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The choice between a bad option or a worse one

By James Boyce - posted Thursday, 12 July 2007

One of the more remarkable aspects of the national debate on child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities is that there seems to be almost no public discussion concerning the most obvious question of all: if the government is not (as they say) going to remove abused children from their communities, what are they going to do with them?

It is clear that waiting until the child health “audit” is complete and new services are in place before action is taken is not an option. It is also clear that if the levels of abuse are a fraction of what the government says they are, then existing child welfare services will soon be overwhelmed.

Cutting welfare benefits does not stop sexual abuse. More police on the streets or doctors in clinics does not protect an abused child. When sexual abuse is exposed, the victim must be immediately provided with a place of safety. The choice is a terrible one but it can not be avoided. Removing Aboriginal children will harm them and their communities. Yet to expose abuse and then do nothing betrays a suffering child twice over.


This reality should have been carefully considered long before intervention commenced. The fact that it has apparently been glossed over is related to the second peculiar aspect of this “national emergency”: the sidelining of the one profession with experience in responding to child abuse.

It is not widely recognised that the professions leading the government’s emergency response teams into the Northern Territory - police and general practitioners - have very little experience in responding to child sexual abuse. The usual practice of these workers when they suspect abuse is to do what the rest of us would - contact the relevant state or territory’s child protection services. Contact or involvement in the case is sometimes sustained by the notifier, but primary responsibility for the problem is passed on.

It is thus very concerning that the public debate about child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities has occurred in the context of denigrating the very women and men (mostly the former) with the skills and experience that are most needed to respond to it.

Seemingly impossible choices, in very different but not necessarily less challenging contexts, are made every day by this much maligned group of professionals. Working in the midst of complex human reality where there is so often no “right” course of action, it has long been easy for the popular press to take pot shots at child protection workers.

In recent years the caricature of social workers has been granted respectability by various political commentators and even promoted to national social policy. Across the racial divide social workers are seen to be the embodiment of a welfare “industry” that is presented as the primary cause of all manner of social problems.

In the poorly planned response to the crisis in the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal community is paying the price for this absurd analysis. If there is to be progress in overcoming poverty and disadvantage in Australia, including in remote Aboriginal communities, the indiscriminate attacks on social workers and those who are doing what they can to help those in need, must cease.


To argue, as some are, that social workers have “had their chance” and failed, because poverty and abuse is still with us, is akin to claiming that police should be removed because crime has increased, or teachers are useless because some kids can’t read or write. Of course welfare policy and practice can be improved. This won’t be achieved by indiscriminately denigrating the workers.

Social workers are inevitably a mixed and flawed bunch of human beings, but there are many extraordinarily committed and wise people within the profession, including in child welfare, whose skills and expertise will be essential to harness in any family or community, Indigenous or non Indigenous, where sexual abuse of children is occurring.

Social workers will be the last group suggesting that the government ask them to participate in the national call up. They are far too aware of their own limitations (no other profession allocates such a large proportion of its training reflecting on these), and sensitive to their own involvement in the tragic history of Aboriginal child removals, to be leading a charge into communities most will readily admit to knowing little about.

But when the visiting doctors and police are confronted with the complexity and sheer mess of human suffering, and face the terrible choice common to child welfare practice, between choosing a bad option or a worse one, I suspect that it will again be social workers they will call on to help.

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About the Author

James Boyce, a Tasmanian historian and writer, is also a professional social worker who once worked in child protection in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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