Monday, July 13, 2015
It is hard for those of us who have never lost someone under these circumstances to understand the distress the remembrance of a birthday can bring. Chloe's death was preventable and this thought alone makes the distress more pronounced and unimaginable.
Chloe reminds me about the failings of a system which is designed to protect the most vulnerable in our community. Chloe was unable to reach her full potential. She was severely abused by adults who were consumed by drug use and violence. She was not only neglected by her mother and partner but she was also neglected by a child protection system whose mantra is "we act in the best interest of the child". Chloe is a continual reminder of how dysfunctional the system is that had the authority to protect her. She reminds me that the Social Workers assigned to work with her mother were incompetent and an embarrassment to the Social Work profession.
I am reminded by Chloe that the Social Work profession is responsible for failing this child. We have failed by not exerting our professional standards on an area of Social Work that has continually failed families. We have been complacent by believing that child protection is untouchable, an area of practice that operates in a vacuum. I am disgusted that a beautiful young child had to die, for a Coronial Inquest to take place, before anyone had the guts to say there is something wrong with the practice of these Social Workers and those who influence Social Work practice in this environment.
Chloe has helped me to understand that fighting for better practice standards within Child Protection is a worthwhile battle. She drives me to ensure that we don't experience another death of a child who is under the gaze of Child Protection services. I know how important it is to have those responsible for her death to take responsibility and to accept that changes need to take place. I know that over time the impact of this child's short life and the circumstances of her death will diminish. I am determined that this doesn't become my experience.
Chloe's legacy needs to be a continual reminder of all that is wrong with the child protection system. Her legacy is that we need change and that this change needs to come from those who manage the system which failed to protect her. I don't anticipate swift change but I suspect Chloe's death has created a great deal of navel gazing within the department and has shone the light on a department which has been besieged for years but saw itself as being so "complicated" that mere mortals wouldn't understand the nature of their business. This in the past, has exonerated them from any justification of their behaviour. Shining a light on them was almost impossible because they have to work with the worst client group and those who objected to their practices are the most vulnerable in our communities who expressed their disdain in anger.
Angry parents are not a good look and it was always easier to view this group of people as the "lunatic fringe". Until Chloe Valentine it was always the parents fault and this diversion prevented the scrutiny FamiliesSA needed. No one was going to listen to angry parents who needed to have their children removed because they were lousy parents.
Chloe's inquest shone the light squarely on FamilesSA and their practices. Chloe reminds me that the system is as dysfunctional as her mother.
The loss of this beautiful child is a tragedy. I never knew Chloe but I will celebrate her because she needs to be remembered for the wonderful innocence she portrayed and for the changes her death will create.
My thoughts go to her family who love her for the beauty she exhibited in a tormented world.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
This speech was given to the inaugural meeting of the Child Protection Party.
We are a party for all children in care, all care leavers (forgotten Australians), the stolen generation, forced adoptions, foster parents, kinship carers, birth parents and family members, former child migrants and anyone who cares about the well-being of children.
This is a new and exciting day in Australia’s history because for the first time we are launching a Political Party with a specific focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our community, our children. As a community it is our obligation to ensure that children are safe, that they live in a caring and nurturing environment. It is our responsibility to make a stand against practices which harm or damage children, that prohibit children from reaching their full potential and restrict children from growing into productive and valued adults.
The Child Protection Party is established to provide a voice to all children. The abuse of children is a scourge on our society and one which as a community we have not confronted. It is important that we now place the issue of child abuse on the agenda so that we talk about it and find solutions for a problem which damages thousands of children every day. The Child Protection Party will highlight the need to develop services which care for children appropriately, which acknowledges that parents need help and that governments need to take responsibility for an issue which has been neglected for far too long.
It is disturbing when one notices that the number of children entering out of home care is increasing each year. That children are being abused while in care and neglected by the very service when is designed to protect them. Governments do not have the will to make the changes necessary to stop the decline in notifications and the removal of children. Governments of all persuasions believe that it is better to cut services such as Domestic Violence, youth and homeless services because these are issues which are not vote catching issues, they don’t hit the hip pocket of most Australians and they are issues that we lose interest in very quickly. They believe that establishing inquiry after inquiry will stop the dissenters and will bring a slight hush over the problem. It is important that they are seen to be doing something rather than nothing at all. They believe in minimising risk at the expense of the child and family. They fail to address poor clinical practice which leads to poor decision making. The Child Protection Party is not going to allow this behaviour to continue. It is our duty to educate the public in the long term damage to children who have been abused and the continual state of denial Governments have demonstrated in the refusal to appropriately address the problem. We will be continually highlighting the fact that “the State” is the worst parent.
It has been estimated that the annual cost of child abuse in this country is $9 billion. The total lifetime costs associated with outcomes for young people leaving care were estimated to be $738,741 (2004-05 dollars) per care leaver.
We spend on child abuse prevention about $2 billion. This tells us that what is offered as “prevention” is not working. Governments need to provide additional services and realise that primary health care is part of the solution. If you can imagine a pyramid and at the bottom are services which are needed and at the top are child protection and the costs are in proportion to the area in the triangle. The bottom area is the largest and needs to be fully resourced. We need services for people who are asking for help because they recognised that they are not coping, we need services for parents who are at risk and we need services for those whose children have been removed.
The key principles which underpin the Child Protection Party are, equity, fairness and social justice.
I believe that anyone can change. The most important tool a person needs is simply someone believing in them. My experience tells me that generally most parents love their children. Nearly everyone that I work with has come from a very dysfunctional home. Often there has been violence, drug use and sexual abuse. The start some of these people have had has been far from ideal. The barrier this presents regarding parenting their own children is immense. Social Workers at Families SA are ill equipped to work with these people, who happen to be most of their clients. It is easier to categorise, label and place them in the “too hard basket”. The unskilled Social Worker feels overwhelmed and goes to the default position “I am acting in the best interest of the child”. They become authorative, controlling and often passive aggressive. It saddens me that they behave in this way. However the outcome is that they fail to work with parents, they fail to keep the family connections, the child is distressed and often aggressive, usually identified as a problem of the parent particularly the mother, future outcomes for the child are ignored and the needs of the parents are discounted.
The Child Protection Party is no longer going to allow these behaviours to persist. We are going to report all behaviours by Child Protection workers which is unhelpful. We are going to maintain a list of those workers fail to demonstrate ethical behaviour. We are going to maintain a list of those who behave ethically.
I acknowledge that there are many Social and Welfare workers who are very skilled and to the best they can within an unsupportive system. I know that there are equally some fantastic Foster parents who give all they can to the children in their care. I acknowledge that there are parents who damage their children in the most vial and horrific way. I acknowledge that there are many parents who are not prepared to change. I acknowledge that children need to be removed from their home and separated from their parents. What I know more than anything else is that children need to feel loved, safe and nurtured. The best place for that is, if possible, with their family.
We are going to seek change in the way child protection cases are to be heard by the youth court. We are going to advocate for a less adversarial system.
We will be seeking change for Aboriginal children, children in detention and the disabled. All children through you and this party will from this day on have a political voice which is going to bring about effective and lasting change.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
For some time I have pondered how to change practice within child protection but after having met with the CEO of Families SA and realised that he was not interested in what others had to say or even willing to listen to the issues I and others presented it became evident that we needed to think differently about the problem. In essence, the problem is that children are not best served by the current practice methods. The reality is that children are not served well in this country. If you come from a violent and abusive family, if there is a an alcohol or drug problem, if you are uneducated, if you are unemployed or on a benefit, if you are physically and/or mentally challenged, you are at risk of having your children removed. If you have been in care you are likely to have your children removed. If you are a child living within these environments you are likely to be abused. If you are seen as part of the lower or underclass you are likely to have some contact with the Child Protection System. It is for these reasons that the Child Protection Party has been established.
It has always concerned me that the power differential between those who control the Child Protection System and those who are subjugated to it is extreme. The emphasis on removing children rather than working with the families and solving the problem creates a power struggle which the children and parents are not going to win. The Child Protection Party’s aim is to change that imbalance so that those with the least amount of power can demand better services, more effective interactions with workers and better outcomes for their children.
I have read many articles on the virtues of a range of practice models which may implement some change but I rarely see a practice model which is based on feedback and ideas from parents and care leavers. Yet the information is available which tells us that no matter what model is used, the outcomes are generally poor. I believe that without a fervent desire to help parents and children, without the commitment to maintain family contacts and without the commitment towards re-unification any system or practice model will fail.
I understand that there will be parents who will not have the desire to make changes in their lives, there will be children who will have to be removed and never returned to their parents, there will be children who will die at the hands of their parents and there will be children who will be abused while in care. We will never eradicate bad parenting and we will never eradicate family violence but there is plenty of room to make a significant difference.
It is important that as a community we work to ensure that children are safe. It is important that we have conversations which focus on the well-being of children. To this point Child Protection Services have not demonstrated that they have an investment in public education concerning primary health care. It is a little like the police not being interested in community policing or not being interested in limiting the number of road deaths. Prevention is about education and creating a drive to change the way the community thinks about child protection.
I find it sad though, that many clients have turned to Child Protection Services to help them when they have been struggling only to find they have been punished for doing so by having their children removed. How different would it be if a parent realised that drugs, domestic violence and mental health issues were inhibiting the way they were parenting and they knew that contacting Child Protection Services would help them. They know they would be connected with social workers who will work with them and keep them and their children safe without removing them, or offer them respite while they worked through their problems. How different would it be if we could work peacefully with families so they knew that they wouldn’t have to go through court or be threatened with orders which would take their children permanently from them. What a difference that would make? In a caring, humane society that is what we should be offering. That is the sort of community the Child Protection Party believes is our right.
I read report after report which can identify the demographic which is at risk but can not convince governments to implement the policies which will bring about change. The body of evidence is there but the will is not.
I have never seen an advertisement highlighting the need to provide a healthy environment for children. How about an advertisement advertising the help that will be offered by Child Protection Services if you are struggling and you want to talk to someone about the issues that sit in your life. Wouldn’t it be great if a person would visit you in your home and begin working with you to work through the issues that have caused you to feel depressed or overwhelmed? Wouldn’t it be great just to have someone who believed in you? If we were able to have that degree of confidence in CPS we would have redefined what Child Protection means.
The Child Protection Party is your voice for change.
Contact us at childprotectionparty@gmail .com and 0414883153
Friday, January 2, 2015
My friend came and retrieved me at the lifts and suggested that I return to the meeting, which I did. At the end of the meeting Mr Scheepers asked for sometime for me to respond to what had happened earlier and to his credit he did offer an apology. Unfortunately the damage had been done and it was a little like slapping someone around and then saying they are sorry for how that made you feel. Well, don't slap me in the first place. Once a person has demonstrated disrespectful behaviour whatever follows is often meaningless, and that is how it was for me. The apology didn't diminish how I felt.
As I have mentioned in previous posts the battle with my colleagues in Child Protection has been ongoing but on this occasion it was as if all the abuse and crap I had been dealing with for so many years came down on top of me like a mud-slide of abuse. At no point have I been abusive of my colleagues or denigrated them in any way. I have always focused on practice issues and behaviours which were inappropriate. My intention has been to improve practice so that Children and Parents have better outcomes. It isn't very complicated.
In the past I have worked very harmoniously with David Waterford. There were times when David and I would disagree vehemently but we always respected each other. At no point did I ever feel disrespected by David nor any of his management team. David employed the strategy that it was better to keep your enemies close. The dialogue David and I had was always about what is in the best interest of the parents and children I was representing. Even though we may disagree on practice issues he and later Rosemary Whitten, would at least listen. However I have come to realise that Mr Scheepers is not one of those who is prepared to listen because he has already made up his mind who I am and that, for unknown reasons I am definitely the "enemy" and it is his job to ensure that I know my place.
Mr Scheepers, what you and many of your colleagues don't understand is that I do this work because I believe in the role of Social Workers to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our community have a voice. I now know Mr Scheepers that you consider Social Workers to be no more than "Support Workers". This was your definition not mine which makes me wonder whether you consider Social Workers who work for you in the same way. He worked very hard to diminish who I was as a Social Worker which indicates an underlying prejudice against the very profession which provides the service his organisation delivers.
Unlike David Waterford I know that I am not ever going to be heard by Mr Scheepers. This is rather unfortunate because it changes the rules. In the past David tolerated me because it diverted my complaints about practice to his office and avoided 'Ministerial's". From this moment on, because of Mr Scheepers abusive behaviour, I have decided to work with all advocates to establish a consistent and relentless approach that will apply continual pressure for change. I have decided that we will work more closely with the media considering cases which are news worthy. Because Mr Scheepers has chosen to take an aggressive approach we will be establishing strategies which will be more politically aligned. I have been more than comfortable discussing my concerns every couple of months with someone from FSA but clearly this avenue is no longer available. None of this is my preferred option. If my clients no longer have a voice through negotiations with colleagues or management then I have to accept that they will need to be heard through other means.
I am confused as to why a lawyer who knows nothing about Social Work, the very profession that delivers your services, can provide the leadership required? It is like having a lawyer president of the AMA. Clearly the intent is to have someone at the top who can ride out the scandals which plague the organisation. It is going to be easy for him to declare that these scandals were not on his watch. It is going to be interesting to see how he responds when the next one occurs, and as long as there is no change to practice, there will be others.
Monday, November 10, 2014
I read with a great deal of interest the following article in the local paper.
I agree with the writer that the work Social Workers do is not recognised by the wider community and I certainly can understand that they must feel aggrieved by the negative press they receive. No one can argue that the work they do is without merit and is difficult most of the time. This article features the worst possible cases, but to be fair, there are many other cases where children are removed when more appropriate interventions would prevent this from happening and families would be able to remain together.
My issue has never been about removing children from care when they are starving or in a violent household or the children are suffering from severe neglect. As a community we should be concerned about these children and we should celebrate the fact that an organisation such as Families SA is there to ensure their safety and physical and mental well-being. We need Child Protection Services as we need the police, but what we don’t need are interventions that hinder the development of children and are focussed on blaming parents rather than finding solutions to the problem.
It is interesting to note that Minister Rankin in her portion of the attached article is talking about a service which now is focussed on keeping families together. By implication this means that this aspect of the work of the department was somehow lacking in the past and therefore needs to be fixed. Solution Focussed Casework is certainly a means of addressing this issue. Any Social Worker who understands what it means to be a Social Worker will understand the value of this work. However, on two occasions I have asked Social Workers what they think of this way of working and on both occasions I have been met with a very dry response. One person commented to me that it is “Social Work 101”. Comments such as this dismiss what this work is really about and for some reason they think they are better than this elementary version of Social Work. I wonder if they even know what Social Work 101 looks like. I must remember to ask them next time I am met with this response.
I have seen Solution Focussed Casework applied and it is streaks ahead of any other intervention I have encountered by workers in the department over the past 10 years. The reason why this program is being rolled out is that the department realised that many Social Workers either had no idea as to how to manage cases within the child protection system or those that had been doing the work for a while needed to refocus their practice. The real problem is how are you going to create change amongst a work force who believe that the way they are working is fine and that they are the ones that govern their destiny not bet practice principles. I wonder how many people are prepared to embrace the new way of working without being threatened by the change?
As we read the above article we are confronted with the reality of the work Social Workers do. I understand how the deluge of work can cause a worker to feel overwhelmed, unsupported and distressed. I also know that this distress is often caused by poor outcomes that are not determined solely by the removal of a child from the parents. Does this mean that Social Workers, such as the writer above, are not focussed on the positive outcomes they achieve which could come about by working with families and having children remain with their parents because of sound and professional interventions?
Without the appropriate Social Work interventions and skill set the outcomes will always be negative.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
I never thought I would be passionate about playing a sport such as golf. I was never interested in it when I was young nor found it interesting to watch. I thought it was a sport that was beyond me, something I could never become proficient, it seemed too hard, something I could never master. Well what do you know I haven’t mastered it, I am not good at it, but I am passionate about it.
Some years ago a friend and I would hire a few clubs and hit many balls randomly around a par three course. I found it frustrating and didn’t consider playing on a regular bases until only a few years ago. I am a terrible golfer, and probably always will be (will talk about that later), but I am in love with what I believe golf represents. It is more than what it represents but also what it means to me in in the light of my version of the world and the work I do as a Social Worker.
Before I begin my description of “golf” and what it means I wish to explain another aspect of golf which is about an interesting way I use golf to control how I respond to the work I do. For many years I had periods where I would burn out, usually every six months. I found I would become exhausted and very emotional. I wanted to hide from the world, retreat from the problems of others and cry. It was a very uncomfortable way of being and I tried many ways of confronting the problem. I discovered that much of the way I was feeling and behaving was associated with the ruminating that cluttered my tired old brain cells. I needed to find a way to stop the continual thoughts about work, clients and the challenges I had confronting a world which seemed unjust. I used visualisation to interrupt these thought processes. I began to visualise playing golf. I would play over and over again the perfect game. Hitting the ball sweetly and accurately. I would focus on my swing, body positioning and club selection. You need to know that in my head I was the best golfer you could imagine. Adam Scott didn’t come close to my performance on the golf course.
Now lets talk about the wider meaning of golf. The principle of golf is very simple. You have a stick, a hard small ball, a hole somewhere in front of you that you have to reach in as fewer strokes as possible. It seems so simple.
Lesson 1. Often we look at life as if it should be as simple as a stick and ball. I have a goal and I am going to meet that goal as easily and systematically as I can. If I hit straight and maintain my focus I will reach my goal.
Lesson 2. If I haven’t addressed many of the issues that present before I even hit the ball I will never attain my goal. Golf teaches us that there is a great deal of learning that has to take place before we even place the ball on the tee. I need to understand why am I here, what is it that I have yet to learn? I have to learn how to stand. I have to learn how to hold the club, how to move my body and hold my arms. There are many considerations before you even hit the ball. This reminds me that there are many things I have to learn about myself before I am able to do the basics. Professionally there are many things I had to learn before I could even do the basics in Social Work.
Without the basics in anything we do we will not be able to function or become proficient at anything. If we fail in the basics we are never going to accomplish our full potential. At first though we have to work out what the basics are. For years I thought that hitting the ball as hard as I can would result in the outcome I desired – to hit the ball as far as I could. I had to realise that unless I worked on the basics my desired outcome would never be reached. Golf has taught me to never lose sight of the basics, to remind myself everyday what they are and to ensure that I don’t deviate.
Lesson 3. It has only been in recent times that I have learnt that if I slow my stroke I will hit the ball straighter and with greater distance. Last week I drove the ball a record distance for me. I reached a section of the fairway that no one I play with has ever reached. I have learnt that hitting the ball in the correct position on the club and having a a good stance and swing will produce the best outcome. It is important to be patient and to remember that we don’t have to ever exert ourselves to reach our goal. Gentle and smooth will present the best result. I have to work on consistency.
Lesson 4. How we are feeling at the time of striking the ball will determine how we execute the shot. If I am preoccupied with thoughts a part from golf and that white ball I will have a terrible round. I know that I have to take the time to think about all the things that are going to be important for me to make the best shot I can. When everything is in alignment I can then make the shot. Of course rarely is everything the way it should be, often I will strike the ball and then realise something I should have done that would have improved the shot.
We have mustered the courage to make the shot. I remind myself that even though I imagine the shot, not everything I plan works according to my wishes. Like golf, in life there are many influences and often it is not possible to imagine all the possibilities. We do the best with what we have, we take a risk and if it doesn’t turn out the way we have planned we have to plan again. We practice so that every time we prepare for a task we find it easier because eventually we will be doing aspects of the task which are natural and reflexive. We are unlikely ever to do what we need to do perfectly but we should be able to do what we need to do with confidence and a belief that we are doing our best and that the sliced shot is sometimes just a part of life. We have to work to minimise the potential for the sliced shot but that doesn’t mean that we will never do one again. I am sure that all professional golfers aim to make the fairway every time but statistics show that they only make the fairway 63% of the time.
An important lesson from golf is that even though you may hit the ball into the rough or a bunker it just means that the next shot is a little more difficult but it doesn’t change the fact that you could still make par.
To be continued ……
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
I have written about emotions a few years ago but because of my involvement in other areas I have failed to focus on this aspect of my practice. The passion of the injustices I experience seem to be more important than the fundamentals of therapeutic practice. So for a while I will let the issues around child protection go and give my blog a more diverse flavour.
Recently I was watching an episode of “Insight” (SBS TV) which discussed how we retain memories when we have experienced a trauma and how we process the emotions relating to the trauma. A focus on emotions is important to my practice and the role they play in informing us of events in our lives is pivotal.
The term “emotional intelligence” is commonly used these days in order to either sell a few books or programs that tell us that if we can develop more EI we will be happier and healthier. I don’t know if that is true or the hype developed by those who are have a vested interest in this concept. What I have done over the years is develop my own model and theories around emotions which are not necessarily substantiated by any research or supported by any theory. This is the Tony Tonkin version of emotions. An idea which works with my clients and offers insights and understandings about their experiences.
Over the past 20 years I have run many programs which discussed anger. I decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t call one of these programs “Anger Management” but rather “What to do about anger’ or “Understanding Anger”. I wondered why we would want to manage anger and how do we manage an emotion anyway? For years I was also confused about the difference between “emotions” and “feelings”. In a moment of rare insight and profound understanding I discovered that “emotions” are a cluster of feelings, which cause an intense experience which we call “emotional”. For some years I would draw on the white board a very poor version of an ice berg and one day realised that the anger which was the part of the iceberg that was above the water line was a cluster of all the feelings under the water line. No one that I had worked with over the years had made the connection. The “anger” was always described as the behaviour which everyone could see. Anger was always portrayed as the emotion being expressed as behaviour. The problem with this was the notion that there was something wrong with feeling “Angry” and that anger equalled bad behaviour.
Anger, like any other feeling or group of feelings (emotion) is the way we acknowledge our experiences.Without feelings we would be no more than a cardboard cut out or a robot. Feelings are our soul, they are the most intricate and vital part of the human experience. Yet we resist understanding our feelings, even worse we refuse to even identify them.
We know that the brain struggles to differentiate between physical and emotional pain. If it sees emotional pain as the same as physical pain then it makes sense that there would be some form of resistance. It seems rather contradictory though that we don’t store physical pain but we do emotional pain. I guess we learn not to touch a hot stove, we don’t even have to touch one to know that it will generate physical pain. People throughout our life are telling us how we are to interact with the world, who we should associate with, what we should or shouldn’t be ingesting, that there are consequence for our behaviour and so on. In my experience very few people tell us that it is okay to feel.
The very aspect of our lives which needs to be acknowledged and which we need to be encouraged to embrace we are often told to ignore. The result is that our emotions, which are as significant as oxygen, are not expressed appropriately which leads to unhelpful behaviour, poor health and terrible relationships. I know from personal experience the confusion which emanates from the failure to understand our emotions. I often wrestle with what my feelings are telling me. I also know that the decisions needed when you do understand what your emotions are telling you are often not decisions that you want to make. It is easier therefore to ignore the feelings and continue on the path you have chosen because you know that a certain path is going to create more emotional pain and uncertainty.
Even though our emotions tell us where we have been, where we are now and the direction we may need to take, following the message is not always easy. Understanding our emotions means that we are going to be better informed and even though we may wish to remain in emotional despair at least we have an emotional context to work with. It is a relief to be able to say “this relationship makes me feel devalued, hopeless and helpless, but I also know where these feelings come from and they will only play out in the present if I give them permission to do so.” We can now change the thought patterns which create these emotions by realising because my parents referred to me as hopeless doesn’t mean that I have to accept that version of myself any longer. Understanding that the messages given to you, for example, in your relationship, would not have the influence and power if we weren’t holding onto messages of the past and the feelings those messages generated.
There is much that can be written about this topic. I would be interested in you thoughts. Feel free to comment.