Sunday, January 15, 2017

Social Justice and Social Work in Child Protection

I often wonder about the degree that Social Workers consider Social Justice when it comes to working with parents and children. There is no doubt that, on most occasions, they are aware of the impact poor parenting has on children and the long term detrimental effects. What I am not aware off is the conversation they have relating to where people come from and what informs parents thinking and behaviour.

The degree by which we can understand anyone is determined by the effort we put into understanding them. This includes our ability to ask questions which demonstrate a genuine interest because it is important to their well-being for us to understand the texture of their life. As Social Workers it is our role to direct people into pathways which are constructive and will enhance lives. It matters not that we are focussed solely on the well being of a child, what is important is that those who interact with that child have been, listened to, heard and understood. We should never preclude those who have an active role in a child's life.

"The social work profession:

promotes justice and social fairness, by acting to reduce barriers and to expand choice and potential for all persons, with special regard for those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, oppressed or have exceptional needs

advocates change to social systems and structures that preserve inequalities and injustice." AASW Code of Ethics 2010

 To what extent do Social Workers provide "special regard for those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, oppressed or have exceptional needs"? I am concerned that within Child Protection this aspect of Social Work becomes lost in the mire of the work and the pressures exerted by those who are interested in the politics of Child Protection compared to the politics of a person's life. To acknowledge the injustices and inequalities which impact a person's life provides a unique opportunity to walk alongside them and to empathise with them.

I have attended many child protection meetings where there has been the opportunity to explore a person's experiences but it is ignored. By ignoring a person's experiences we are telling them that they don't matter, that we don't care - our agenda is more important than they are.

The injustices people feel are often deeply ingrained. Removing a child is extremely emotive and is encased in a sense of unfairness, injustice and judgmentalism. To mitigate this as best as possible we need to understand what this means to the parent and the connections this has in their lives where they have had these feelings tested over and over again. We all need to understand the impact these feelings have on parents and that this often determines behaviours and how we choose to respond to people who harbor these feelings.

Feelings don't sit in isolation, separate from other experiences. They are enshrined in our beliefs which are determined by our experiences. If a person has experienced childhood abuse it is reasonable for us all to expect them to have a strong sense of unfairness. It wasn't fair that they were treated as they were when they were growing up. The child in them is still confused by the continual injustice perpetrated against them. They still feel like the abused child yet as adults should have a voice amongst other adults, but they don't. They are often still treated like they were as a child, not heard and misunderstood. So they fight back in the only way they know, with aggression fed by their anger.

I don't find any of this hard to comprehend but I suspect that many who work in the area of child protection never consider these nuances. Understanding this would help workers to better communicate with clients which would in turn produce more cooperative and beneficial outcomes.

The notion of Social Justice and Fairness seems to be lost on those who work with the most disadvantaged in our community. In order to provide significant change we have to change the way we view the problem. Social Workers need to build trust and respect. The sometimes vile responses from clients is often challenging but is only the presentation of deeper, more significant issues which are crying out to be recognised and addressed. When a worker takes a defensive stance they are buying into the client's version of all authority figures. The client feels blamed and denigrated, which is the lifelong pattern.

Social Workers need to understand the power they wield and how it is operationalised. Used as a tool to control and have authority over another will always be viewed through the lens of "injustice". I know that the interpretation of "power" is not the fault of the worker, but if acknowledged by the worker, it may help to build a better relationship rather than the flagrant wielding of it.

We should all acknowledge the injustices in people's lives and work to ensure that we don't add to the stockpile.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What is the "rotten culture" of the child protection system?

The question we need to be asking ourselves at this important time, of reevaluation and naval gazing concerning child protection not only in the state of South Australia but nationally is, "how 'rotten' is the culture, who is responsible for it and whether it is likely to change?" What we also need to wonder about is whether parents and particularly children will benefit from these changes?

What I find the most frustrating is that what we are being told now is not new and didn't need an expensive inquiry to tell us what those outside of the department have known for years. Someone just had to ask. If management are blind to change, refuse to admit that they have failed and continue to do what they have always done, and we continue with the same management philosophy and mindset then we are going to reap the same. So now that it is official old knowledge what can we expect from the same people who constructed the debacle in the first place? The sad response has to be - not very much.

Nyland states "that a culture of arrogance, mistrust, bullying and dishonesty is endemic with the department." When one considers this statement you have to doubt the decision making process which has taken kids from families, placed them in unsuitable foster families or kinship care. A culture that is based in mistrust and bullying is going to manipulate decisions which impact the wellbeing of children for the rest of their lives. No one is taking responsibility for the damage done by the creation of a department that is more dysfunctional than the families they should be working with. I don't see Premier Weatheral or Minister Close admitting to the disaster they have created because they failed to understand the dynamics of the Child Protection System and the role of those they chose to manage it.

It is evident from the Nyland report that social workers were critical of the way they are managed and viewed by management. I find it difficult to understand why social workers blame the Department for the poor decisions that are made by others. Recently I was at a meeting where a client was informed that the DCP were applying for an 18 year order on four children. This was a poor decision and I believe the Social Worker knew this but she was simply doing what her manager had told her. As Nyland stated "Workers feel they are heavily managed from a high level, particularly by executives who micromanage casework decisions and do not give sufficient weight to the professional expertise held by staff." I can understand that a young social worker may not have the courage to make a stand against a superior. I do wonder how the young Social Worker advocated for the parent if she was feeling intimidated by her manager. The decision this social worker was delivering was not only unnecessary but it was going to harm the children concerned. The children were going to be removed from their grandmother and will be placed in foster care where they are likely to be separated. The decision is plainly wrong and at odds with the work the mother has been doing, but the decision to separate this family forever was made by those who were not working with the family. I can cite many examples where this has occurred. If Social Workers want to be taken seriously then they have to make a stand for their Professional ethics and back their Professional decisions. Social Workers allow themselves to become the victim here, at the expense of the children.

Nyland states that "nothing has changed". For us to have the expectation that it will change is naive and is not borne out by past behaviours. That those who know very little about cases are making decisions that impacts people's lives and the lives of their offspring is a matter of great concern and requires all of us to protest in the strongest possible terms.

What allows those who know nothing to make the decisions about everything is predicated on the notion that there will never be any recourse. The facelessness of those making the decisions makes it almost impossible to discover the decision maker. It is easier to blame the person at the front line than it is to blame the person who approved the decision or influenced it. It is a culture of anonymity, where those responsible for the failure of the system will never be named nor held accountable.

Let's not lay the blame solely at the feet of management. As mentioned above it is the duty of every Social Worker to take responsibility for their own ethical practice. My experience has been that Social Workers, often young, believe that they know all there is to know about the profession once they have completed their two placements and graduated. The truth is that they know very little about the profession and how they should behave and the responsibility they have to their profession. Very few are members of the AASW.

Two years ago the Department implemented Strength Based Casework as their model of practice. In my view SBC represented a solid approach to Social Work and at least gave a solid framework from which to work. Soon after its introduction I asked CPS Social Workers what they thought of the new program. All of them told me that it was "Social Work 101". Nyland notes that Social Workers referred to CBS as "common sense social work", which validates my experience. What this told me was that they had no idea what SW 101 was but it was clear that they were not prepared to work differently because, as limited as their experiences were, they "knew it all". The first rule of Social Work is that "You will never know it all." Because they believe that they are the fountain of all that is Social Work, they will never learn from their mistakes, they will never view bad decisions as being damaging to children, they will always defend poor decision making. They will never be capable of looking backwards and learning from their mistakes. This is the culture of naivete.

It is fascinating that the major criticism offered in relation to the use of SBC was that it focussed more on the family than the children and therefore put the children at risk. One would have thought that the focus on family and making sure children are safe within their family is a noble objective. What does this tell us about the mindset of Social Workers when they see this as an unhelpful aspect of the program?

We know what the "rotten culture" is, the big question is who has the courage to change it?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Why the Child Protection Party is so important

The Child Protection Party is the most important change on the political landscape for many years. You may be wondering how that is possible with the advent of the Greens, One Nation, the Justice Party and all the other fringe parties lurking around the perimeter of politics. There is no doubt that the competition for positions is great and the enthusiasm by all the minor parties to have a place at the table is hotly contested. Then there is off course the two major parties and what they present that keeps us all fastened to the "two-party system" which has kept us amused for over a century.

The Child Protection Party have a commitment to the well-being of all children. All other political parties play lip-service to the idea that children are important and that services must be provided which will improve their future. What the "others" fail to realise is that unless we seek solutions to the number of children being abused in and out of "care" nothing is ever going to change. In the meantime we are placing our children at risk of harm and are establishing a future which continues to ignore the rights of children to grow up feeling safe and secure.

The challenge is to give every child a voice within a system which refuses to acknowledge the part a healthy child will play in the future of our country. As the population ages we will be dependent on the good-will of those who have the power to determine the conditions in which the older generation lives. As we pass on the authority and power to the young we can only hope that they have the compassion and understanding to produce a way of life which is commensurate with the values we have given them. If we ignore the potential that lies in each child we are condemning future generations to the misery that besets those who have suffered at the hands of adults.    

It is imperative that we recognise the pending damage which may be caused by ignoring the needs of the young. Our societal duty is to acknowledge that we must all do what we can to ensure a bright future exists for all children regardless of the country they are born in or the socio-economic environment they live.

We must understand that we have the power to encourage their parents to be better parents. We have the power to teach those who have not been shown how to parent, to parent. We have the power to show parents that they are damaging their children and that they have an opportunity to do better. We have the power not to judge. Above all, we have the power to believe in those who don't believe in themselves.

Together we can make a difference that will change the way we view children and the people that raise them. We can find the gems that sit within everyone and bring them to light. We can no longer sit back and hope that "it will all get better", like a whimsical dream.

This is the time to take action by joining with the Child Protection Party so that together we can all make a difference.

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.