Question: How many children die of abuse and neglect each year in Australia?
Answer: We do not really know.
In May, Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of the manslaughter of her first child and the murder of her other three children. Newspaper headlines such as "Guilty: The Mother Who Killed her Four Babies" (The Age) expressed a sense of disbelief and horror at the crimes.
Yet there have been few headlines questioning the failures in the health and welfare systems that allowed a parent to kill repeatedly over so many years. Caleb, aged 19 days, died in 1989; Patrick, eight months, died in 1991; Sarah, 11 months, died in 1993 and Laura, 19 months, died in 1999 - almost exactly ten years after Caleb's death.
That so many deaths remained undetected tells us that child abuse is something most people would rather not see - as our community attitude research has demonstrated. Perhaps this is why it is only through media pressure that any change in the practices and policies of the Victorian Department of Human Services can be achieved.
Victoria appears to be heading for yet another child-protection "crisis". All the signs are there and the pattern rarely varies. There are increasingly vociferous complaints from agencies that child protection is worse then ever. Child-protection staff are expected to respond to unmanageable workloads. There are ministerial denials. Reports are suppressed or delayed and then leaked. Gradually the media becomes interested. Government panic ensues. Something is done, whether it is well-judged or not.
There is good reason for the government to panic. In 2001-02, 62 per cent of children reported to child-protection agencies had been reported before (in 1993-94, the figure was 36 per cent). It gets worse. Another six per cent were children who had a sibling previously reported. The increased workload that the department so often complains about is apparently largely made up of children being reported again. And again. And again.
Many problems in the system are plain to see - lack of accountability; refusal to appoint a children's commissioner; lack of co-ordination (even in the department itself); lack of focus on children's needs; the failure to assist young people when they leave care; low morale of the workforce; ineffective legislation and the lack of political will to address the problems.
Problem: even extensive bruising may not count as abuse. Example: the case of a young child badly bruised by her father was not treated as "substantiated" abuse. Why? The mother undertook to protect the child. The mother was herself beaten by her partner. She could not protect herself but was expected to protect her child.
Problem: the department does not speak the same language as the rest of the community. The abuse above was not "substantiated" even though there were bruises for all to see. Example: the department talks of "managing concerns" rather than responding to children, of "diversionary pathways", "throughput", "demand reduction" and so on. The rest of the community, when forced to confront abuse, tends to think in terms of the care and protection an abused child needs.
Problem: the community perception is that it is extremely difficult to get the department to do anything at all. Example: a general practitioner tried to refer a girl she suspected was being sexually abused. The department refused to accept the referral because the GP could not state whether the child was spending most of her time with one part of the family in one region or another part of the family in another region. The GP eventually made the referral directly to the minister's office after hours of obfuscation.
Problem: parents' rights to "another chance" take precedence over children's rights to protection. Example: departmental documents acknowledge that many children suffer repeated failed attempts at returning to their families before permanent care is even considered. Adoption is out of the question and foster care is in turmoil. A third of children placed in care in 1997-98 had four or more placements in the ensuing five years.
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