In mid-April I had the privilege of joining a forum that imagined a better future for children, young people and their families when the children are at serious risk of harm.
The forum, organised by the SA Council of Social Service, brought together about 30 people to review what we do in light of what we know. The imperative for change is clear. Ms Ros Wilson, Manager of Business Planning and Development with Families SA, demonstrated this with the alarming projections in numbers of notifications, substantiations and removal of children from families.
Esteemed colleagues in child protection were then asked to lead off by adopting the perspective of a person within the ‘system’ and describing a system that really worked for them. I cannot do justice to the richness of what followed but I can tell you about a few highlights.
Putting aside the utopian view that there should be no child protection system because no child is in need of state intervention, there were consistent themes in every view. These centred on respect, relationship and transformation.
Professor Dorothy Scott, Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection, spoke as a child and asked us to remember the hurt, not just the harm of abuse and neglect. The hurt when parents are shamed, when you are not listened to, when uncertainty goes on and on, and when too few people believe in you.
Dr Di Hetzel, Chair of the Council for the Care of Children, spoke as ‘Sally’, a mother whose child was at risk, and who asked that the power of authorities be used with her, not over her.
Mr Simon Schrapel, President of ACOSS, took the perspective of foster families and sought inclusion in decisions and respect for their skills and knowledge. He sought honesty too, about what is known, what is expected and what the risks are.
Mr Paul Madden, Executive Officer of the Child and Family Welfare Association (SA), said that the true benefit of agreements and contracts with service providers is to facilitate a relationship which provides opportunity for transformation. Services and programs will not move us forward like attitudes and values will.
Ms Rosemary Wanganeen, Founder of the Australian Institute for Loss and Grief, described a world where parents understood their own experiences of grief before raising a child.
Ms Emily Rozee, Mission:Be coordinator of the Create Foundation, likened the experience of a child in care to a rollercoaster ride, but one where you cannot see the turns and dips ahead. Her imagined world was one where young people would leave the ‘system’ without knowing they were in a system because their experience was felt by them to be normal, empowering and personal.
While it is not surprising that everyone talked of relationships, it is evident that these are mediated by formal process in court decisions, written agreements, family assessments, contracts, and case plans. The challenge lies in using these in a different way. Written agreements record decisions and what was taken into account but they need not dominate connections. Instead, relating to the other as if it was you, in the way you would want to be treated, and starting from a base of humility because you will learn from them is the only way to really have a transforming child protection system.
Ms Leena Sudano, Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner, summed up by drawing on her experience in the UK with health systems and empowering consumers. She explained that one of the most effective methods used was to provide consumers with three key questions to answer in each encounter with health practitioners. Adapting that to this discussion she suggested:
- Is what we are doing building respect?
- Is what we are doing starting or strengthening a relationship?
- Is what we are doing building the capacity to transform?
I am acutely aware of the freedom we had to spend a few hours planning a transformed child protection system when so many readers of this letter spent those hours grappling with what we have got. However transformation does not happen because a few people think it should. It happens when information is shared, ideas are debated and tested, we learn from wrong-turns and we are open to challenge and review. This principle applies to families whose children have been removed, children who are growing up in care, foster families, practitioners, managers, and review bodies alike.