Australia: Inquiry Sparks Push to Fix Child Protection

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Despite a 2007 federal intervention to protect children, "a tsunami of need" has swallowed Australia's Northern Territory, a new report says

On Oct. 26, Kon Vatskalis, the Northern Territory minister for health and families, launched Children's Week in the northern Australian city of Darwin. "The theme for this year's Children's Week is 'Listen Carefully to the Voices of Children,'" he stated in a press release. "There certainly hasn't been a more important time to listen to the voices of our children."

Children in the Northern Territory, particularly indigenous Australian children, haven't exactly had the government's ear lately. Just eight days before Vatskalis' announcement, yet another scathing report was detailing the colossal inadequacies of the territory's child-protection system.

The report was commissioned by Paul Henderson, the chief minister of the Northern Territory, in response to the death of 12-year-old girl who died from a treatable bone infection in 2007, and a 7-week-old boy who starved to death after being left in the backseat of a car in 2005. The 11-month inquiry found that despite the efforts of a 2007 federal intervention to curb alcoholism and ensure that children were fed and looked after, "a tsunami of need" had swallowed the territory. The report found that over 1,000 notified cases of children at risk were not getting support from child-protection authorities, and that more than 70% of the overall neglect cases were related to indigenous Australian children. Cases of child abuse doubled in the past three years, and the amount of children entering foster care, another overtaxed system, jumped from 400 to 600.

Based on its field work in 16 Aboriginal communities, the committee — which included a former Northern Territory children's commissioner, the CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) and a pediatrician — made 147 recommendations aimed at improving the child-protection systems currently in place. One of the recommendations urges communities and other regulatory systems to stop solely relying on the Department of Health and Families for child protection. "I don't think any of the research prepared us for what we actually saw," says Muriel Bamblett, the CEO of VACCA, who is herself of Aboriginal descent. "We saw lots of overcrowding. We saw evidence of children not going to school, and schools struggling to make children go to school. We had grandparents approach us who were alarmed that their grandkids were already embarking on this pathway lined with drugs, alcohol and gambling."

In the Northern Territory, drugs and alcohol (or "gunga" and grog, as they are often called there) are chronic setbacks. In 2007, in a response to an earlier report commissioned by the Northern Territory government that chronicled the high incidences of child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, Canberra implemented a $2 billion intervention policy that increased the presence of police officers in towns, banned alcohol from isolated communities and quarantined all individuals' welfare payments so that a portion had to be spent on food purchases for children. Welfare payments are also withheld from parents whose children don't attend school. Amnesty International and others have called the measures racist, but Bamblett says that the increased presence of law-enforcement agencies has made communities safer.

But other aspects of the intervention, particularly alcohol bans, are simply not working. "Now, after [welfare] payday, a lot of parents go missing," says Bamblett. "You can't have purely punitive measures in place. Parents have to take ownership of their alcohol problems. They have to get treatment." Bamblett also thinks that diverting money from the welfare checks of parents with school-age children to a school-meals program is not effective in the long term. "It's great that children are getting fed," says Bamblett, "but it takes away from parental responsibilities."

Vatskalis, whose Department of Health and Families was overloaded to the point of collapse, agrees that change is desperately needed. "When I read the report, I just wanted to rip my hair out," he recalls. "It wasn't a matter of fixing our child-protection services. We have to completely rebuild it." Vatskalis says he started to make changes within three hours of reading the report. So far, an additional $130 million in funding has been allocated to his department over the next five years, and he has secured increases in staffing. There will also be a reform to ensure better collaboration between government agencies, nongovernment agencies and Aboriginal groups.

The foster-care network, which the report also found to be deficient, hopes to receive more assistance too. In the report, foster parents were found to not be included in case planning, and payments to carers were poorly managed. "We need the children that require more care to have regular access to psychologists," says Judy Hansen, the treasurer from Foster Care Northern Territory, a volunteer organization of foster parents who provide support for other carers. "Now children are placed anywhere where there is a spot or a niche." Sometimes, as Australian media have reported, children are kept in hospitals until a foster home is found.

Still, Hansen is optimistic about the changes this inquiry might bring. "My husband and I have been [foster parents] since 1972. We have been waiting for this investigation since then," she says. "The fact that changes have been implemented so quickly makes me optimistic. I think the situation will improve."