Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Child Protection Week - May we never forget

Child Protection Week is a time to reflect on what a good child protection system should look like and whether the key stakeholders are equipped to make the changes needed. Each year children die in care or die because they slip through the cracks or have been ignored by a system which continually fails to correct its own dysfunctionality.

This is a week when we should remember those who have experienced out-of-home placements. Those who have been removed from families who have failed to parent their children with care and love. We shall remember those who have been emotionally, physically and sexually abused by a system which doesn't understand the experiences of children and the trauma caused by the removal from their biological parents. We will remember all those children who have been failed by a system which replaces "bad parenting" with poor guardianship.

We all know that children are the most vulnerable members of our community, they have to be protected by responsible adults but one has to wonder who are the responsible adults making decisions about what is in the best interest of the child. How can so many "responsible adults" get it wrong on so many occasions? Why do we as a society allow our politicians to escape rebuke? Why do we allow these self-serving individuals to continue their reign of terror over our children?

As a community we need to celebrate "Child Protection Week" by making a stand against decisions which we view as damaging our children. We need to use this week as a way to become committed to the cause of protecting our children. As the founder of the Child Protection Party I speak to many people each week concerning the removal of their children. I am not here to suggest that all these people are blameless when it comes to parenting their children. I have worked with many parents where the removal of their children was justifiable. However in each case the parents and the children need a voice. I have also seen parents turn their lives around and make significant changes which would justify the return of their children but be denied this opportunity because of their past.

Child Protection Week should celebrate those parents who have made the changes necessary. We should also acknowledge that those parents were not responsible for the way they were parented. We all should fight for the right of each parent to change. We should acknowledge that drug abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse and sexual abuse should not form any part of a child's life. During this week we should make a stand against all forms of abuse and tell those we know who are disrespecting their children that this has to stop. We first need to look within our own home and ensure that we are doing what we are telling others to do.

Our responsibility to children is to celebrate their "right" to be respected and loved in ways which makes them feel valued. It is incumbent upon all of us who are taking up this fight to be acting in ways which support the values we espouse. It is the height of hypocrisy to be abusive of others and then to advocate that children should be safe. The moment we are putting someone down or modeling behaviour that would be seen as abusive of a child we are no better then the abuser. I know it sounds a little self-righteous, but if we fail to express the values which underpin our cause then we are no different from our detractors.

Child Protection Week should be a celebration of the "rights" of the child. These rights should be enforced by everyone who works and lives with children.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why Child Protection is a disaster - The Nyland Report

The release of the Nyland Report into child protection in South Australia is just another example of a meaningless report being written by a judge who for reasons I don't understand is purported to have the ability to decipher a system which has left most people confused since its inception. I am not suggesting for a moment that some of the recommendations don't have merit because many of them are significant. What I am critical of is the lack of understanding concerning the culture and lack of transparency which has left children vulnerable and parents without a voice. If we are to understand the problems which exist within child protection services everywhere we have to understand what there is about the human experience that allows all these systems to function in a vacuum, answerable to no one.

We need to tighten some of the legislation so it has more meaning in our contemporary society, but we need to grapple with the idea that the people who influence, manage and determine the outcomes of this system are governed by their own biases which are driven by a middle class sense of righteousness. This is the enigmatic culture that lurks behind every assessment and decision bringing despair and chaos to many families. What is needed is a sense of humanity and understanding that breeds cooperation, meaningfulness and a joint responsibility. The values and principles which should drive people to do this work are often lacking. It is here where the culture needs to change.

Legislation may change and money may be poured into the system but it will do nothing to change the ingredients that are going to determine substantive outcomes for children and families.

If we wish to change a culture we need to understand what determines the current culture and how it has been supported over time. Someone has to say the way you are thinking and acting is unhelpful and you need to change. If you are unable to abide by the principles that are important to the wellbeing of families then there is no place for you in this organisation. Those principles need to be understood by those who govern the system. Regretfully, there is no indication that the gatekeepers of the system have any inkling of the standard required for the child protection system in order to deliver better outcomes.

Nyland and others may express outrage at this abusive system but we all acknowledge that it fails children and families over and over again. Being outraged is not going to solve the problem. We have to stand together against those who fail to uphold basic principles of cooperation, respect and partnering.

If you ask a parent who has had their children removed what workers they enjoyed working with they will tell you that the worker who was interested in them and displayed empathy was the one they felt connected to and the one whom they would want to develop a partnership with. This week I met with a woman who had four children removed from her and she gave the above assessment of a worker she had worked with before her case was transferred to another office. Her current worker, whom I know, she described as lacking empathy and "he appeared as if he was a businessman." .

To change the culture we need workers to "fight" for their clients. Most of the people I work with have the capacity to be better parents and deserve to have their children in their care. Workers need to make a stand against practices within their organisation which prevents them from representing their clients effectively. In the past I have been told by FSA workers that the child is the client. Herein lies another problem and is in need of drastic change. From a social work perspective anyone who you encounter in the context of your work is a "client". If workers could accept this concept and worked effectively with all those involved less children would be removed and more parents would find effective ways of parenting.

As I have mentioned in many posts before, politicians don't have the political will to resolve this issue. It appears complicated because they don't understand the problem. They expect people like Nyland to present them with the all encompassing panacea. She has presented some practical changes but she has failed to address the cultural dysfunctionality which pervades the department. We need to confront the stark reality. The Department has no idea as to what constitutes an effective worker. They fail to understand why they lose staff at an alarming rate. They have chosen to do nothing about this problem even though it has been evident for decades. They are removing children at records rates and no one seems to care.

To her credit she talks about primary health care. This is a great idea. Yes, lets help parents at risk of losing their children to be better parents. Why should we offer this to NGO's who will use the funding to build bigger organisations but lack scrutiny and transparency. These organisation pay poorly because in order for them to win funding they have to be competitive thus employing unqualified and poorly trained staff to deliver services.

It is true that greater funding is required but the services offered have to be the best equipped with professional staff who have specific training in the field and who are well paid with all the resources to do their job properly. There is no greater investment than the one we make in our children.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

WAR - Rally - Kids in Detention

I would like to recognise that we are on Kaurna land and that we pay tribute to the past and present owners of this land. We are here today because we have viewed barbaric and inhumane treatment of children.  

I want to talk to you about the horror we experienced this week and the impact this has on those of us who attempt to give a voice to the most disempowered individuals in our community. We do not accept that there is any justifiable reason for abusing any child. We believe that all children should live in a safe, nurturing environment. When the State steps in to care for children when parents are unable to care for them, then that environment should be respectful and create a space where a child can develop a sense of self that is purposeful and valued. These values are shared by those of us who care for the mental and physical well-being of all children. This is every child’s right. 

What we witnessed on Monday night was a flagrant disregard of these rights perpetrated by government officials on children. What makes this more sickening is that the use of spit hoods and restraining chairs was sanctioned by the government. Ministers and government officials ordered and paid for these devices. What did they think they were going to be used for? This is government sanctioned child abuse. I am concerned about the mentality of our elected officials when they endorse abusive behaviours on our children. What sort of society are we creating if we allow our governments to behave in this way? How little respect do they have for human dignity and the well-being of our children in particular?

I call on Mr Weatheral to tell us if the devices used in the Northern Territory are used in this state. I call for an audit of our youth detention centres so that we can feel comfortable that our children are have not suffered the same abuse.  If this abusive behaviour was perpetrated by a parent the child would be removed from their care. The parent is made accountable for their behaviour. There are consequences. What are the consequences to the scores of people responsible for this state sanctioned abuse? 

There will be a Royal Commission – yes another one. But there is no need to wait for its findings. Those who conducted the abuse should be charged and hopefully jailed. Those who have colluded with this process of systematic abuse should be sacked. Those who witnessed it but chose to do nothing are just as guilty as those who committed the abuse, they also should also be sacked. To change this culture of abuse we as a community have to say enough is enough. We are no longer going to tolerate incompetence and the wilful neglect of our children.  As someone who works with parents whose children have been removed I wonder about the degree to which those who represent the government are acting in many cases in the best interest of the child.

 There will be some who will justify the behaviour of the guards and the restraints used. There will be some who will say they were acting in the best interest of the child. In my professional career I have heard those statements over and over again, a mantra which justifies the decision making process which isn’t always in the child’s best interest. There are those who blame the children, see them as bad kids, deserving of whatever punishment is dished out to them. 

I say to those who hold these distorted views that under no circumstance no human should be tortured or abused in this way and least of all children. 

Tony Tonkin
Founder and Leader
Child Protection Party

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Kids in Detention - A Wider Systemic Problem

Words fail to describe how I felt when I viewed the ABC 4 Corners program on Monday night. It prompted a live feed on Facebook. The YouTube video of my response can be found here.

It has become apparent that the Minister responsible was made aware of the ABC's presentation before it was released, but chose not to view it and therefore didn't comment on it. In 2014 there was an inquiry into Youth Detention in the NT and this report was kept from the public. One can assume that issues such as those revealed on Monday night were mentioned in this report. What this means to me is that the institutionalised abuse of children is of no concern to Governments until it is exposed by journalists.

The Child Protection Party and I have heard many stories concerning the abuse of children while in care. Parents and children are not heard, they are labelled irrelevant, because those in power are those who determine what outcomes are "best" for the child. The treatment of those boys in the ABC report was seen as appropriate given that they were troublesome kids. The guards were able to behave as they pleased because they were unchecked. There was no standard of care or even a basic sense of human decency exhibited in the treatment of these children. It is abhorrent to me that what we viewed is just the beginning of a process of denial and mistreatment that runs throughout the "care" system.

What we need to confront is that children, in our society, are a commodity, abused and mistreated because they don't have a voice. While we become incensed about pedophilia and the damage inflicted on children we should be equally outraged about a system which continues to damage children and is endorsed by those who are assigned to care for our children. We not only have to confront this problem but we have to find solutions to a culture which flagrantly denies the most vulnerable people in our community their basic human rights.

As I write this post I can feel the anger and rage inflaming inside me. This is because I have been claiming for years that we are doing NOTHING about the culture which allows our children to be continually abused. I am frustrated because my calls and those of others have not been heard. We have all been seen as part of the "Lunatic Fringe", been demonised and dismissed. We are now approaching a time when we will have to be heard because the evidence is mounting that the "State" is not only the worst parent it also continues to traumatise and damage children.

I can not understand why we would take children away from their parents, who in many cases could address the "risk factors" which caused their children to be removed, and then create further trauma in the children's lives which will impact them for the rest of their lives. Why do we allow people to work with children who are deplete of any compassion or empathy demonstrated by behaviour which rapes a child of their sense of self and belonging? We should not be surprised when these children turn to crime and become disconnected from society. They become this way because of the treatment of those who are suppose to "care" for them. These people don't "care" for these children at all. They hold children in such contempt that they denigrate and humiliate them. These people should never work with children so we have to wonder who employs them and supervises them. Why do we allow these foxes in the hen coop?

I would like to know who agreed to the use of the restraining chair? Surely there was a discussion with management about this chair and under what circumstances it would be used. The fact that this discussion must have taken place because the chair didn't materialise out of thin air, doesn't this mean that no one recognised the problem. The thought that a chair of this nature was going to be used to abuse children surely should have rung a few bells for those who administer this system. Those people are just as much a part of this problem as those who tied down the child or sprayed the children. We need to be asking where the Minister was in this process? Anyone who condones any of these methods in complicat and needs to be removed from their position. Anyone who physically abused these children should be charged with assault and imprisoned into the very system they administer.

What we witnessed on Monday night is the extreme end of the problem but it is a systemic culture which permeates down to the moment a child is removed and placed into "care".

My call is to all who work in this system to consider - when you remove a child from their parents how are you personally going to provide the best outcome for this child? What are you going to do that will ensure that this child will be returned to the people who love this child? If you are unable to fulfill this obligation to the child then get out. If you choose to stay and say nothing about the dysfunctionality of the system then you are as responsible for any abuse perpetrated against these children as the abuser. If you stay, then make a stand and demand change.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

National Framework for Protecting Children - Why isn't it used?

The National Framework for Protecting Australia's children was published in 2009. It begins with the catch phrase "Protecting Children is Everyone's Business". The intent of this document is to muster support and co-operation between all levels of Government and the Community. There is an assumption in this report that we are doing all that we can to influence constructive change in the area of child protection. Even though we know that the number of notifications and the number of children taken into care is increasing those who right these reports  tend to want to believe that we are doing all that we can to correct the flow of children into out of home services.

The National Framework expresses all the platitudes one would expect from a document written by public servants who don't wish to be critical of their masters. It is as if they are walking fine line between a soft version of reality and plain deceit. An example of this is the graph below.

Here we see a true indicator of where services should be spent and who is responsible for those services. The writers state that this diagram, in reality, looks more like an hour glass. I would suggest that a truer version would have this diagram as in inverted pyramid. We are using so much of the funding propping up the "Statutory System" and very little supporting the "Universal preventative initiatives to support all families and children". 

The great disappointment by this document is that the writers want us to believe that as a nation we are “onto it”. We needn’t worry because those who manage child protection services in this country have the solution, even though the stats and anecdotal evidence doesn’t support that notion.

“The six supporting outcomes are:

1. Children live in safe and supportive families and communities
2. Children and families access adequate support to promote safety and intervene early
3. Risk factors for child abuse and neglect are addressed
4. Children who have been abused or neglected receive the support and care they need for their safety and wellbeing
5. Indigenous children are supported and safe in their families and communities
6. Child sexual abuse and exploitation is prevented and survivors receive adequate support”

As noble as these outcomes are there is no evidence that any of these outcomes are met by any Government. There is no suggestion that funding should be increased in any of these areas to produce better outcomes. There is no reflection on whether different types of services are required, yet they remain with the status quo and discuss better organising services so they are more efficient. An analyses needs to be made as to what services are inefficient but more importantly governments need to be talking to stakeholders not service providers.

A prime example of a great idea but a miserable failure is:-

 2.4 “Enhance services and supports for children and families.

“Comprehensive evaluation of family law reforms designed to strengthen family
relationships, including:
- research into the characteristics of shared care parenting arrangements that work in the best interests of the child
- research on the impact of family violence on relationship breakdown”

None of the above have been achieved.

Why do Governments put forward the best rhetoric and then produce the worst outcomes? It verifies what I have always believed and that is they truly don’t understand the nature of the problem. Yes, we need services for those who are the most disadvantaged but we are not prepared to invest in those services. The National Framework aligns with the status quo. What they are saying is “We know there is a problem but we have no idea as to how we should approach it?” It is like the parent who recognises that his/her child is acting badly but fails to understand the world of the child which may be causing the behaviour.

It is the lack insight and understanding which is preventing all Governments from approaching child protection with a new vision.

It has been seven years since this document was formulated and yet nothing has changed. I wonder who looks back over this document and asks why haven't we achieved the goals? We need to be asking who is responsible for failing the children and families of this country? 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Youth Court and the lack of justice

I am working with a young couple who are fighting to have their child returned to them. They have been told by legal aid that they do not qualify because there is no merit in their case, in other words a decision has been reached by some junior solicitor that the case is not winnable. When did we begin deciding that people were not entitled to legal representation because some obscure individual decided that the case lacked merit. I fail to understand how this is "just" and represents a basic human right for people, any person, to be appropriately represented.

When these people were told that they were not to be funded I offered to represent them as a "Friend of the Court". They applied to the court to have me represent them but they were told the following:-

"I refer to your letter dated 27th June 2016 wherein you request to be represented in this matter by a third party, Mr Tony Tonkin, at the trial of this matter on the 5th July 2016.
The Judge who is listed to hear the trial has refused your request."

No explanation was offered as to why this decision was made. Because I thought the response may be about their antagonism towards me I suggested another person to represent them but that was also declined. A further email was received by the parents from the court:-

"The Snr Judge has advised that it is not unusual in this Court for parties to be unrepresented.  Many parents are unable to obtain legal assistance at trial."

The contempt the court has towards parents is explicit in the courts response to the parents. In other words they think so little of parents that they treat them with total contempt by denying them the right to be represented appropriately. The parents and I discussed a strategy, if they have to self-represent. We designed a range or questions which could be asked of the witnesses and a format which would present the parents case in the best possible light.

The parents have informed me today that the court process has not gone well. They have asked questions of the Social Worker about her experience and whether she was qualified to offer an informed opinion on the matter before the court. The father was shut down when he began asking these questions. His questioning was opposed by the Crown and supported by the judge. The crown was permitted to ask any questions they like, some very similar to those the parent was not allowed to ask. How can any reasonable person suggest that this is just?

The parent commented that he believed he was on trial and that very little had to do with his son and parenting. The parents were told that FSA was applying for a long term order because the Social Workers believe that past issues of the parents would take at least three years to be addressed and that the child would be too attached to the Foster Parents by that time and it would not be in the best interest of the child to have him return to the parents care. As a therapist I know that the worst thing you can do is to assess how long it is going to take for someone to work through past issues. If they have a crappy therapist then this may be the case but to set a time period when you don't even know what the issues may be and you don't understand the drive the client may have to discuss their "issues" is unhelpful. If a Social Worker made this type of recommendation then they have failed their profession because they have failed the client.

This case demonstrates the inadequacies of the Youth Court and the blatant disregard for the parents and subsequently the child. As I have mentioned in other blogs the department is obsessed with managing risk thus failing to take into account the changes parents have made. The Child Protection Party is calling for a change to the Youth Court and are advocating to change the legislation so that it addresses the changes people make and doesn't rely on flimsy social work practices to determine the outcome.

The experience of these parents are common-place within the child protection system. Parents such as these need a voice. If you have had similar experiences or can offer some insight into the way the system can change I would be pleased to hear from you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reforms to FamiliesSA

The Nyland report into FamiliesSA has highlighted the changes that most of us have been anticipating for years. It makes one wonder why it is that they need to have an inquiry into what most people knew to begin with. The Report suggests that management need to have some experience in the area of child protection. I guess that now excludes the current CE of FamiliesSA. How did it make sense that to manage an organisation with a strong professional staff component you would employ non-professional staff to manage. This goes from the top down.

Social Work is a profession with high ethical principles. It is the only profession where "social justice" is embedded in its code of ethics. How is it possible for an organisation to manifest those values if the people running the organisation don't understand them or even won't allow them to be expressed?

Child Protection is not going to change by appointing someone from overseas, as if they have the solution to the problem. Real change will only occur when we begin to think about Child Protection differently. Below I offer the recommendations of the Child Protection Party.

Our recommendations are:-

  1. Children need to maintain connections with their biological family.
  2. Where possible children need to remain with their biological family.
  3. Siblings should remain together.
  4. Parents should be provided with as much contact with their children as they would like when a child is in care.
  5. Relationships with foster parents and biological parents should be fostered and supported by the agency.
  6. Ongoing and continual support should be provided for foster parents.
  7. Children in care should receive additional educational and social supports.
  8. Children exiting care should be offered additional educational support eg easier access to University and other further education. 
  9. Social Workers should be registered with the AASW before they are employed.
  10. Social Workers who fail to comply with the standards set by the AASW should not be practicing in this area and breaches should be reported to the AASW.
  11. Social Workers need to be trained to engage with parents and family members with the view to implementing change so that children can remain within their family.
  12. Social Workers need to acquire the skill set to work effectively in this area.
  13. Services need to be provided for family that are at risk of having their children removed. Engagement with these services should be viewed as a positive step and not result in a child being removed unless the child is at risk of serious harm.
  14. The Youth Court should be abolished and a structure created which provides a voice for parents and children. Lawyers should be prohibited from this court. Cases should be submitted to a panel, consisting of a social worker, judge, lawyer, psychologist and a stakeholder or member of the public. This court should provide the Child Protection agency with a case plan and monitor its progress.
  15. All Social Workers  should be supervised according to the standards established by the AASW.

I am certain that I have missed some important areas but I incorporated the most salient. Unless these areas are addressed nothing will change. It is imperative that we continue the conversation and not accept Nyland's report as the solution to the problem because it fails in so many areas. I am hoping that her final report will highlight some of the areas I have mentioned above.

It is disappointing that so many of us over the years have offered ideas that will make the changes required, but it has become apparent that the gatekeepers in the child protection industry do not want to accept and implement these vital changes. I believe that those in power do not understand the real issues and that failure to grasp what really needs to change will produce more of the same and the dysfunctionality of FSA will continue.

As the founder of the Child Protection Party I offer these suggestions so that they can be debated and when a state election is held we will be able to take these to that election and win.