260 recommendations. Hundreds of pages of context, evidence and explanation. For the 40th time in the last decade, a child protection system in Australia has gone through a commission or inquiry. Yet we still have very similar child protection systems as we did in the 1960s, and year after year our newspapers continue to report tragic incidents of child abuse and neglect and stories of workers and parents put in difficult positions.
We can all agree that the children of Australia deserve better lives, especially the ones engaging with the child protection system. The fact that 1 in 4 children are now notified to the child protection system before the age of 10 is a real indicator that our system isn’t best suited to give children the lives they deserve; it’s not best suited to prevent and treat the abuse and neglect which is spreading intergenerationally at rates of up to 90%.
However, even the most comprehensive and thoughtful recommendations are limited in that they often focus in on the problems that caused extreme situation or the worst cases — the media-frenzied anomalies. When we build (or renovate) a system around responding to the worst, we risk overlooking the groups who are the marginalised majority: who don’t receive the appropriate care at their very first instances of maltreatment, who might escalate to getting worse and we could have been helped sooner.
These spot treatment responses and recommendations hardly address the ‘whys’ so clearly articulated in the depth of the evidence provided in the Nyland Report. Further, these royal commission approaches to systems transformation in the past have tended to overlook the ‘hows’ of practically implementing and orchestrating scrolls of prescriptions that may or may not complement, reinforce or synchronise with one another.
As we reflect on the state of our current child protection challenges and look at the Nyland recommendations in parallel, our biggest question is: are we even asking ourselves the right questions? It was noble and humble of Nyland to acknowledge that the recommendations are improvements to the existing system, but do we need a better version of what we have, or do we need something different entirely? Or both?
Without an attention to the larger societal picture and the interplay of factors that result in the need for child protection in the first place, no matter how ‘good’ these recommendations are, we’re likely to see a better version of the system we currently have: a system that’s better at identifying kids in crisis and removing children where necessary, a system that’s better at responding to demand. What we do know is that the determinants of child abuse and neglect are not arbitrary — child abuse and neglect are caused by the compounding experiences of domestic violence, mental illness, drug addictions, poverty and untreated childhood trauma.
By that logic, we should not only be developing a system that responds to children who have been harmed but should also be developing an approach that prevents and treats domestic violence, mental illness, drug addictions, poverty, and childhood trauma. This may mean more specialist services, but it should also mean building community resilience to these issues in the first place through improved universal, opt-in or anticipatory supports.
These issues aren’t easy solve and don’t often have quick fixes, but they’re worth investing in because of the long-term benefits for society, including cost savings to government. Testing what works and what doesn’t in tackling these factors and measuring reductions of intergenerational abuse and neglect transfer will take time, as will changing the entrenched behaviours of our system and the families we’re aiming to help. But if we’re not patiently responsive, we can continue to expect large numbers of families to continue to have repeat engagement with the child protection system (over 70%), and large numbers of children in care to need OOHC for their own children (this is around 50% in some states).
These are wicked and unwieldy problems which is exactly why we can’t ignore them. Tackling abuse and neglect deserve the same rigour of innovation that we put towards the research and design in technology and medicine. What if we tested child protection approaches as concertedly as Elon Musk prototyped Teslas or Pfizer tested the next cancer treatment? We might not reach the answer, but we bet we would get closer.
At TACSI, we’re energised by the ways this sentiment and try-test-learn language is becoming more widely accepted — by policymakers and NGOs. We’ve been observing an air of hopefulness in South Australia — from staff to academics and the service sector — that this could be the tide-changing set of improvements to start breaking cycles of intergenerational reliance on the child protection system. And while ideally, we would like to see a more innovative alternative — a different kind of reform for fostering thriving children and their families that looks beyond a compartmentalised statutory system — we do see opportunity in Nyland’s report to pave the way for an improved system in South Australia.
In many respects, this can be a chance for SA to take radically incremental steps toward a fresh start. After reading the recommendations, we’re most excited about:
– The role of the Children’s Commissioner and what it could mean for South Australia to truly include children’s voice in the process of policy reform as well as the decision making for their own well-being while involved with the child protection system. (Read the article here)
– The emphasis on prevention and how with a genuine focus on prevention of abuse and neglect, SA is in a position to begin stopping chronic maltreatment at the start, or even before it starts. (Read the article here)
– The Early Childhood Research Directorate and what that could mean for the role of not only evidence but also continue and progressive innovation and learning in child protection. (Read the article here)
– An opportunity to reshape the public perception of what children and families need to thrive and how we start to appreciate the ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-community’ villages it’s going to take to raise Australia’s children well. (Read the article here)
Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be sharing our thoughts on the opportunities for innovation in child protection through a five-blog post series on topics in child’s voice, prevention of abuse and neglect, research and innovation and media.