Capturing public attention in the past two months has been the release of the report from the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry (the Mullighan Inquiry). It has drawn renewed focus on past abuses of South Australian children. Such inquiries or investigations have been sadly necessary and repeated across the country and there is great sorrow and abhorrence at the stories of abuse that have emerged.
Commissioner Mullighan took evidence from 792 people who said they were victims of child sexual abuse and 242 had been children in state care at the time of their alleged abuse. Many of the alleged incidents were in the 1960s and 70s.
The Commissioner has acknowledged that most state care provided is good care and, in the glare of the inquiry’s spotlight, it is important to remind ourselves of this while paying close attention to what still needs to be done.
Here in the Office of the Guardian we are in a privileged position to see how the child protection system works for children and every day we see evidence of great achievements by children and young people, excellent care and superior professional practice.
We are also acutely aware of the challenges in delivering the best child protection service. Not the least of these is a huge change of emphasis from a notification and investigation-driven model of child protection to a child and family-centred system of early response to problems. This is very difficult to achieve in the over-heated political environment that accompanies the stories of children who have been let down by family and state.
There is opportunity, though, to learn from examining what happens when things go horribly wrong. Here are six themes that emerged for me in reading the Mullighan Report.
- Prevent abuse happening through, among other things, empowering children to voice their experience and views in an environment of trust and respect. Much of the response to abuse in care has rightly focussed on regulation, monitoring and scrutiny. Less attention had been paid to the organisational culture and power imbalances between children and adults and between staff and management that prevent the alarm being raised when things go wrong.
- Clear and decisive action is required when children disclose abuse and the response must be constantly supportive of children. The stories of children telling someone but nothing happening are chilling. Alarming too is the response that effectively punishes the child by separation, scepticism, and frightening interactions with too many strangers.
- Clear messages should be sent to all about what constitutes abuse, that it is wrong and that there are serious consequences for perpetrators. This includes timely and resolute pursuit of abusers in dismissal from employment, charges and prosecutions.
- We must also consider how best to follow up with children and young people and adults on the impact of child abuse. This will include assisting them to overcome the trauma, to believe in themselves and to trust others again.
- We must learn from mistakes, oversights and false assumptions by reviewing where things went wrong and then acting on what was found to be deficient.
- Important, but perhaps less obvious, is the reminder to re-examine our routine practices for potential disrespect or disregard that can creep into family meetings, conversations with children, case conferences, case records, decision-making and responses to requests for help.
Other readers will have read other themes in the report but there is no doubt that each will be as determined as we are that such abuse will not occur while we have voice to speak and courage to act.