Dramatic events in several states, including South Australia have sparked nationwide interest in the neglect of children. While we would all wish that the responses to children’s needs were swift and adequate, and certainly prevent tragedy, this cannot be guaranteed. No child protection system is foolproof. What we aim to do is to make it as strong and responsive as possible.
Neglect is an awkward concept to work with because it depends so much on prevailing standards of care, which change over time and over cultural context. It is very difficult to assess what is ‘good enough parenting’. Let’s not forget too that the concept of ‘neglect’ has a particular shameful history in its use against Aboriginal families. The Bringing Them Home report provided evidence of Aboriginal children being seen as one and the same as neglected children.
Regardless of the difficulty of defining neglect, it is seriously damaging for children and that is why the public debate should be welcomed, albeit preferably not in the heat of real or just averted tragedies. The public will help decide what the child protection system will respond to by discussing what are acceptable standards of care and safety and by learning about responsibilities before statutory intervention.
The underlying features of neglect such as low income, substance abuse, homelessness, the burden of sole parenting and mental illness, are complex and often chronic. The child protection system, in its narrow sense, is not well placed to deal with these entrenched problems and services to support the family must come from other quarters. However, someone must take responsibility for working closely with the family to progressively address the needs of the children. The community does not care who does it as long as it is done.
One of the uglier sides of the recent public attention was the damning of ‘welfare mothers’ for having more children. Birth rates are falling across every social group and are falling faster at the lower end of the economic range. However, it is reasonable to question whether a one-off lump-sum payment like the baby bonus is the best way to offset the significant costs of having a child. The debate here leaves open the bigger question for Australia of a paid maternity leave scheme paid to all regardless of employment and replacing the baby bonus and maternity payments. It could be accompanied by a children’s trust fund with payments to all children at birth and at regular intervals for use on turning 18.
It is not acceptable to say that the responsibility for children’s wellbeing rests solely with individual families. Good outcomes for children are not determined by leaving families alone nor by the wealth of a country. Good outcomes are decided by policies which focus on family support, valuing parenthood, early childhood services and reducing inequalities. And for children at high risk we need a robust child protection system that responds confidently to family problems and children’s needs.