A recent report from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner on the relinquishment of children with disabilities into state care reminded me of the importance of child protection and disability services working closely together. The case studies were heart-wrenching and the desperation of families in trying to find enough external support was unmistakable.
In SA, sharing the responsibility for parenting children with severe disabilities has been made a little easier with shared care agreements, negotiated between the family and a disability agency. Everyone is hopeful, and the early signs are good, that this will help prevent families from having to relinquish their children to the state for want of enough respite or alternative care. While it does not resolve the questions of adequacy and quality, or monitoring of quality, it means that families do not face the additional anguish of losing all decision-making for their children.
Regardless, some children with disabilities are taken into care. The number of children with moderate to severe disabilities who are under guardianship of the Minister and who are registered with Disability Services has grown by almost 50 per cent in the past three years, from 172 in 2009 to 257 in 2012. There are another 25 with physical disabilities receiving services from Novita Children’s Services and a small number with sensory disabilities1. It is unclear why there is such a growth but it is likely to be because of better identification, assessment and provision of service.
For these children, the strength of the relationships among carers, child protection workers and disability workers is critical to the stability of care and the development of the child. That relationship is tested many times by carers and workers feeling stretched by too much to do and too little time, and by different views about what constitutes a disability. Disabilities in children are particularly difficult to characterise because of the developmental nature of childhood and many children in care have delays in their development.
This Office’s audit of annual reviews shows that very few review discussions, which are convened by the child protection agency, include the views of the disability agency. This is a missed opportunity to make joint decisions and plans, and to share ambitions for the future of the child. Likewise, when a disability agency turns down a request for assistance because the child is ‘not one of ours’ it is a missed opportunity to see that child achieve everything they are capable of.
As one mother said in interview for the Victorian inquiry, ‘When your child is in distress and is hitting out you need help immediately.’ What they did not need was disagreement about who should do what, or worse, blame being laid at the feet of another.
I am continuously impressed by the commitment among carers and workers to do their best by children. The real challenge comes in always looking to how we can do better, as a team.
1. In government schools the number of children under guardianship who are recognised to have a disability is considerably higher at over 459 in 2011 because of a broader definition that includes developmental delays.
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