7 October 2019

We can and must do better at keeping all children safe

| Elizabeth Kikkert MLA
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Elizabeth Kikkert

Elizabeth Kikkert says we all have an obligation to protect our children. Photo: Supplied.

We all have important roles to play in keeping children safe.

For many of us, this labour of love begins within the walls of our homes, but it must extend far beyond the circle of any single family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, friends and complete strangers – child protection is truly everyone’s business.

As the theme of Child Protection Week this year reminded us, one of the most important ways to keep children safe and healthy is to support parents.

I am the mother of five children; I know firsthand that the task can test our skills. But we can all do more to help the parents in our communities to navigate life’s choppy waters by focusing on what children need to thrive. I am deeply grateful to all who have buoyed up my husband and me as parents over many years.

Some time ago, as I walked out of our local shops, I heard a father speaking angrily with his children. Hesitantly, I took a block of chocolate out of my shopping bag, asked this man if he would like to share it with his kids, and then spent time listening to him talk about his situation. The latest research confirms that this kind of response can make a difference.

Actual abuse or neglect requires a much more formal response, of course. This is why governments provide statutory child protection, including out-of-home care.

When these systems work correctly, they prioritise strengthening and preserving the family. When this happens, fewer children enter care, and many who do so are quickly restored to their families. All research supports emphasising these outcomes.

It is imperative that children who are in the government’s care are safer and better provided for than they were before removal. I understand well that this is a complex area, but we should expect that basic tasks are completed.

We recently learnt, however, that last year fewer than half of the children entering Canberra’s care and protection system for the first time received health passports, down from 73 per cent in 2016. These passports track critical health information, enabling carers to make informed medical decisions for children and young people.

At the same time, the percentage of kids who received a therapeutic plan within six weeks of entering care plummeted from 64 per cent in 2016 to only 22 per cent last year.

These plans inform a child’s placement and the supports she or he receives, and I have personally heard from former youth workers how difficult it is to provide appropriate care for vulnerable children when these plans are missing or delayed.

The current government’s documented failure to fulfil basic administrative tasks raises concerns about how well our child protection system may be functioning in more complex areas. And indeed, the CREATE Foundation, which represents those in care and protection across Australia, released a comprehensive survey earlier this year that ranked the ACT at or near the bottom on nearly every measurement.

For example, young Canberrans are the least likely in Australia to report feeling safe and secure in their out-of-home care placements, and they are the most likely to report being removed from a placement both against their wishes and without any consultation. ACT kids in care also reported the most difficulty in accessing doctors, dentists and counsellors.

If child protection is everybody’s business, then these facts should concern every single Canberran. How is it possible that in the most affluent jurisdiction in the nation, our children and young people in the care of the ACT Government are so poorly provided for? We can and must do better at keeping all children safe.

Elizabeth Kikkert is a Liberal MLA for Ginninderra and the Shadow Minister for Families, Youth and Community Services in the ACT

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