Sunday, October 31, 2010

Child Protection and the system which protects it

There is a fabulous article in the UK Telegraph which says all that needs to be said about child protection and the system which protects it from scrutiny. Read the article here. I read many articles from around the world which talk about child protection always in the same way. There is a universal way of viewing child protection and very little of it is good. The article mentioned here could have been written about any child protection system in Australia. It fascinates me that the very system which is so talked about and the emotive nature of child protection has become so protected and so unjust and inequitable that it belies the very scrutiny it receives.

In order for the government to protect their system they must appear to be active and vigilant against those parents who do abuse their children. As in the recent prosecution of the six parents who abused their children it becomes evident that this was more about being seen to be active and vigilant and to give the impression that there are horrific cases of abuse and that the government is on the ball and taking firm action. A case such as this and other cases where parents are abusing children should not pursued us that the system is working. It goes without saying, but I will say it again, that we need to protect children from harm. I know from personal involvement with the case mentioned above that the system will not be able to provide these damaged children the care they are going to need to overcome the abuse they have suffered ,as it was not able to help the adults when they were children to overcome the abuse they experienced. And so the cycle continues.

I have worked with a client whose son was sexually abused while in care. The abuser was arrested but not charged because the child was too young to give evidence even though child pornography was discovered on the abusers computer. To what extent is the government culpable for placing a child at risk? An apology was eventually offered as a result of my advocacy work, but I am sure the department would have pushed this under the carpet had it not been for my involvement.

The problem seems to be that the department doesn’t hold itself up for scrutiny. I know that there is a culture which propagates inadequacy whereby social workers and others object to a critical eye being cast over their practice. They object to being critiqued probably for fear that they may have their weaknesses revealed. It has always seemed hypocritical that the very organisation which has a “Big Brother” view of clients is fearful of the same gazed cast upon them. When ever I have a meeting or phone call with a social worker from FSA they have been told to have another worker to note what has been said. Now what is that all about? Not that I object all that much but do I have the luxury of having someone standing by who can sit with me when I have a conversation with them? Who sits with clients when they are at meetings and elsewhere? Before FSA turn up on your door step do they warn you that they are coming and suggest that you have someone present with you, taking notes for future reference?  I can tell you from personal experience that they do not like someone else turning up with a client, certainly if it is a professional.

I wonder how FSA look at what they do and to what extent do they retrain staff who are not performing appropriately. Who even knows what appropriate is? What is the standard of service because it certainly isn’t what is written in the Child Protection Manual?

I am hoping that the good Social Workers who work in the department will one day all band together and stop the practices which disadvantage and disempower people. I am hoping that one day the good Social Workers will critique colleagues who behave badly and report them for mal-practice. I am hopeful that the Social Workers who work for FSA realise that they have the best job in the world if they practiced according to Social Work principles. It isn’t all that hard, unless you are feeling as vulnerable as the clients you are suppose to help.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Child Protection and long term orders

Currently I am working with a client whose child is under the guardianship of the Minister to the age of eighteen. This is an important case because it represents all that is unhelpful about Child Protection decision making and the long term care of children. We had applied for legal aid and were hopeful that once this was granted there would be a pathway to have the order varied. The lawyer contacted me and informed me that the only pathway would have been to have challenged the order within twenty one days of it being granted. To apply to the supreme court to have this challenged would have cost $2,000 for the application alone. When unemployed and at he lowest end of the socio-economic pile who has the money to seek such an application? That is just the application fee. Legal aid wont fund the actual court proceedings. The reality is that very few people, if any, can afford to challenge the legal system and child protection services once their child has been removed and a long term order is in place.

But it becomes more complicated and unjust than what I have mentioned. There is virtually no way that a parent can change an order, regardless of how much they have reached sainthood. However I am told that the Department is able to seek variations to orders and do this regularly. They can return to the court and change aspects of an order at a whim particularly if they believe the current order is not in the best interest of he child. They do not, and refuse to, change orders if the parent has changed his or her lifestyle and is even able to provide a better home than the one the child is currently living. It often appears that the department believes that in all circumstances they are the better parent. We all know that that isn’t the case.

How have we allowed a system to develop which is clearly inequitable. Are they afraid that if everyone had access to an appeal process that the department would be held accountable for the decisions they make. The department will argue that the parent has many opportunities to prove that they can parent differently and to some extent that is true but often the time frame for this is too small and the decision makers become too entrenched in their decision that they refuse to offer appropriate pathways towards re-unification. In my clients case this is what happened.

I admit that this is relatively new territory for me but I found it interesting that when I contacted the department and presented them with the legal interpretation I had been given the person I spoke to wasn’t certain as to the exact process either and suggested that I contact the clerk of the court to find out. If a senior Social Worker in the department cant be definitive about the legal ramifications and requirements then we have to wonder why we would expect front line staff to know either.

What this means for practice is that Social Workers are obligated to inform their clients of the implications of the workers actions. That includes the legal ramifications of the decisions of the court and the appeal process. Me client told me that if she had known this she would have responded differently to the court process in the beginning and challenged the GOM 18 order more vehemently. If I had known what I know now I would have have talked to her about these issues and also asked the social workers concerned why they weren’t talking to the client about the ramifications for the client and child.

When I hear Social Workers tell parents that even though the department are seeking a GOM 18 the client can still return to court I want to vomit. It is a gross misrepresentation of the actual situation, in fact it is a lie, either based on ignorance or just plain guilt. I wonder if Child Protection workers really understand the implications of their decisions and the long term impact this has on the parents and more importantly the child.

The client I am referring to here lives in a neat and very tidy home. Has great parenting skills. Is applying for university next year. Is very intelligent. No longer self harms. Has improved her mental health to the point one could argue it is no longer problematic. But under the current system no matter what she changes she will never be able to get her daughter back in her care. In fact the department thinks the child is better in a family where corporal punishment is the norm, leaving the child in the care of others for days on end is okay, and that the carers are aging and not able to provide the same care as her mother, is all in the best interest of the child.

The department is able to return to court and vary the order but are unwilling to do so. The client told me that she doesn’t care if the department remain involved she just wants her daughter back. But they don’t get it and I am left wondering, why? I sense that some of the people from the department, who have met my client, since I have been advocating for her, also are wondering what is going on here. But no one has the guts to challenge their workers decisions in the first instance, and more importantly no one has the guts to act in what is in the best interest of the child. 

I have worked with some fantastic social workers at Families SA. It distresses me that the decision making process, which ultimately changes peoples lives for ever, is allowed to be made by inexperienced unequipped Social Workers. I know if some of these more experienced and capable Social Workers had been given this case that there would have been a different outcome.