Like many I have been witness to the sad demise of South Australia’s approach to child protection over more than 2 decades. We have not been alone in our struggle to develop and implement a system that works for children, families and the community at large. However South Australia has, arguably, struggled to find the right responses more than most.
Our current malaise is not a result of ignorance or avoidance of the escalating challenges. We have had no shortage of inquiries, investigations and Royal Commissions during this period. Furthermore, we can’t point to a lack of overall investment in the problem either. Over the past 10 years South Australia has increased its expenditure on Child Protection and Out of Home Care services by over $282m p.a. or a massive 188%. Over the same period the number of children in care has risen by almost 100%. This is double the national rate over the same period. Or to put into an international perspective South Australia’s rate of children in care is more than 50% higher than that of England and Wales. Something is seriously wrong with the way we have approached the protection of children in our State. These are simply unsustainable figures in anyone’s estimations.
It’s also not that we haven’t done anything in response to the countless recommendations made by Commissions and Inquiries. We have tried to shake up our intake and assessment systems, instigated increasingly rigorous checks on those working with children, developed new legislation and redoubled our efforts to recruit even more carers for the burgeoning number of children in care. Yet, new failings in our systems continue to be identified on a regular basis.
Dealing with the complexity of families and abuse and neglect of children is not a simple task. It requires enormous judgement, highly motivated staff, efficient systems and resources directed to the right solutions.
Above all, though, perhaps what we need more than anything after more than 2 decades of decline, is courage. Not more Inquiries or Investigations or political point scoring following the next inevitable system failure – but real courage.
Continuing down our current path will not deliver us a better future for South Australian children or families. The sooner we have the courage to admit this and are prepared to set a new path the quicker we will escape from our current crisis.
Earlier this year a group of everyday South Australians, having carefully examined our current system, boldly recommended a change of course for Child Protection. The People’s Policy proposed a new pathway which placed an emphasis on restoring protective family relationships and supporting children to living safely and securely in their family and communities. These are not simple or straightforward solutions – they require a deep commitment and targeted investment. But they are premised on a clear belief that the continuing escalation of child removals is failing to keep children in our society safe and well.
While many commentators together with those with a long association with child and family welfare have echoed the recommendations of the People’s Policy to reinvest in families, to date these calls have been largely ignored.
After 16 years of observing the decline of Child Protection the new government has the opportunity to set a new course. Understandably it will want to focus on ensuring the administration of our child Protection services can be as professional and competent as possible. But this alone will do little to fix the mess we are in.
The new government needs both vision and courage to set a new direction – and follow it. Its vision needs to be based on both reducing the numbers of children needing to enter care and returning more children to live safely with their parents, extended family and communities. Other jurisdictions around the world, like Leeds in the U.K. which adopted a comprehensive Child Friendly Leeds response in answer to its looming child Protection crisis, have shown it’s possible. It has turned the curve on children being removed and in care.
We don’t only have to be a leader in areas like renewable energy and in the defence industry – we can become a leader in keeping South Australian children healthy, safe and connected with family and community. The government’s first budget in September will tell us how serious they are to this end – not just with more but better targeted and purposeful expenditure aimed at sustaining children living safely within their families.
We need to avoid over the next 4 years focussing on merely plugging holes in our current system and essentially doing more of the same. A new vision for child protection and wellbeing should include:
- A commitment to reintroducing an Early Intervention and Prevention Bill aimed at committing future governments to investment in child wellbeing.
- Setting a target for the reduction of children entering and remaining in care in South Australia.
- Establishing a clear plan for how such a reduction will be achieved.
Over to you Premier.
Simon Schrapel AM