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Foster care in response to child abuse harmful

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Lukes Dad's picture
on Tue, 08/28/2012 - 21:38
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Foster care in response to child abuse harmful

MILLIONS of dollars have been spent on the problem of child abuse this year, yet children continue to die. This is despite the fact that state governments have, over the past 10 years, conned themselves into believing that with foster care they've found a solution.

Foster care involves taking a child from its home, and placing it with paid volunteers. So popular is this idea that Australian children are being removed from their homes at staggering rates: there are today 28,000 children in care, double the number in 1997.

The problem is, these children have been removed from their homes by welfare workers who don't necessarily believe they are at risk, but who are terrified that they'll get blamed if anything happens to the children that have been reported to them.

But foster care isn't the solution to the problem of child abuse. For one thing, it doesn't protect children from risk, and it may cause as many problems as it solves.

Children who go into care at a very young age end up with attachment problems. Research has shown that their brains don't develop properly. They have difficulty trusting anyone.

Foster care doesn't work in the long term. By the age of eight or 10, many of these children are so damaged they can no longer stay in foster homes. They spend a few years bouncing around the system, from one foster home to another, and then bouncing from youth hostel to police station to the street, before ending up in jail.

There is pessimism about what can be achieved, but there are solutions to the problem of child protection. They would take some guts to implement, but may end up costing the taxpayer less and it may improve the lives of some children. Here are four suggestions:

Abolish mandatory reporting: It's no secret that child protection systems are utterly overwhelmed by the sheer number of "notifications" or telephone calls and other reports they receive about children, who may be at risk of harm.

In NSW, for example, were 286,000 reports last year. Does that mean that 286,000 children in NSW are at risk of harm?

The problem is mandatory reporting, which forces teachers, hospitals, police officers and others to report to welfare agencies any child who may conceivably be at risk of harm.

Mandatory reporting was introduced to most Australian states in the late 1990s. At the time, people genuinely believed this was a way to protect children. If all the children who were at risk were reported to a central child protection system, the thinking went, then none would slip through the cracks.

What has happened instead is that welfare systems are struggling to cope with the sheer number of reports: the hotline in NSW rings once very two minutes.

As a result, about one in every 14 children in NSW is "known to DOCS". Welfare agencies get to about half of all calls; the rest get noted, filed, and forgotten.

Of the calls that are investigated, only 40 per cent are substantiated, meaning that 60 per cent of the time, there is no reason to believe the child was being abused.

Dorothy Scott, director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia, says mandatory reporting has become "all about shifting risk".

"Somebody has covered their back; now it's somebody else's problem. But the welfare workers can respond to only a very small number of reports, and if there is a whole lot of cases, the important ones do get missed."

Under the system of mandatory reporting, police tend to report any children who happen to be present when there is a domestic violence incident. But the man who threatens his partner in a drunken rage doesn't necessarily pose a threat to his children. That's especially true if the marriage is under strain.

Likewise, does an alcoholic mother need to be reported to the welfare services, or does she need to attend a drug and alcohol treatment centre? What is being reported is not the risk to children, but the suspicion of a potential risk, which is very different.

Mandatory reporting fails to reduce the risk to children who may actually come to harm, simply because their cases are lost under the deluge. Plus it enrages, frightens and humiliates a very large number of parents.

Politically, it would be extremely difficult to scrap mandatory reporting. No doubt the premier of any state that tried it would find his head in the noose the next time a child died. Still, it should be done, for the system is close to collapse. Effort should instead be expended on locating those children who actually are at risk.

The fact that mandatory reporting doesn't save children was amply illustrated this year, with the death of several children who were known to welfare authorities, including one who had been removed from his mother's care, and yet still ended up dead, his body found in a suitcase floating in a lake.

Prop up the birth parents: If we don't have mandatory reporting, how will we know which children are at risk? As it happens, we already know which children are at risk.

Scott calls it the holy trinity for child abuse: if you've got a home where there is drug and alcohol abuse by the parents, domestic violence and-or mental health problems, the risk to the children in those homes is real. The absence of a father figure; poverty and isolation; and poor attachment to a child at birth increases the risk.

Association of Children's Welfare Agencies chief executive Andrew McCallum says state governments are "feeding the system" by taking children from these homes, and placing them with foster carers.

"It's short-term political thinking and it's very damaging for children," he says. "Honestly, if we were to start from scratch and design a system to protect children from harm, would it involve taking them away from their parents at every opportunity? Of course it wouldn't.

"We'd have a preventative model, the same as we do with public health. Everybody understands the role of prevention when it comes to health.

"Everybody understands that you have to encourage people to stop smoking, to eat healthily. But with child welfare, there's this idea that parents must be punished by taking the children."

What we could do instead is throw resources at these households. It may mean ensuring the children are taken to school each day; that their mother attends a drug treatment centre; that breakfast programs are put in place; that mental health services visit the home.

One of the best examples of an intensive, expensive system of this type is home visits by baby nurses. Baby nurses are highly skilled professionals. They see many babies; they know when something doesn't look right, and they can have a good look around the house while they are there.

Scott says the quick removal of children has come about because every child who enters the welfare system is treated as if the risk to his or her life was real. She says it's like "treating every stomach ache as acute appendicitis".

"Everybody has to go to casualty, and of course it's completely choked. How can the nurses and the doctors hope to cope?

"A better idea would be for professionals to be able to use their commonsense and say, we need to keep an eye on this child because mum has a drug problem. We need to get them into a treatment centre.

"We need to make sure that the child is going to school. We need to make sure they are getting breakfast, and so on. But we don't have to remove them."

It's a fact, too, that a child removed once is a child removed many times. If the first removal could be prevented, many others would be avoided, too, and there would be fewer children bouncing around the system.

Pay and train staff properly: Social workers, and in particular, child protection workers, are underpaid and under-valued. They work in offices that are understaffed and under-resourced, often surrounded by toxic politics.

They cannot rely on their peers, in part because they aren't close to them. According to some data, the turnover in some offices is about 30 per cent a year, and 70 per cent over two years.

Many of the workers are straight out of university, with no life experience. They also tend to be women, some of whom have not yet had children of their own.

In the field, they have to work with parents who are drug-addicted, or alcohol-affected, and often violent. It's a dirty, intimidating, frightening, thankless task, and those who do it deserve to be properly rewarded. Good decisions aren't made by young people, under pressure, working in an environment of near constant criticism. Good decisions are made by mature, cool-headed people.

Australian Association of Social Workers president Bob Lonne tells The Australian that staffing problems in welfare are everywhere and it's likely to get worse, since only 2700 graduates come out of the institutions of learning every year, and these must be shared among hospitals, community health centres, schools, private agencies, and welfare.

Scott says there is almost nobody who wants to work at the coalface of child protection, because it's so brutal.

"It's an extremely difficult environment for anybody to work in and the turnover in most parts of Australia is chronic."

Money spent on recruiting, training, and, critically, retaining excellent staff would be money well spent.

Speed up the adoption process: For children who are not going home, they should be removed quickly and permanently. In too many cases, the children are bounced around from their birth parents into care, back home, into care, and back again.

In Victoria, the team at St Luke's in Bendigo identified children who had been in eight or nine homes, forced to live in close quarters with 40 more other children over the course of their short lives, as parents get yet another go at pulling themselves together.

By the age of eight or nine, they are so badly damaged, it's almost impossible to help them.

These children should become available for adoption, or placed in the permanent care of loving families, of which there are many who would dearly love children, but avoid becoming foster carers because they cannot stand the idea of having to hand back a child they have grown to love to a mother who constantly fails to provide care.

Adoption doesn't mean that a birth parent loses all contact with a child; it doesn't mean that a child can never know its real parent.

There can be contact; it should indeed be encouraged, but there are many times when a child's right to live in a warm and loving home with responsible adults trumps the rights of biological parents, who have blown their chance to provide a home themselves.


whiteLion's picture

Interesting that there is someone in the mainstream media willing to state all of this. May be saying the obvious but bravo. Agree with each and every word.

For too long our crisis-driven 'system' reacts the same way, be it a cranky word, a parent desperate for respite or someone who is truly being abusive: one size fits all. 






+Mandatory psych tests +mandatory D+A tests.


malk's picture

I would have to agree. If ever an abused child is taken away from home to have him/her taken care by a foster family, authority should investigate further on that foster family/parents, just to make sure that the child will be safe. jobs in dubai