Tasmanian Times


Letter to the Editor on child protection

What a fabulous National Child Protection Week September 2-9th it was not! And why oh why does it start on Fathers’ Day??

With around 1600 children in out of home care, Tasmania has a higher than average per capita rate. Nothing to celebrate. 

Amid the week’s radio interviews and press we never heard the parent’s side of things unless its real bad. You know, Sunday Telegraph bad. No doubt many parents have tried their local newspaper. There’s nothing popular about a parent loosing custody of their child. Spare a thought then for the near 3000 parents in Tasmania who’ll go to sleep tonight with their child under someone else’s roof.

No one doubts that the best approach to child abuse and neglect is stopping it before it happens and here is the dilemma that Child Protection Workers face on a daily basis. The work is emotionally tough, poorly funded, ordinarily paid with higher stress related leave and staff turnover higher than the average public servant. Uniquely this department’s cases end when the child turns 18.

Child Protection Workers or Child Safety Officers are they are now more cosmetically known work at the pointy end. Over the past year we’ve seen the parade of striking public servants demanding a bit more consideration for the tough job they do and they probably deserve it. We see them on the parliament house lawns or outside Woodhouse with their union leaders.

 What we never hear is how parents are doing or how they are coping. You’ll see them happy at Maccas or at a playgym for access visits with their less willing foster carer. If you’re really lucky your child will be in kinship care which means they live with a relative and access is a lot easier and informal.

 Several disadvantaged areas of greater Hobart are over represented and increasingly multiple issues of drug use, poverty, domestic violence, abuse, neglect and intergenerational issues. Most parents love their children but unfortunately a small number of adults can’t care for their children adequately, some eventually do and some never will.

 As readers of newspapers and watchers of TV what’s always missing is how these decisions are made and who makes them. Who determines the threshold and the child must be removed? The child protection profession is rather autocratic and opaque in that respect and won’t be having any open days at St. John’s Park anytime soon. It’s an improper science but is reasonably well explained on the NAPCAN website (National Association for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect) who met in Hobart on Wednesday 5th September for a $30 breakfast at the Old Woolstore. Unlike teachers, police, nurses, professional clearance for Child Safety Officers doesn’t exist and it’s high time it should.

 The big problem with Child Protection is in our efforts to make sure children safe there’s a fair degree of pre-judging and risk profiling that goes on. You don’t have to speak to too many lawyers to realize that the Children and Young Person’s Act of 1997 isn’t perfect and still has a Stolen Generation feel about it. It’s entirely possible to loose your children without any abuse or neglect ever occurring. In that respect some innocent parents have children removed but you’d never know. Individual child protection stories are banned from most media outlets. Foreign fruit flies, a Liberal minister or sheep dog contests are more news worthy than any child in out of home care. In the same way that the press never talk about suicide it’s the same for child protection cases.

 The anonymous notification system is not perfect, it’s also a known way of payback. Notifiers are protected and their identity can always remain a secret. For those who have nothing it’s a sure fire way of getting back at your enemy.

 Every adult has a responsibility to report child abuse or neglect however the CYP Act 1997 gives Child Safety Services the power to remove children even when there is a low possibility of abuse or neglect and it may never occur. Rumour, innuendo or hearsay is mentioned in the act. When children are removed parents are unfortunately nobody’s client. The child is the client of the Child Safety Services not the parent. When parents don’t have any support are we creating another social problem? Loosing your children is about as bad as it gets and most parents need a way of dealing with it. Another dilemma for Child Protection Workers is the child going to a better situation than it’s currently in?

 If you are an alcoholic you have AA. If you’re a parent in child protection you ring Lifeline. Child Safety Services also fund an organization called PFAS (Parents and Families Advocacy Service) based at Bridgewater. Run by the Red Cross it’s principally an support organization that advocates for the parents in their often emotionally charged dealings with Child Protection but sadly it doesn’t bring parents together to share their experiences and their grief. There is no organization in Tasmania that brings parents in child protection together. FINTAS used to and there is talk of a resurrection.

 Author and researcher Dave Tobis writes in his 2013 book “From Pariah to Partner, How parents and their allies changed New York City’s Child Welfare System” how the Child Protection system radically changed. Dave worked with an anonymous wealthy benefactor who provided funds for parent groups wanting to heal and come together.

During the 70’s in NYC around 52,000 children were in out of home care. Child Protection organizations were (and mostly still are) composed of social workers. That  soon changed in NYC to include childless parents who’d been through the wringer. 15 years later that number had reduced to 17,000. Parents were trained in parenting, made to feel valued and broke free of self defeating behaviour. These parents changed the behaviour that caused them to lose their kids, they worked with foster care agencies helping other parents struggling with the types of problems they had overcome. 

Unfortunately parents in child protection don’t make the news unless they’ve committed some awful crime and the press makes an example of them by naming and shaming.

 Teresa Hinton of the Social Action Research Centre in Hobart wrote “Parents in Child Protection” 2013 a well researched but chilling account of parents experiences, recommendations and most dramatically verbatim parent statements. It’s hard reading, but illustrates how little mass media is interested in their story and if they were, would it change? Every day we see the orchestrated media events of our politicians but try finding one. Politics is a common topic of conversation. These parents lack inclusion, suffer intolerably often with no promise of reunification or with shifting goal posts that make drugs a more reliable option to make the pain go away.

 Hark back to Hobart Magistrates Court and Child Protection hearings. They are scary places for parents. They are closed courts, arguably for the protection of the child being identified but it also allows the department to paint a picture of the parents as well as a raft of allegations and totally devoid of public scrutiny and maybe that should change.

 By nature the court system is adversarial, stuffy and slow with few child protection cases ever making it to hearing. Often a settlement occurs beforehand. Just a few decades ago a magistrate decided that as no one is actually on trial the ‘rules of evidence don’t actually apply’. What this means is the magistrate makes a decision on the balance of probabilities.

Whereas a criminal matter requires evidence to prove a case this isn’t required when the hearing is just an enquiry into the best interests of a child and how they should be best cared for.

For the disadvantaged this is no place to self represent unless you know what you’re doing and not going to fall apart emotionally. Legal Aid is rarely an option and good lawyers from a reputable firm are going to cost you upwards of $25,000..

 In child protection cases there are three lawyers. One represents the department, another for the parents and one called the children’s representative who represents the best interests of the child.

 For parents they’re at the mercy of the department and any politicians office you care to visit in Tasmania will tell you of the myriad of stories they hear from parents who have serious misgivings about their child protection experience. Most politicians will tell you they don’t totally understand how child protection works and they’re the ones creating legislation. Unless you’re involved as a parent or a worker you may not ever know such a department exists.

 For parents, complaints to the minister, commissioner for children, ombudsman and integrity commission are unlikely to change a parents situation. It’s all about the child. It’s crucial that parents have an experienced lawyer who knows child protection well.

There is disquiet and talk of change on the horizon about how child protection cases are finalized. For the reasons mentioned above courts are scary and confronting for parents. Some suggest an egalitarian approach consisting of a panel of all concerned are better positioned to decide what’s best for the child than a panel of lawyers in front of a magistrate.

 Holding his grandson Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s last words were “The critical thing is with politics it’s not about the politicians (That’s why this week has been so dispiriting) it appears to be (you know) vengeance, personal ambition, factional feuding, however you want to describe it, it hasn’t had anything to do with 25 million Australians, and (you know) the Australians we should be focussed on above all else are these little ones(points to grandchild), it is the next generation, that we are working for here in this place and we have achieved a great deal.

 With the parting of the Liberal seas it’s inevitable that the voting public will be second guessing their federal representatives in May 2019. Although there will be a move to the far right of politics there’s little doubt that children’s issues and our future will receive heightened focus.

Prof Maria Harries wrote a redesign of the Tasmania’s child protection system and strongly suggested that ‘Parents in Child Protection’ need a spokesman.

Despite my best efforts with all media outlets in Hobart no-one hears the voice of ‘Parents in Child Protection’. 

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