Child abuse is still our national shame
The shocking case last week of a two-year-old Victorian girl being savagely beaten has once again raised the issue of child abuse into the headlines.
It has started an important debate about when to remove children from their parents and what constitutes a child at risk.
Despite some horrifying high profile cases in recent years, child abuse is a problem that many Australians still think is limited to a certain section of the community.
While this view might make it easier for us to sleep at night, it does nothing to protect the more than 30,000 Australian children who were abused or neglected last year.
This appalling statistic is made even more startling because these are only the cases we know about. Experts believe that some forms of abuse, particularly sexual and psychological abuse, are still significantly under reported.
Sadly, this is not a problem that is isolated to a small number of dysfunctional families – child abuse is endemic across the whole Australian community.
It’s easy for society and some commentators to wash their hands of the issue and lay the blame at over-stretched child protection workers and claim they are not doing their job or have been hijacked by ideologically driven do-gooders, but it does little to solve the problem.
Simply arguing we should take more children does little to deal with the scale of the problem and takes the pressure off all of us to help prevent child abuse from happening in the first place.
We need to be willing and determined to do both.
The difficult and sad reality is that no child protection system can possibly save every child.
Child protection workers have an incredibly difficult, and at times harrowing, job. We must give them our full support and the resources to do their jobs.
Determining if and when to remove a child from their family is a complex decision which is deeply traumatic for all involved. It needs be made by well-trained professionals who have the ability to assess the situation with a range of resources and options available to them.
We need to reduce the burden and stress on child protection workers so that when they are making that tough decision they know they have the full support of their superiors, the community and even the media.
Every decision must be made on the basis of the child’s needs and rights; for many it will mean their removal, for others it may be family support programs and assistance to parents is required.
And as a community we need to start taking child abuse and neglect seriously and sustain the effort to counter it at every level – not just when a terrible case makes the headlines.
We can start by inspiring more families to foster children, because right now we simply do not have enough foster places in Australia for the children who have already been removed from their families.
In 2008 more than 26,000 Australian children were in out-of-home care. Finding suitable placements for this number of children is extremely difficult.
We hear the stories of children in unsuitable temporary arrangements and we know that more than 75 per cent of children in out-of-home care have been in three or more placements.
But the real key to addressing child abuse is to throw everything at preventing it from happening in the first place. We need to start the work back up stream with early intervention, to stop families reaching breaking point – and all of us have a role to play.
People often talk about parental responsibility, but the responsibility rests with more than just parents. It rests with the community.
There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In the hustle and bustle of today’s modern world we seem to have forgotten that. We’ve forgotten about neighbours looking out for each other, extended families are dispersed and families are often left to fend for themselves.
Rearing a child is the most stressful time in anyone’s life. With sleep deprivation, economic stress and often isolation, it’s little wonder we have such a serious problem on our hands.
By dealing with the problems early – preventing abuse before it starts – we can take steps in the right direction.
Providing good postnatal care and support, accessible child care and a community that is truly “child friendly” we can go a long way to help those families who are struggling.
And for the sake of the children it’s important to look at the causes of abuse. We need to address the “adult issues” like drug and alcohol addition, domestic violence and mental illness. These are all causes or underlying factors in child abuse or neglect.
I have seen some fantastic examples of effective intervention programs.
I’ve met parents who were on the brink and who, with the right help, have turned their lives and those of their children around.
These kids won’t become simply statistics. They won’t need to be in out-of-home care.
Prevention and effective intervention is not easy or cheap. But if, as a society, we truly value children we must be prepared to put kids first and make the level of investment required.
And if we truly value children we also must be prepared to take the hard decision to remove children from their families when we have to. Their safety, their wellbeing and their rights must always come first.
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