We know from experience and media reports of evidence given to Commissioner Nyland that children1 in struggling families and in the child protection system are especially vulnerable. They are in need of the community’s attention and care. But as fundamental and urgent as protecting children is, and to elaborate on my public comment last week, it is important to acknowledge that the scope of a Children’s Commissioner’s responsibilities is fundamentally different.
Other states2 have long since acted to promote the rights and strengthen the voice for all children about such issues as education and employment, health services, police and justice, housing and homelessness , the use of public space, services for people with disabilities, the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and many others. Children have direct and specific knowledge of the issues that affect them right now and a massive stake in getting it right in the big policy decisions and legislation that shape their lives.
There is a very real danger in trying to subsume formal child protection functions into the role of a Children’s Commissioner. A Children’s Commissioner with a very broad brief would find it difficult to sustain the critical expertise and the focus on the lives of individual children that is essential to be effective in child protection. And if they could, the high engagement and urgency required in child protection would draw them away from their responsibility to hear from and act for all young South Australians.
A need for a well-resourced Children’s Commissioner with strong powers to acquire information to investigate and advocate on systemic issues affecting all children has been discussed in our state since 2002 and publicly supported by our Office. While there would be some areas of common interest, to confuse this with a child protection role would not deliver well on either function and likely frustrate the South Australian community’s deeply held aspirations for change in both areas.
If you want some more background, there is an excellent summary of who are Australia’s Commissioners and Guardians and what they do on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.
And please feel free to join the conversation by leaving a comment below.
1 For this article ‘children’ refers to children and young people 0 to 17 years of age.
2 ACT has the Children and Young People Commissioner, NSW has the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People, the Northern Territory has a Children’s Commissioner, Tasmania has a Commissioner for Children, Victoria has a Commissioner for Children and WA has a Commissioner for Children and Young People. The Commonwealth has also appointed a National Children’s Commissioner.