Monday, September 7, 2015

Domestic Violence Needs a Better Approach

Frankly, Violence should stop. It is abhorrent to any reasonable person that, we as a species, keep violating each other in the most horrific ways. While we are shocked by the violence of terrorist groups, war and despotic governments, including those of western cultures, we are failing to focus on the horrific violence which is evident around us. We fail to care that the violence perpetrated within our communities and by our neighbours is as horrific as anything we may see on television. Yet there are women and children who are trapped in relationships which are extremely violent and abusive. Often they feel powerless and in too many cases fearful for their lives. They live in an environment where they are captors to a tormentor who is only interested in having his narcissistic needs met.

Currently two women per week are murdered at the hands of men who would prefer to kill their partner and sometimes their children rather than have them leave. As someone who has worked in this area for over twenty years I often feel powerless when it comes to making a difference in this area. When working with men who are violent I know that I am confronting and cause men to feel uncomfortable because there is no shying away from the impact their behaviour has on those closest to them. I refuse to make excuses for men who behave in this way. I also refuse to blame women for remaining in these relationships.

I understand the reasons why men choose to behave violently as I understand why women remain in these relationships. However there is no excuse for any behaviour that belittles, threatens or damages another human being. There is no excuse for another person to want to control another for the purpose of self gratification or because one person feels unworthy of another. As a species we have to learn that we are not dependent on another for our happiness. Men generally believe that without their partner and children they are not complete, that an element of their sense of self is intrinsically attached to other people. This is a debilitating view which governs our actions and eventually destroys our sense of freedom and well-being.

It is with great sadness that I read an article in the Age by Psychologist Sallee McLaren. Here she insists that she has an authoritative understanding of Domestic Violence when all she reveals is that she has no understanding of the trauma women, who are in Violent relationships, find themselves. She reinvents the old chestnut about girls wanting to wear pink and being socialised into positions of powerlessness. This is a poor argument because it makes girls responsible for a socialisation process for which they are not responsible. Lets imagine that all men decided they would act respectfully under all circumstances. Imagine if all men understood that their happiness wasn't dependent upon the relationship with their partner. Imagine if all children saw this modelled.

Unfortunately children are caught in the middle and have no power to change or influence their experience. The failure to protect children from violence is a rapidly increasing problem. The Federal Government decided to decrease the funding to DV services and then made Rosie Battie Australian of the year. Through this appointment they have turned the focus back on Domestic Violence and by doing so have highlighted their inadequacies. If we truly care about children we would be funding prevention programs which address issues of power and control. We should accept that women and children are not responsible for the violence perpetrated against them. We know that women are berated for remaining in violent relationships without any understanding of the mental abuse they experience and the impact this have on their decision making, even there inability to protect their children. It is our responsibility to find the space to work with parents so that they can better protect their children.

I know that it took me many years to develop skills and understandings that enabled me to work more effectively with those who were victims and abusers. I know that Child Protection workers wont necessarily have the skills to work with families where Domestic Violence is a concern, but it is not unreasonable for them to do this work and realise what skills they need to develop. However, if they continue to "mother blame" and fail to confront the impact that violence has on women and children then their learning will be limited.

How they can get it so wrong - Response to FSA

How can John Rau, the Child Protection Reform Minister, get it so wrong. He stated “Social workers cannot act in the best interests of a child and the child’s irresponsible parent simultaneously.” I am unsure as to what he is actually telling us? Perhaps he means that the Social Workers that Families SA employ are so bereft of Social Work skills that they are unable to do what most of us do every day. If this is the case then perhaps there is a need for Social Workers to be better trained and for someone to identify the skills that are required for them to perform their tasks at a professional level. I am even more curious as to where they are going to find the Social Workers to work at the professional level he is alluding too. At this stage there has been little evidence that these people exist within this dysfunctional department. If these people do exist then they are not being utilised. 

This is also a direct admission that the department recognises the need to work differently with families who are at risk of having their children removed. If this is a new realisation one wonders why they have come to this realisation now? Surely as long as we have had the State removing children from their families this has been the dominant problem. Some parents struggle with life for a variety of reasons. We know that if you are unemployed, uneducated, live in certain post codes, have a drug problem or of a low income you are likely to have contact with child protection services. We know that these people are always under the gaze of the State. 

If they adopt this two tiered system it is doomed from the beginning. The first group will be the removal police who will not engage with the parents but will have the sole task of deciding if a child should be removed. I can assure you that this will mean the first encounter will not be a pleasant one. Anyone who follows, no matter how good their intention, will fail. 

I would like to suggest that we have a National approach to child protection notifications that are assessed in accordance to the national child protection framework. It is time we looked to a unified national approach which means that State and Territory Governments need to give up their role of assessing Child Protection notifications. A Federal approach will provide a centralist view which should lead to a more consistent approach. Hopefully this may also mean that the there will be greater oversight of Child Protection and it will become a genuine national concern. So Mr Rau perhaps you should be thinking more broadly and work with the Federal Government to improve your funding and to develop a framework which makes you accountable. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

In Memory of Chloe Valentine

I was reminded today that Chloe Valentine would be eight years of age if she had survived the abuse of her mother and partner. If Families SA had intervened appropriately and placed Chloe in the care of her grandmother, Belinda Valentine, she would be celebrating her birthday in a loving a caring environment that would be full of dragonflies and beautiful paintings. She would be smiling and expressing the joy found in any child who feels safe, cherished and nurtured. Sadly, this is not the case. For the family that loved her and were robbed of this opportunity it is a particularly sad time.

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

Child Protection Party - Inaugural Speech

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

Child Protection Party

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 and 0414883153

Friday, January 2, 2015

Social Work, Child Protection and FSA Chief Executive

Which one of the three areas in the title don't belong? The answer is "FSA Chief Executive". A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with the new Chief Executive of FamiliesSA. This became one of the most humiliating and distressing moments I have ever experienced. I attended this meeting with an open mind about a man I had never met and knew nothing about. In my usual naive state I believed that he was going to hear what we had to say with an open mind and with a spirit of co-operation. Four of us were present at the meeting which was organised by a friend who was a long serving FSA employee. He began the meeting by talking about his experiences working with FSA and what this meant to him. I was the next to speak. My "agenda" was to seek some clarification over a current issue concerning being ignored and prevented from accessing information that my client had asked me to attain. What I needed clarified was the role of Advocates according to the new CE. I mentioned the issue that confronted me the previous week and the worker and office concerned. Mr Etienne Scheepers began an attack which took me and the others in the group by utter surprise. He accused me of having an "agenda". Clearly this man doesn't have an agenda when he attends meetings. The hypocrisy here is that he clearly had an "agenda". He had made up his mind that he was going to attack me and exert his authority from the moment I spoke. He accused me of "setting him up" and boxing him into a corner. He raised his voice and he was plainly intimidating. I was so stunned that I didn't know what to say. I was feeling very emotional because the attack was so venomous and uncalled for. I was in a state of shock and for ten minutes sat there feeling humiliated, denigrated and tearful in front of my friends. I eventually explained that I had to leave because I was feeling so emotional.

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.