Child Protection: Why Wouldn’t We?

If there is one thing Tasmanians are consistent in, it’s wanting to be number one on the national stage and the world stage. We like to be world class.  We like to punch above our weight.  And why wouldn’t we?

In the past few years we have won global tourism awards, our wine is world-class, our university has climbed the national rankings, and our businesses are the most optimistic in the nation.   We are always quick to celebrate an improvement in our national ranking economically.

So why wouldn’t we want to be number one in the country, world class even, when it comes to doing all within our power to protect vulnerable children?  Why wouldn’t we?

Tasmania is not alone in having a long history of incidents, issues and crises in our child protection system.  But sadly, unlike tourism, wine or the national ranking of our university, every time there is an issue or incident, a baby, a child or a young person’s life is impacted.  A small person has suffered neglect or harm.  It is very personal, it is life-changing.  In some instances it is a death.  In others, serious injury and a lifetime living with the trauma.

So, why wouldn’t we want to do everything within our powers, as individuals, a community, a government and a Parliament to legislate, develop standards, monitor and resource to ensure the best possible protection?

As we debate the reasons why another for-profit company’s approach to caring for children is investigated, now is the opportunity to ensure the powers, standards and resources of our Children’s Commissioner, government departments and Parliament to protect children are the best in the country.

1242 children and young people rely on us to have their backs.  1242 children and young people are the responsibility of the government and live in out of home care – technically, the Minister is their guardian and has responsibility for their care and protection.  In the 2016/17 reporting year, nine children had complaints about sexual abuse or physical abuse or emotional abuse or neglect substantiated through investigation.  Nine children who suffered further abuse when they expected to be safe, cared for, better off.  Nine children who were let down.    And these are just the complaints we know about, we don’t know through public reporting how many actual complaints were made.

In Tasmania, unlike most if not all other parts of Australia, there is no access to an independent person for children to make complaints to.  Someone who they can express concerns or complaints to and be able to be active participants in the decision making around their lives.   We are not nation leaders when it comes to children in care.

There is no better time to ensure that children in government care have the best possible chance in life by setting the protections they deserve at the highest possible standard.  The best in the country, the best in the world.  Why wouldn’t we?

It is important to acknowledge that the Tasmanian Government increased the powers of the Children’s Commissioner in its first term.  The current Safe Children, Safe Families reforms have cross party support.  There has been a strong focus and investment in vulnerable Tasmanians through this and other strategies.  But dollars don’t automatically equal change in a child’s life.  The money is not, in itself, an instant change in the outcomes for children.

It is time to put the money into action by developing, resourcing and introducing the highest possible standards, monitoring and support systems.  It is time to give a voice to the children and young people who cannot live with their own parents, to ensure their needs and experiences guide the system, inform the decisions and ensure there is accountability.

Some will argue that the current system redesign is adequately addressing the issues.  But the questions and allegations continue.   If the powers of the Children’s Commissioner are adequate and the assessment and monitoring processes for placing children in the care of businesses who deliver “services” are appropriate, why do allegations to the contrary continue?   Why wouldn’t we want to put these allegations to rest once and for all, so we can be sure that our shared responsibility to protect vulnerable children at the highest level, against the highest standards, are realised?

Some may ask that if there are reforms under way and the Children’s Commissioner’s powers have been extended, isn’t that enough?

However, the ongoing allegations highlight that there are still multiple barriers to protecting our most vulnerable children.  Which is why introducing the highest possible standards and monitoring of all providers is critical.

The highest level of powers for a Children’s Commissioner combined with the highest quality standards ensures everyone in the system knows that there will be active and ongoing oversight, accountability, transparency and, if necessary, investigation at the highest level.  When it comes to protecting children in Tasmania, nothing, including policy, culture and politics, should be beyond the reach of laser-focused forensic scrutiny.

We have a moment in time:  a substantial investment in two key parts of the system – the Child Protection Redesign and the Out of Home Care Review recommendations.   It’s investment that should demand ongoing, independent scrutiny and frank and fearless advice.  The lives of children who are in the care of the government deserves no less.

So when we ask the question “why wouldn’t we” – the only “why” is politics.

Political argument needs to end.  It contributes nothing to protecting and improving the lives of our most vulnerable children.  It is self-serving and inappropriate beyond any measure when it occurs in the context of vulnerable children.

What we need is a collaborative governance model for vulnerable children that is built on trust.  Trust enables change, particularly change in culture. It gives licence to being more open when something isn’t right, and being able to safely name it up and look for shared solutions.

It needs to be led by those who are not afraid of asking why wouldn’t we? Because they know the answer:  there is no reason not to put children first.

Kym Goodes, CEO, Tasmanian Council of Social Service