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The child protection system looks at children on a case-by-case basis. This approach doesn’t work. Charlein Gracia/Unsplash

The problem with child protection isn’t the money, it’s the system itself

In Victoria, 35 young people aged 12-17 years ended their lives by suicide between 2007 and 2019 – all were entangled in the child protection system. This was the focus of a new report, “Lost, not forgotten”, released last week from the Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, which described how these children “experienced multiple and recurring forms of abuse”.

In their short lives, they were reported to child protection 229 times. For most of these children, including six who identified as Aboriginal, reporting began when they were three years old. Some 90% of these reports were ignored – closed at intake or investigation.

Read more: When mothers are killed by their partners, children often become ‘forgotten’ victims. It’s time they were given a voice

Sometimes families were offered community-based support through a voluntary program (called ChildFIRST). But according to the report, what the program offered was “inadequate to meet the complexity of issues identified” by families and, in many cases, ChildFIRST reported them back to child protection.

The commissioner describes this as a “referral roundabout”. While the report looked at Victoria only, these issues are nation-wide. And this isn’t just happening in Australia – a 2014 report in Canada showed a similar problem.

How is it possible child protection in two different jurisdictions have made the same mistakes?

My research shows these are not mistakes. The inaction these kids experience is a systematic ignoring, set up by the child protection model. And that’s why the commissioner’s recommendation to increase resources won’t fix it.

An outdated, reactive system

Child protection relies on community members and professionals (teachers, nurses) to identify and report safety issues for individual children.

While this may offer some benefit to some children, The World Health Organisation identifies how such case-by-case approaches have come “at the expense of efforts to prevent maltreatment occurring in the first place”.

Individualised approaches ignore the magnitude of the problem of child neglect and abuse, and fail to address the underlying causes and contributing factors.

By prioritising case-by-case reporting, investigation and substantiation, the system is resource-intensive and set up to only address the worst cases.

Read more: ‘Silent victims’: royal commission recommends better protections for child victims of family violence

This approach was developed in the USA after Dr Henry Kempe’s landmark 1962 paper, The Battered-Child Syndrome. He and his colleagues used X-rays to visualise broken bones at different stages of healing in children to substantiate their abuse.

Within a decade, the investigation-substantiation model of child protection began in the USA, Canada and later in Australia, supported by the promise medical imaging could help substantiate child neglect and abuse.

But there are three faulty assumptions underpinning this model, which is still used in today’s child protection systems. These are that child neglect and abuse:

  • is rare and can be addressed one child at a time

  • if you look carefully enough you can see it

  • it can be addressed by identifying perpetrators and holding them accountable within the justice system.

Child protection is an outdated, reactive system. We, as a society and as researchers, now understand child neglect and abuse is a common, pervasive social problem.

We also agree neglect, emotional abuse, and exposure to domestic violence are also abuse and can be as harmful to children and young people as physical and sexual abuse. And we have learned visualising physical signs of abuse is complicated, often illusive and usually only possible in the most extreme cases, which are relatively rare.

Young families need more support

Individualised interventions set a severity threshold to justify child protection intervention. This means when a child’s situation is not good, but not yet bad enough, little is done until the violence escalates.

What’s more, justifying intervention is considered necessary because the home is a private domain, under the control of the head of the household.

Abuse isn’t always visible. Marina Shatskih/Unsplash

In many of these cases, the situation for the child’s parents isn’t good either, but this is understood to be their own responsibility. When young parents live in poverty and struggle to provide basic needs for their family, the dominant view is they haven’t worked hard enough, or they’ve made bad life choices.

Yet, children from birth to five years old endure a disproportionate amount of poverty compared with any other age group. Young families consistently struggle with the lack of affordable childcare, social isolation, precarious employment and housing instability.

Most child neglect and abuse isn’t a just matter of poor parenting, it’s a matter of having poor parents.

Overhauling the system

Violence is connected with poor social position and power. Similar to how we’re beginning to understand domestic violence, the roots of child neglect and abuse can be traced to inequities such as socioeconomic disadvantage and “invisible” social and cultural norms that marginalise children and their mothers.

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

Addressing this means shifting tax structures and access to quality nationally funded childcare. It also includes disrupting dominant social beliefs that position children and their mothers with little power.

This includes, for instance, the pervasive belief that the family home is a man’s property, and he should hold power over and privacy within it. This belief underpins the practices of removing children if they are being abused, or encouraging mothers to leave.

Resisting this belief allows us to consider removing the perpetrator of abuse from the home instead of the child or mother.

Read more: Why children in institutional care may be worse off now than they were in the 19th century

A revision of child protection is overdue. Including a system oriented to prevention of child neglect and abuse from a social perspective needs creativity, vision and, importantly, the input of children, their mothers and other professionals who play a substantive role in supporting children’s wellbeing.

We need to start by respecting children as equals within society. We need to recognise and publicly name the hierarchical social structures that decrease the power of women and children.

And we need to develop an infrastructure of support for parents that ensures resources to support families’ basic needs, addresses the exploitation of reproductive labour and the isolation of women and children in the privacy of the home.

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