The welfare of our children is up to all of us
It is National Child Protection Week, 2- 8 September and again, we know that more than 30,000 Australian children have been abused and neglected in the past year. This figure has never substantially improved since we first began to consider the problem and we, as a community, continue to respond as if we are powerless in this distressing situation.
If we were told that in the last year 30,000 children had suffered an infection, which had caused some deaths and left many children with a lifelong burden, there would be public outrage, demanding a solution.
Abuse and neglect is a social infection, endemic in our community, and with equally devastating results, yet it seems to pass us by.
In 2009, in an attempt to understand this better, NAPCAN conducted a nationwide survey* involving 22,000 people. In analysing the results, I found that those participating were predominantly women and had a better than expected level of knowledge of child protection. Most had regular involvement with children either at home or at work.
Unanimously, and not surprisingly, they agreed that parents were responsible for keeping their children safe. But worryingly, less than half of this well-informed group would not take direct action if confronted with a significant child abuse or neglect situation. More concerning to me was that 11% believed that neighbours had no responsibility at all for keeping children safe.
Recently, I attended the funeral of a very old, long established neighbour, who was a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Amongst the mourners was a vibrant young woman, who knew me, but it took me some time to recognise her. She and her family had been neighbours of this man many years ago when she was very young. Her family was chaotic, troubled and they worried all of us.
The woman told me how this elderly couple had always been friendly and interested in her. She had loved going into their calm, organised home and dreamt of living in a home just like it. When she was in primary school, her family moved away, but her connection with this man had been so significant that, on hearing of his death, she came to his funeral. She has a family of her own now, satisfying work and is content.
This woman also reminded me of a teenager who had also been a neighbour. He was a troubled child and was growing into a scary, aggressive teenager. The same old couple, more than 20 years ago, had helped this young man find work and had even helped with transport to ensure he got to work on time. All this time later, the young man is still employed and leading a fulfilling life, with no criminal involvement, which had seemed inevitable back then.
If this old couple had taken the view that helping troubled young ones was ‘someone else’s’ role and had done nothing, these two young people would not have sensed any hope in leading a more fulfilling life. What did he do? He recognised both children as worthwhile individuals who needed attention and respect to help them through their uneasy childhoods. What a wonderful memorial for such a deserving, unassuming individual.
Being a good neighbour can be challenging these days, with people moving around, and often living isolated lives, though close together in a neighbourhood. Too often there is an emphasis on the possible danger of becoming involved. We need to change this way of thinking and remember instead the wonderful bonuses that neighbours can bring.
If more of us were good neighbours, we could be there to support each other. The modern ‘bogeyman’, the paedophile, would be severely hindered if children lived in neighbourhoods where all the grown-ups knew them and watched out for all of them. Neighbourhoods where grown-ups were ready to recognise and celebrate when children have made good decisions or achieved special things, and at the same time ready to notice when they were not safe or distressed and be prepared to help.
We all have our own examples of clashes we have had, which have left us feeling angry and distressed and with a continuing resentment towards the service involved. On the other hand, a caring, genuine response in such a situation brings a far more positive result.
Go on, surprise and delight your neighbourhood by being respectfully interested in what is going on, and practice being always willing to recognise delightful parenting when you notice it. If we could boost in our minds the value of children and young people in our lives, all of us, but particularly our most vulnerable neighbours, would have far more positive, optimistic lives.
To start you on your “good neighbour” journey, have a look at the NAPCAN website www.playyourpart.org.au There are many excellent ideas.
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