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A voice for our most vulnerable

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on Mon, 01/14/2013 - 21:38
Fight Child Protection Department Corruption: 
A voice for our most vulnerable

IT is the little girl's ninth birthday, and she is alone and crying. She has just endured a chaotic night of violence against her mother and little brother, but more confusion ensues when the police take her to her new emergency home.

The girl has become a ward of the state in a temporary care home with "heaps of foster kids".

"When I was in the bedroom to stay, I was crying in the bedroom because I want my mum," the girl says. "So on the next day it was my birthday but no one didn't care."

The plaintive transcript of the girl's thoughts offers a rare insight into the mind of a child who has fallen into society's safety net of last resort, putting her among Australia's most vulnerable children. The compelling personal account, complete with its childish spelling and grammatical mistakes, was sent to Queensland's $9 million royal commission-style inquiry examining the child protection system.

Headed by former Family Court judge Tim Carmody, the wide-ranging inquiry, which resumes today after a four-week break, is charged with creating a more effective and efficient safety network for kids in a "full and careful" examination of the sector.

It is to discover what's good and bad in the politically fraught system and determine ways to stem the rising budgetary and human cost of the department.

It came as a surprise. Announced at the launch of Campbell Newman's election campaign last year, it is the first inquiry of its kind to delve into the issue without the catalyst of a political or social crisis. At the time, Newman told The Australian he made the inquiry a priority in an attempt to make Queensland the safest place for children. "It was clear the system was failing and unsustainable into the future," he said.

More than six months' worth of public hearings have been held so far, and the hearings are expected to run for another few months. The findings are due by April 30.

The inquiry has heard that child-safety workers are swamped by paperwork and notifications and are focused on risk-averse compliance. This affects their ability to get out and help families.

Child protection is a bureaucracy growing in cost, scope and impact. The number of severe cases -- in which children are taken from their families and placed in care -- is growing every year and children are staying in care for longer periods.

Last June, 37,648 children were living in out-of-home care across the country, a jump of more than 30 per cent from five years ago. About half the children who left out-of-home care last year, who had been in the system for more than 12 months, had experienced at least three placements.

Taxpayer funding of the system also increased to $2.8 billion nationally last financial year, of which $1.8bn was spent on out-of-home care placements. For every year for the past four years, the cost of out-of-home placements has increased by more than 10 per cent. The ultimate measure of this avalanche of services should be the assistance given to affected children and their outcomes. But, sadly, children who have been in care face poorer education and health outcomes as well as an increased risk of trouble with the law than their peers who are not placed in care.

This inquiry is giving voice to those vulnerable children.

The nine-year-old girl who spent her birthday in temporary care stayed in foster care for two months while her mother lived in a shelter and fought a court battle against the view held by the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services that she failed to protect her daughter from the violent situation.

The girl revealed her tumult in her own words when, a few days into her second placement, an older boy arrived in her foster home.

"He was very mean and bashed me up and I had a black eye," she says.

"After school I all ways seen my mum but when I was going back in the Child Safety car I THINK I WANT TO LEAVE.

"I was crying but starting to get yoost to it."

When her mother won custody in the court the girl returned to her care.

"I was very happy when I was with my mum. I cried. That's the end."

Some children know they have to leave their family to get a chance of a better life.

Angela Purkiss, 21, says she experienced abuse before she went into care at age 14. She says she had some great and loving carers, but still had four turbulent years cycling through 10 placements and four high schools while in the foster care system.

"If the people who are genetically programmed to look after you can't do it, then how can anyone else?" she says. "You have all these people coming and going through a young person's life and they're not sure who to trust."

She has met commissioner Carmody, telling him that increasing the stability of placements is the most critical issue for her and the future cohort of kids in care.

"Young people need a stable home environment that is a long-term one," she says. "It doesn't just affect how they live. It affects what happens after they leave, their education, everything."

Carmody has also met groups of children who have experienced the system, through the peak body for foster children, the CREATE Foundation, in Ipswich, Rockhampton and Toowoomba.

Public hearings and focus groups have been convened across Queensland, in Brisbane, Beenleigh, Ipswich, Cairns, Townsville, Mount Isa and Rockhampton, as well as the Cape York Aboriginal community of Aurukun.

Another former child in care, Isaac, 19, told Carmody children should be given more say in their destiny and more counselling to help them become confident adults.

"If you can empower a person to actively participate in their own life, you open up a force equal to nothing else," he says.

He says the department was built on a business structure to provide shelter and safety for children, but their emotions and feelings can be completely different.

Child protection professionals argue the system should be child-centred, swift and flexible. If early intervention fails to stem the problems within a family, children should be taken into care. In an ideal world, the placement should be as stable as possible.

No one contends the issues are easy. Each and every decision is vexed.

Parent and family advocacy group the Family Inclusion Network -- which included the example of the nine-year-old girl in its submission -- argues children are being taken too readily from families providing "good enough" care.

The lobby group says almost one-third of children go into out-of-home care on the basis of a risk of harm, not actual harm, but the impact of going into care itself has significant negative ramifications.

"This very removal inflicts harm on to previously unharmed children or young people," says James Cook University emeritus professor Rosamund Thorpe.

But there are other, equally strongly held views that argue the opposite case. The organisation charged with reviewing the deaths of children in Queensland -- including those in care -- says home situations can deteriorate if there is no intervention.

"It is not the experience of the (Child Death Case Review Committee) that children are being notified to the department unnecessarily," says chairwoman Elizabeth Fraser in a submission.

"Rather, the CDCRC observes cases where the department should have taken action in response to the concerns raised at the intake stage, and by not doing so the child protection risks continued and often escalated."

A reform options paper released by the inquiry last October notes that early intervention is underfunded as the cost of the spiralling out-of-home care sector rises rapidly.

The commission is looking to overseas and interstate models to find answers.

One solution is early intervention through targeting funding to at-risk families in an attempt to turn their situation around before a crisis is reached.

A $15m trial across three southeast Queensland sites to provide intensive parenting education, anger management, help establishing routines and creating budgets, as well as referrals to drug and alcohol services, has led to a drop in intakes and less repeat reporting of families to Child Safety Services. Victoria is also channelling more funding into early intervention.

The most controversial option is the raising of adoption as a permanent placement option for young children in care, as occurs in the US and Britain.

Under existing Queensland laws, parents must consent to the adoption of their children -- except in cases where a court deems the parent is "not able or willing" to provide adequate care.

Carmody has discussed the matter with visiting English district judge Nicholas Crichton, a key figure in child protection internationally.

Crichton advocates adoption as a last resort to offer children a new start. "If you have got a child of a seriously dysfunctional family, why wouldn't you offer that child a new family, a new start?" Crichton told The Australian in October. "Children need permanent, consistent care-giving from a loving caregiver.

"If this child's family is so dysfunctional they cannot provide that, why would you not try and provide that?"

Crichton assisted the 2011 Munro inquiry into child protection in England that recommended slashing bureaucracy, increasing random inspections and creating a child-focused system.

He was also instrumental in establishing the London Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which orders intensive intervention in the lives of addicted parents who have lost their children or face having them removed.

"A system which thinks it's doing well by removing children into care because they are suffering neglect at the hands of drug and alcohol-using parents is a failed system if it doesn't do anything to address the core problem," Crichton says.

"We try to use the authority of the court to help people to address the core problem."

He says the intensive multi-disciplinary stabilisation and rehabilitation process had proved effective in assisting people to provide "good enough" care for their children.

But he says it was also a success when authorities realised more quickly that children should not remain with their parents or be returned to them.

In the long run, he says, it saves governments money through a reduction in services to dysfunctional families.

It remains to be seen if the idea of adoption -- which has been repeatedly canvassed at the inquiry, to some approval from authorities -- will be recommended by commissioner Carmody.

Public hearings will resume today, with a renewed focus on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Indigenous children account for more than 37 per cent of the population of children in out-of-home care in Queensland, and the figure is rising.

For Purkiss, the ultimate goal is to create innovative and positive ways to help kids in the future.

"He (Carmody) knows the system needs a lot of work," she says. "I know it's not going to happen overnight, but I'm hoping it will be better for tomorrow's children.

"I don't think it can get any worse."