It takes more than money to protect our children
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- Funds to be cut from bodies that fail to report child abuse
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Lack of prevention means we're creating more abusers.
By Bernadette McMenamin
September 20, 2009 / The Age
IT'S BEEN a bad week for the Victorian Government but it deserves it for failing our children. The 30-year incest case involving a woman allegedly kept as a sex slave in country Victoria came to light a day after an Ombudsman's report revealed that Victoria's child protection system was in crisis.
One of the worst and most inexcusable findings was that Department of Human Services workers were placing vulnerable children in the care of convicted child sex offenders without conducting police checks. In one case, when the department was alerted to the fact two boys were in the care of a convicted child sex offender, it took 17 days for its response team to follow up.
Another fact is that only about 5 per cent of child sex offenders have convictions. Therefore the vast majority of people who may harm our children are living in the community.
The Ombudsman's report also found there was inadequate supervision and workloads were excessive. It used the example of a case worker who had a list of 64 children waiting for a case worker. The Ombudsman called for immediate action and was seriously concerned by the fact the department could not provide adequate care and protection to abused and vulnerable children.
In the wake of the incest case and the Ombudsman's report, the Victorian Government found $77.2 million for the child protection system, promising 200 new child protection workers. Extra money is good and is necessary. However, for child protection workers such as myself who have been in this field about 25 years, this is seen as a damage-control exercise that is putting good money into a bad system.
There is no doubt that more staff are needed to meet the tide of children who are being removed from abusive homes. But where will we find the extra staff? Social work courses pay scant attention to child protection.
One of the biggest problems of the child protection system is that there is not enough suitably skilled staff. Many frontline workers are new graduates with little experience. There is also a lack of skilled supervision by people who understand the risks to children in complex families.
The system is reactive rather than proactive and there is a basic problem with a culture that stems right from the minister's office. Extra resources are only part of the solution when the people in charge are making bad decisions.
So what needs to happen? We must focus on primary prevention. However, when I visited the minister in charge of the department and the head of child protection, I was told: "We don't do child abuse prevention." When I told a senior bureaucrat that Child Wise would release a TV advertisement encouraging people to speak up and report more, he said: "We don't need any more disclosures." This only makes small child protection charities such as Child Wise more determined because governments must put significant funds into prevention to reduce an inter-generational, growing epidemic of child abuse.
So what does prevention mean? First, we must educate the community about what child abuse is in all its forms. Everyone should be aware of the indicators of child abuse because children rarely tell anyone they are being abused. It is easier to see physical abuse or neglect but sexual and emotional abuse is harder to spot. However, survivors have told me that there were subtle signs that a teacher, carer, neighbour or parent could have seen if they knew what to look for.
We must provide more funds for maternal health services so workers can identify risks as soon as a baby is born. We also need to identify risks when the mother is pregnant and medical staff should liaise with the department if they have concerns about an expectant parent. Prevention must begin well before a child is born. We must also teach children protective behaviours. They should be taught that they have a right to be safe and that nothing is so awful that they cannot talk about it. Protective-behaviour training teaches children about early warning signs of abuse and asks children to select five people they can speak to if they have concerns.
We need more counsellors in schools, and instead of children continually getting detention for disruptive or bullying behaviour, maybe a trip to the counsellor might reveal that something is wrong.
We must reduce the stigma of asking for help or speaking up. This can happen only through education and providing ideas about who to talk to. It might not be the police or authorities initially; it might be agencies such as Child Wise that have skilled child protection practitioners. We also know most child sex offenders have suffered some form of sexual abuse in childhood. One in four girls and one in seven boys experience sexual abuse.
Without preventing abuse, identifying early signs and dealing with these problems in childhood, we are creating the next generation of child sex offenders. This inter-generational abuse must stop but pouring millions into a child protection system that's in crisis, and failing to focus on prevention, is not the answer.
Bernadette McMenamin AO is the chief executive of Child Wise.