICI: So how many chances should they have before they forfeit the right to be parents?
SHARON DAWE: I don't know that anybody is going to be able to come up with a figure on that. Like you get three hits and you're out. I think what you need to do is to look very carefully at the family circumstances and make very clear objectives for the family.
Often families in my experience, anywhere that I've worked with, have been identified as having significant concerns by child protection services and they're told to go and improve their parenting.
Now, that can mean many things to many people. What I would propose is that what we need to do is work with families more intensively and say what we want you to do this week is get your seven-year-old to school each day with breakfast and then want to do next week is etc etc.
So you provide families with structured goals that you want them to achieve and that you work to support them in achieving those goals.
EMMA ALBERICI: Federal Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop says the whole system currently is skewed to the interests of drug-addicted parents and not to their children where it should be.
SHARON DAWE: I think what we have at the moment in Australia is a growing recognition of the importance of treating the family, not just an individual with a substance misuse problem. I think this is something that has occurred in the context of a growing realisation that we're not going to find a cure for substance abuse and that in fact, it's a problem that is grounded in a lot of social issues.
What we need is increasing government funding for the development of effective family based intervention.
EMMA ALBERICI: Professor Dawe, thank you very much.
SHARON DAWE: You're welcome.