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Nothing to see here? The abuse and neglect of children in care is a century-old story in Australia

Former carer Natalie Ottini shared her experiences of working in residential group homes on the ABC’s Four Corners program. ABC/Poppy Stockell

Nothing to see here? The abuse and neglect of children in care is a century-old story in Australia

Last night’s Four Corners program presented evidence of widespread abuse and neglect suffered by children in the out-of-home care system. Sadly, it was an all too familiar story. The Australian care system has been subject to criticism for over a century.

Children described bullying, harassment and sexual abuse inflicted by other children who share their homes. Children also described adult men preying on and sexually exploiting girls in “resi” or residential care.

There were allegations of 12-year-olds being left without adequate clothing, stable accommodation or sufficient food, abandoned by the agencies that were supposed to care for them. Private, for-profit agencies were accused of financial mismanagement and rorting of taxpayer funds.

Some of the most horrific allegations didn’t make it to air, but were reserved for the digital broadcast available online immediately after the program. This included recent revelations of an alleged rape in New South Wales by UnitingCare staffers who had been entrusted with the care of 13-year-old “Girl X”. The girl died from a drug overdose just weeks before she was due to give evidence against her alleged attackers.

The digital broadcast also included the sexual predation by adults of children in Victorian state care, revealed in a “searing condemnation” by Victorian Children’s Commissioner Bernie Geary. This is an issue that the South Australian Child Protection Systems Royal Commission has also exposed.

A familiar story

Depressingly, the Four Corners program did not reveal much that was new. My own research has identified equally devastating statistics of abuse and neglect of children in care. Almost a quarter of the children in my study had been abused while in care, in what were meant to be safe placements.

The abuse, which was confirmed by state authorities, took the form of physical beatings, violence and sexual assault. The younger the child, the more likely they were to have been hurt while in care. A third of children under 13 years of age had been abused and a quarter had attempted suicide.

It would be naive to assume that the child welfare system is always benevolent and focused on providing nurture, protection and support. It cannot be guaranteed that the type of placement or the level of care provided is always based on a child’s needs. But across Australia, outcomes for children in care are generally regarded as highly unsatisfactory.

The United Nations (UN) has called attention to the “widespread reports of inadequacies and abuse” in Australian care systems. The UN has complained of the inadequate screening, training, support and assessment of carers. It has also complained of the inappropriate placements of children, and the mental health issues that are “exacerbated by (or caused in) care”.

Children in care have worse life outcomes than their peers. Whether we’re measuring health, education, employment, stability, well-being, social inclusion, financial and emotional security or involvement in the criminal justice system, children in care perform badly, even when compared to children of roughly comparable backgrounds and problems.

A century-old problem

In the 1870s, a scathing assessment of the Australian care system by British child welfare reformers the Hill Sisters led to a royal commission into charities.

On average, there has been a major inquiry into aspects of the child welfare system every three years since then.

The abuse suffered by children in care is exposed regularly. Every time, it’s met with the same excuses and promises. The children are presented as damaged, rather than the systems that are failing them. Agencies hide behind their professed best intentions and talk about “difficult” children.

Governments spruik their support for “salt of the earth carers” and the “saints” of child welfare. These governments are afraid that if they probe too deeply into the failings of the system and agencies, they will be left holding the baby. The focus shifts from the care agencies’ failure to protect vulnerable children, to airing agencies’ calls for additional funding and even earlier intervention.

The UK House of Commons has said that:

many of the things we wish would happen in the care system would follow naturally if the system and those who work within it were minded, and enabled, to act more like parents.

The failure of government

Government interventions to enforce this have proved spectacularly unsuccessful. The mountain of memorandums of understanding, guidelines, compacts, heads of agreement, committees, regulations, legislation, independent inquiries and reports established over the past 20 years in New South Wales alone have failed to improve things for children in care. Measures designed to protect children have not overcome the system’s inadequacies nor even begun to address the often questionable motivation and practices of the various players in the child welfare sector.

Government failure to hold the bureaucracy and its non-government sector partners accountable for poor decisions, inadequate oversight and accountability and the inefficient use of resources that erode the effective operations of the out of home care system is an indictment on us all.

These failures have allowed the problem of abuse and neglect in care to seem insurmountable, regardless of the devastation caused to the children concerned. There have been repeated professions of political goodwill and the commitment of countless millions of dollars across child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness, education and health services. Despite this, we have failed to stop kids being abused by the very people we have trusted to care for them.

That the matters reported last night on Four Corners are occurring at the very time we have a royal commission watching the system shows the practitioners and agencies responsible for the neglect and abuse of children in their care have little to fear.