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Time to end silence on child abuse

By Jeremy Sammut - posted Friday, 18 September 2009

The focus of National Child Protection Week should be on making child protection authorities accountable for failing to protect the most vulnerable children, argues Jeremy Sammut.

Research by the Australian Childhood Foundation has revealed that though a quarter of all adults have identified a case of abuse and neglect in the past five years, 1 in 6 people did nothing. They did not even discuss their concern with a professional, let alone make a report to child protection authorities.

The need to “end the silence” prompted the Australian Human Rights Commission to mark National Child Protection Week by circulating an online survey to gauge people’s attitude and response to suspected child maltreatment.


Heightened awareness is clearly essential to educate the community about the shared responsibility for preventing harm to children. However, organisations committed to protecting children’s rights, such as the AHRC, have an even more important role to play as an independent watchdog and advocate for children.

The bigger issue is the need to hold child protection authorities across the country to account for the systemic failure to protect vulnerable children. Improved oversight is also desperately needed to counteract the highly-political process by which child protection policy is formulated.

The sad truth is that virtually nobody lobbies governments to defend the interests of the most abused and neglected children in the community. However, plenty of lobbying occurs in the interests of public sector social workers and the NGO sector.

The reason that child protection regimes throughout Australia are not operating in children’s best interests is that the most vocal and influential lobby groups have a vested interest in promoting family preservation-focused child protection policies. The policies are designed to keep at-risk children with dysfunctional families so that taxpayer funded support services can be provided.

This sorry state of affairs was amply demonstrated by the New South Wales Government’s response to Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into the child protection system. Millions of dollars in extra funding has been earmarked for early-intervention and other parental support and family preservations programs, which will be run by the Department of Community Services (DoCS) in conjunction with NGO groups.

This policy defies rational analysis of the most serious problems in the child protection system. The Wood Report established that almost half of the 300,000 reports received by DoCS each year concern a relatively small hard core of approximately 7,500 repeatedly reported families.


The reason the same families are re-reported 10 and 20 times is that in most of these cases children are not even seen by a DoCS caseworker to ascertain their welfare, despite mandatory reporters (teachers, nurses, doctors, police) raising serious concerns for their wellbeing. Wood established that only 13 per cent of reports are followed up with an investigation that includes a home visit.

These shameful statistics reflect the extent to which the family preservation-focused approach to child protection has marginalised traditional child protection work. Child removal has become a last and reluctant resort, and been displaced by keeping families intact and providing support services that attempt to address parents’ complex problems such as domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

This means that while many at-risk kids aren’t receiving detailed investigations to ensure their safety, an army of social workers are out there trying to counsel away the often entrenched dysfunctional behaviour of an underclass of bad parents.

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About the Author

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. Jeremy has a PhD in history. His current research for the CIS focuses on ageing, new technology, and the sustainability of Medicare. Future research for the health programme will examine the role of preventative care in the health system and the management of public hospitals. His paper, A Streak of Hypocrisy: Reactions to the Global Financial Crisis and Generational Debt (PDF 494KB), was released by the CIS in December 2008. He is author of the report Fatally Flawed: the child protection crisis in Australia (PDF 341KB) published by the CIS in June 2009.

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