Speech - Strengthening Families to to improve child protection outcomes

I rise today to speak about the Children's Protection (Implementation of Coroner's Recommendations) Amendment Bill because it is something that, as a new father, has struck a chord.

When there is bad news on the TV, whether it is news of homicide or murder or whether it is news of aggravated assault, I tend to try to not listen to the details because it can sometimes get rather depressing. The reason the Chloe Valentine case has garnered attention is its ability to strike at the heart of any parent or grandparent in South Australia. To contemplate the things that happened to Chloe Valentine and to put them into our own context, into our own lives, really does bring home some awful truths about what happened to Chloe.

From the outset, I would like to say that there is no ideal situation when it comes to dealing with these matters. It is never a case where we get to an ideal circumstance, because in an ideal circumstance we would never have to delve into these issues in the first place. What we are attempting to do as lawmakers is, in this instance, deal with the least worst and try to find the best of what is otherwise a bad situation.

The bill itself makes three recommendations that have come from the Coroner's report. The three things that this bill seeks to do is to change the fundamental principle of the act from essentially keeping families together to using the act to keep children safe from harm. That is quite an interesting move and one that I certainly agree with, but I think that we have to understand the context of this act being used when family relationships and children's situations within a family have broken down. I want to speak to that a little later.

The second thing that it seeks to do is to bring in the provision for cumulative harm. The idea is that a series of events can culminate in the child being taken away, essentially strengthening the ability for Families SA to look at situations where parents continually breach their obligations to their own children and using that as a method of taking them away. The third is for the minister to take into state care a child who is born to a mother who has been convicted of criminal neglect, manslaughter or murder.

If we take a couple of steps down the road to when this bill is enacted and becomes law and is acted upon by Families SA, we are going to see an increased number of children taken away from their parents. The three things in this act strengthen the ability of the state to take away children from their parents. I think that, when we reflect on Chloe Valentine's case, we can see that this is not necessarily a bad thing. On that point, I would like to reflect on an article that Tom Richardson wrote last year on 26 September when dealing with this issue. I thought his article at the time struck at the heart of where I think South Australia was in their response to this issue. I would like to read an extract. He said:

Yes, there has been a failure. A child has died. But it’s interesting that the first reaction of so many is to blame the authorities, rather than the child's own mother by whose hand she was killed. Addressing the systemic flaws in this case is a matter for the coroner. But Families SA functions in a hideous, imperfect realm; there is no ideal outcome.

As a country, we have spent much of the past two decades rightly berating misguided historic policies to rip 'at risk ' Aboriginal children from their families and into the guardianship of the state. And yet with each child protection failure that hits our headlines, we shake our heads with dismay that the state couldn’t summon the fortitude to remove the child before they came to harm. And again, there is the ripple of a silent undercurrent not of racial prejudice, but of class condescension, bubbling deep below the genuine fears for children's safety. Some people shouldn't be allowed to breed.

Questions of staffing and resourcing are another matter, but the fact is, Families SA has operated under the general assumption that children should, where possible, remain with their families. If they operated differently, there would be a different kind of uproar. In the case of poor Chloe Valentine, though, this assumption had fatal consequences.

I do not agree necessarily with everything that is written in that paragraph, but I think it does sum up where the community's attitudes are with this. The member for Bragg outlined the failure of the government in this case. Let's make no bones about it: the government failed Chloe Valentine and the hearings by the Coroner confirmed that the government failed Chloe Valentine. I think that we can deal with it and we can press that case, but I think we need to look at the next steps and I think that that is what this bill seeks to do.

When looking at what is going to happen in this bill, we need to realise that there are three separate things that governments should be doing to help deal with situations like this. This bill seeks to deal with what I call the second part of family relationships and parents looking after their children and that is dealing with what happens when parents do not fulfil their obligations to their children, where the family unit, as such, breaks down. This bill seeks to strengthen the government's position in being able to deal with those cases and that is very worthy, but there is the 'before this' and there is the 'after this' that I think we also need to take into consideration, and I hope it becomes part of the broader debate. The 'before this' is dealing with prevention.

When I was looking deeply into this topic I came across a report by Professor Patrick Parkinson of the University of Sydney. He wrote a report called 'For Kids' Sake' in 2011 that dealt with the family unit and the social fabric in our society and how the family unit has progressed and issues that there are with family breakdown. I would like to read a couple of bits and pieces from his report. He states:

One of the reasons is that any report card on the wellbeing of the nation's children is likely to be mixed. Australia remains the Lucky Country in many respects. The wellbeing of Australian children has improved on a number of measures in the last decade or so, in particular in terms of physical and economic wellbeing. Yet overall levels of wellbeing, and even upward trends for the majority of the population, can disguise increasingly serious problems for many children. When the position of the nation's most troubled children and young people is considered, there are indications that all is not well, and that on numerous measures, the situation is deteriorating at an extraordinarily rapid pace. There has also been a decline, more generally, in the psychological wellbeing of young people. As a society, we may be healthier and wealthier than a generation ago, but contentment has proved more elusive.

He goes on to say:

There is a canary in the coal mine that provides early warning about the extent of social problems we are facing, and this is in the child protection system. There has been a dramatic increase in the last 15 years in the numbers of children who are reported as being victims of, or at risk of, child abuse or neglect, the numbers of children where that abuse or neglect has been substantiated after investigation, and the total numbers of children in state care. That increase has been seen in every State and Territory in the country, indicating that it is not just the consequence of changes to legislation, policy or practice within one State or by one child welfare department, even if those changes are contributing factors.

It basically says that what we are dealing with here, what we are trying to grapple with as a parliament, is one of the leading indicators of broader issues within the family structure within our society more generally. He goes on to recommend a series of things and talks about at-risk behaviours of teenagers, the breakdown of marriage and the family structure, and the rise in less stable relationships through de facto relationships and the like, but what I really wanted to focus on is where he starts to talk about prevention.

The child protection act probably tried to deal with prevention when trying to keep the objective of keeping families together at the heart of it, but unfortunately the nature of the child protection system is such that it is dealing with the people who are at risk, so it is probably more appropriate that we move to a situation where we look after the child first and foremost. That does not diminish the fact that we should be continuing to focus on prevention as a way to stop these issues from happening in the first place. He says:

There is now a consensus in Australia, as well as other western countries, that in order to make a lasting difference to the levels of child maltreatment, as well as other problems that children face, there has to be a focus on prevention. This emphasis has been endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in its strategic plan for child protection (2009). Achieving a shift towards prevention is, however, easier said than done. This is because of the enormous and increasing demands for services targeted at children who have already been identified as having suffered harm.

What I do not want to get lost in this debate, as we move the child protection act to being more about cure than prevention, is the fact that we cannot lose sight of prevention as an important tool so that we can stop these things from happening in the first place, but I do understand that that is not always the case, that we are not always able to solve these problems before they start, because otherwise I am sure this entire parliament would spend so much of its time trying to do just that.

I have talked about prevention and what happens before children fall into a situation where they are at risk of harm. We have talked about this bill and what it is trying to do when there are children at risk or who have suffered harm, but I think in this debate we also need to look at what happens next. I said at the beginning that this bill is going to lead towards an increased number of children going into state care, and we have to look at that not necessarily being the most ideal outcome.

We have seen issues with institutional abuse. In fact, there is a royal commission going on now into institutional sexual abuse, and I think that has some ramifications for institutional care. We hear reported cases of foster parents of Families SA workers abusing children and, again, we have to look at that and how we deal with that. Once we have taken these children away from their parents, we have to understand what we are going to do next.

We need to very much have the philosophy of providing a child with a stable, loving family environment. That has to be at the core of what we seek to achieve once we have taken them away from their biological parents. That is where I think part of this debate has to move to making it easier for that situation to occur.

Interestingly, on the weekend, the journalist Kate Legge wrote in The Weekend Australian Magazine an article about the difficulties with open adoption, the difficulty with adoption, and some of the cases where we see less permanent forms of care for children where children are taken from foster-parent to foster-parent, where there is no stability and they start to exhibit all sorts of behavioural difficulties and a lack of behavioural development because of their lack of a stable, loving, structured family to support them. Again, I would like to read a paragraph. She writes:

Adoption in Australia is at its lowest since data collection began in 1968, while the number of children who have been removed from unsafe homes has never been higher. This paradox has gingered support for more open adoptions, shirking the taboo that has immobilised a country still grappling with its sorry history of forced adoptions and stolen generations. Given what we know now about the critical link between attachment in early childhood and healthy neurological development, advocates are demanding a better model for securing children at risk.

I could not agree more. That paragraph really strikes home to me how much work we as a society still need to do to find the real answers to grappling with this issue.

I understand that a select committee will be proposed in coming days and, not wishing to talk or discuss that bill, I hope that it is an opportunity to discuss these issues, whether we are talking about more permanent forms of foster care where we are able to place children for longer periods of time, or whether we are able to move to different forms of open adoption, such as is outlined in Kate Legge's article, where there are different models for how we are able to keep children away from harm.

I hope that, through that discussion, we can talk about the fact that, if we are going to take children away from their parents, it is best that it is done as early as possible, because the longer we leave it, the more harm there is to the child. I hope that, in making that awful decision to take children away from their parents, we are able to give them somewhere else better to go, that is not just three eight-hour shifts on rotation in 24-hour care or being shopped around from foster parent to foster parent, but a stable, loving, family environment that is able to help these children develop as normal human beings into adults who are able to exist and contribute to society. I think it is through that that we are going to be able to break a lot of the cycles of abuse and neglect that we tend to see in generations of families.